It all comes back to family.
It’s a belief Sister Marietta Fritz stresses over and over.
In her own family – seven children and a mother and father in a two-bedroom house – she saw her father inviting in even more – aunts, uncles, cousins – who were down on their luck. She saw her mother, even when food was scarce, preparing meals for hobos coming off the train.
“The Sisters of Notre Dame are about sharing God’s goodness and love to the whole world,” Sister Marietta says. “We do it in the ministries we lead and the lives we live.
“But actually,” she says, “I was born and bred into it – and some people are not.
“And it makes all the difference.”
It’s made all the difference to the hundreds of inmates she’s visited in jails, and all the difference to the hundreds of women, just coming out of jail, who have turned to Sister Marietta for shelter and safety.
“I was made by the family I was born into,” says Sister Marietta. “Somebody else was born into this world without a loving family. And neither of us got to choose.”
But just as Sister Marietta saw her mother and father surrounding people with love, so, too, does she.
It is that family love that enabled Sister Marietta to spend 32 years in Saginaw, Michigan, creating a system of 16 homes to help 1,300 women, recently released from prison, rebuild their lives. It is that same family love that enables her to see Michael with love like no one else.
Michael was born in a mental institution. He learned to walk there, and to talk there. His first two years were spent in its halls. Love was scarce.
Sister Marietta cannot tell you of the next seventeen years for Michael, but she can tell you of the eighteenth. In part because the mental illness of his mother in turn came his way too, he killed a man. He was sent to jail for natural life. His life began in an institution, and it will end in an institution.
Michael is fifty now. Sister Marietta has known him since he was twenty. She visited him for two years while he was in a county jail, and since he’s been moved prison to prison, has written him every other week. She does the same for five other ‘lifers.’
“These people are just like us except for one thing,” she says. “They were born to a different family.”
Now she is their family, and she does things family would do.
Michael once said to her he prayed each night that before he died he would get a present wrapped and with his name on it. Sister Marietta made it happen.
She’s made happen homes for women just released from prison, through her Emmaus half-way houses, which in turn have brought stability, responsibility, companionship and eventually jobs and self-sufficiency.
“Sister,” a guard said to her early on, “you’re wasting your time.”
To which Sister Marietta replied, “Well, when I find a prisoner who grew up in a loving family like I did, I’ll stop.”
She hasn’t stopped yet.
Over and over you see this with Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. No matter their ministries, be they in traditional education or healthcare or work among the poor in some of the most desperate places, the Sisters empty themselves into surrounding people with genuine, lay-down-your-life love.
“Wherever there’s horror or evil, you still have love being grown,” says Sister Marietta. “I’m glad I’m part of the loving.
“And if Michael can see love in my life, in other peoples’ lives, he knows there’s another way to live.”
And to some degree, that’s happened.
Michael, born into a mental institution, without a father, incarcerated for thirty years, a human being tortured by mental illness, a human being whose only source of love for years at a time was Sister Marietta – now reaches out to help others in whatever ways his surroundings and abilities allow. He has learned to read and write, and with these skills he writes letters for his fellow inmates.
“I see now how God uses us wherever we are,” says Sister Marietta, “wherever we happen to land. A lot of people we look at as less than normal, but they’re using one hundred percent of their gifts. If Michael can use all his gifts to show love to his fellow prisoners, then that’s just as good as me using all my gifts to show love to him.
This Christmas, when the love of family surrounds us, please help the Sisters likewise surround those they serve with love, whether in jungle hamlets, or urban slums, or even in jails.
Sister Marietta’s father used to say, “If you see a need, then you need to do something.”
“That,” says Sister Marietta, “is how God means for his message to be carried on.”