A Matter of Family

A Matter of Family

She met him in jail.

He was 19.

Perhaps he reminded her of hobos as a little girl she’d seen from the window. Perhaps he reminded her of students in math class. Maybe it was someone she’d met behind bars, of the hundreds.

But they struck up a friendship–him from a family of thieves, her from a family of nuns.

“Anything we needed, we stole,” he said.

“Anything?” said Sister Marietta.


“A refrigerator?”


She was teasing. He was serious.
“You follow the truck. The delivery. The guy takes one in, you steal the other.”

He’d been doing it since three years of age. Not the refrigerators, but breaking in houses. 

“Sure,” he said. “My dad, he’d drop me through basement windows. I’d find the back door, reach the lock, turn it, and bingo!”

His dad, too, spent lots of time in jail. And was an alcoholic.

It’s a common through-line. Crime as a family profession, alcohol as a family addiction. And if not alcohol, drugs.

Sister Marietta Fritz has the data. Not on spreadsheets, but in 50 years of jail time.

It started by writing inmates. Then she began to visit. From there, seeing that ex-cons, especially women, had few places to go, she opened up half-way houses. Fourteen of them. By then her teaching days were over.

“But still it seemed like homeroom,” she said, “if you looked around at the faces.”

At the face of the boy from the jail.

When he was six, says Sister Marietta, he wanted a bicycle. His dad said to him, “Well, then go get one.”

He did, and more . . . and was on his way. His zero to six wasn’t the same as ours. His family wasn’t the same as ours.

It’s a theme Sister Marietta hits over and over: the role of family.

“Every inmate I ever met, if they had been raised in your family, or my family, they wouldn’t be where they’re at.”

In her family, a blood sister became a religious Sister, and two of her cousins, and three of her aunts. Her mother, though with barely enough to feed her own, made sandwiches for the hobos as they climbed off the trains.

Switch to the boy’s mother–the boy from jail–she instructed him on what to steal.

“Criminals are made,” Sister Marietta says. “They’re not born that way.”

“If we could solve the problem of child abuse and neglect,” she says, “our prisons would be empty.”

Sister Marietta taught for 18 years. Math and science, Dayton and Columbus. It seems a big shift, from teaching in classrooms to working with inmates. But it’s not, she says. 

“In school, I taught people lacking in math and science. In jail, I teach people lacking in something else-how to live their lives. But all of them, in both places, they have their hopes, their dreams.”

I wish I could tell you what happened to the boy from jail. I don’t know, and neither does Sister Marietta. But for a short while, a matter of months, Sister Marietta gave him a glimpse of life from the other side, and of the possibilities of clean living. 

She’s done the same for upward of a 1,000 people. Some behind bars, she’s visited for 15 years running. Some of those let go have lived in her houses, for years at a time – learning to stay sober, learning a skill, appreciating health free from drugs and alcohol.

Sisters of Notre Dame make known the goodness of God. It happens in schools and in churches. But it happens, too, on needle-strewn streets, along lonely jungle roads, and sitting in the jail.

As Christmas approaches, will you consider a gift of $30? Such a gift will help Sister Marietta, and all of our Sisters in ministries, as they reach out to those who have been abused and give them a glimpse of life from the other side and to have a chance to see the goodness of God.

St. Julie said to have hearts as wide as the world, and we try hard to 

comply. But it isn’t just geography. It’s also putting ourselves in the shoes of others, imagining ourselves as what we, too, might be like had it not been for family. 

Sister Marietta continues her work in jails. When she started, that work 
was made possible by you. Today, the same holds true, and for all our Sisters in ministry.

In this holy season, this season when we reflect upon the role of our Savior’s family, please think of those who came from families such as the boy who at three was dropped through basement windows, and support our Sisters as we reach out to them-without judgment, without reproach, but only with the love of Christ. 

May God’s grace be upon you in this holiest of seasons. 

Sister Carol Lichtenberg, SNDdeN

P.S. The Sisters receive no financial support from any diocese.  Please consider a gift this Christmas for our Sisters working among people who are struggling to find their way so that we may continue to serve as Christ’s hands in the world.