Istanbul: Visits to women in prison: to stay alive!

For quite a while I have had the desire to visit those in prison.  In Istanbul, where I had lived for 12 years, I looked for a way to respond to that interior call.  On my own, I would have no way to do this and I could not imagine being there as a representative of our Church.   So I tried for permission through the consulate…

prison-1The possibility of visiting the women (1000 of them) in a large prison in Istanbul with a representative of the Consulate came about in 2008. I was very moved.  The visiting time passed very quickly but I never forgot a single face.  Oh, what beautiful faces, but so sad.  At the time I had the right to correspond with, and pray for, the families of the detainees who were waiting to be released. Months passed. I was assured by the consulate that if a prisoner asked to see me I could visit with someone from the Consulate.  Around this time a priest from a parish in Istanbul received a request from the women’s prison for someone to conduct a meeting in the « Foreign Women » (Christian) section during the Christmas season.  The proposal appealed to me as a consecrated woman because it was for women.  The response was positive and soon a team of 2 priests, 1 sister and 1 lay person had their first visit and conducted a 2 hours meeting with 120 women!!!  They offered them a Bible class in several languages and bracelets…  It was a time of tears of joy, hope and blessing.  The Director of the “Foreign Women’s” section thanked us for our visit and ended by saying, “These women have a great spiritual void and all that can fill that is very important.

eucharistieThe next meeting was near Easter.  I waited with fervent hope and, at last, I received a proposal to participate in the next prison visit which was to be on Holy Thursday.  Blessed be God!!!

And that is how we started, little by little, only 2 hours each meeting, with 200 women of all nations in a large gym (sports hall). The faces of the women were fixed on ours, a little embarrassed to see such suffering.  I asked myself these questions: Can I do this? What to say? to do? How to listen? The priest gave a catechism lesson in English.  Suddenly, a woman asked me in a language that I knew, “Is Father going to have confession?”  “Yes, he will.”  To be honest, I didn’t really know.  “But how?” she said, “I only know my language.”  I told her, “it’s your heart that’s going to talk with God.  The priest is only his instrument.  Have trust in the Lord.”  Her eyes lit up like stars and lit up the others.  Quickly, a large line formed to receive the Mercy of God.  Discretely, I encouraged a priest to start hearing confessions.  As there were tears of joy and gratitude, their faces changed.  The police who were the guards noticed the change and wanted to take pictures.  The two hours passed quickly!

The 2 priests, 2 sisters and 1 young lay person of the parish met with the prison directors and politely tried to convince them that it was necessary to have the meetings at least once a month.

Months went by.  Each time I noted in my little book all the religious needs, for example : 15 Bibles, 5 in Spanish, 2 in Russian, 4 in English… Rosaries, medals which I gave to a police officer who gave them to the women, after having been checked.  I know already that all this was not enough.  I needed to pray.  One woman told me that, after our visit, they agreed among themselves to say the rosary together at the same time in their cell, for the intention of their families and for us, their visitors.  femme-derri-re-les-barreauxThe guards were surprised to hear a great silence and asked, “what is happening with the Christians?”  The simple response was, “we are praying.”  A prayer book was proposed where each one could express herself in her own language, in the silence of her heart.  So the women wrote… The Lord looks at the human heart, and the notebook is a treasury of Mass intentions in a parish.

At Christmas we had the extraordinary permission to give telephone cards to the poorest prisoners and to put some money into the accounts of several.  “St. Nicholas” made his entry into prison! He walked into the large gym with a big smile and brought much joy, especially to the children. Yes, children up to age 6 were with their mothers.  Many babies started their lives in prison.  They can participate in day care and nursery school and spend a lot of time with their mother in her cell, with 6-7 other women, sometimes with other children.  The prison personnel have great affection for these little innocents.  Many times I have seen 2, 3 and 4 year-olds in the arms of a guard who, with much attention and sympathy, answered their questions.  One time a 5 year old girl came to see her mother all dressed in white with a ribbon on her head.  She was radiant.  She was sitting on the knees of a police officer telling him that, “today I was baptized so it is a great feast.”

Thank you to the Company for having sent me to accompany these people in their spiritual liberation.

 Testimony of Sister Arleta, Daughter of Charity