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Sister involves parishioners in prison ministry

Sister Mytra Iturriaga’s prison ministry is one of the many ways that the Sisters of Providence have provided education, health care and human services in the region over their-150 year history in the West.

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Sister Myrta Iturriaga enjoys gardening

Because parishioners know little about people in prison and because prisoners feel forgotten, Sister of Providence Myrta Iturriaga recruits people from parishes of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane to visit prisoners and their families.

She hopes that as parishioners care about prisoners and families, they will learn about the prison system. 

She also hopes they will begin to raise the questions she has about building more prison facilities while cutting funds for education programs, drug treatment, career training and job skills.  Such support can lead prisoners from repeating criminal activity so they can become productive citizens, she said.

More prisoners in overcrowded conditions with no retraining invites recidivism,” she said, adding that just building new prisons is not the answer.

Sister Myrta is concerned that many of the Hispanics and others she visits in prisons may actually be innocent. 

“Many people are in jail because of drug abuse, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and lack of job skills,” she said.  “More women are in prison for drug abuse, meaning more children are put in foster care.”

Sister Myrta first came to Washington from Chile in 1988 as a Sisters of Providence missionary to minister to Hispanic people near Connell.

When her community asked her to be a missionary to the United States, she was surprised, thinking missionaries went to poor countries and the United States did not need missionaries. 

When she arrived in Connell, she found poor people with no Spanish-speaking priest.  She served Spanish-speaking field workers, providing catechism, baptism, first communion, formation and pastoral care for teens and families.

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Sister Myrta

Sister Myrta finds it takes adult migrants 15 to 20 years to learn English.  Children learn it in school and may lose connection with parents and grandparents who find it hard to learn English.

“I fell in love with Hispanic people here and did not want to go back,” she said.

In 1990, she asked to stay and study English at Gonzaga University so she could communicate with people in the surrounding community and the house where she lived with other sisters.

“I understood the isolation Hispanics feel,” she said.

Bishop William Skylstad invited her to work part time with the diocesan Renewal program and part time with Hispanics. 

She began volunteering to visit Hispanics among 430 prisoners at Pine Lodge in Medical Lake, and 1,800 atthe Geiger Correctional Facility and its transitional programin Airway Heights, both filled beyond capacity, she said.

As more Hispanic priests were ordained and serve parishes in Pasco, Walla Walla, Othello and Brewster, there was less need for her in parish work and more need in pastoral care with prisoners.

Sister Myrta also helps with translation for patients at Sacred Heart and Deaconess Medical Centers, with Spanish retreats for women in the parish, and with Cursillo, formation and catechism.

From her visits with Hispanic prisoners, she became volunteer coordinator of visitors for all prisoners, appealing for people in Catholic parishes to connect with prisoners and their families.  She continued to visit, lead Bible studies, pray with people, help with worship and teach catechism.

When she came to lead worship and teach, she said, some Anglo prisoners asked her to serve them, too.  So she offered a bilingual service. 

“I arrange for priests to offer Mass, reconciliation, confirmation, formation, baptisms and first communion, everything except perform marriages,” Sister Myrta said. “We encourage prisoners to wait until they are out to marry.”

The Spokane County Jail, where most stay only two to four days, is also in the visitation program. 

Sister Myrta also visits Martin Hall, a school in Medical Lake holding immigrant children from nine- to 16-years old.  While some had ties to gangs, most were in prison even though they did nothing criminal, she said.

“They should be in foster care, not jail,” she said.  “They are in jail, because the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) does not want them to leave the area.”

Three years ago, cancer and chemotherapy reduced Sister Myrta’s energy, so she on recruiting and training volunteers  from parishes to help.  She seeks to have someone in each parish help recruit and coordinate activities for the volunteers.

 Each volunteer needs the pastor’s recommendation, so there are skilled people involved in formation. 

Now she goes to Pine Lodge once a month and to Airway Heights once a week. 

Sister Myrta, who grew up in southern Chile the oldest of 13 children, was a teacher and then principal for five years in a boarding school in a poor area of Ovalle in northern Chile.

In Catholic schools run by Sisters of Providence, her interest in teaching faith began early. She prayed Jesus would call her to be a sister.

After high school, Sister Myrta entered the Sisters of Providence, took vows as a novice and entered university studies to be a primary school math teacher. 

She made her final vows in 1968 and taught math in several high schools for 25 years in Chile. 

When Augusto Pinochet took power, ousting and killing Salvador Allende, the Catholic Church suffered, she said.  Vocal priests fled.  She was principal at Santa Clara School in Santiago.

When tanks filled the streets, she sent students home. 

The military closed the area, taking men 15 and older.  Some never came back, leaving mothers and children without support., Sister Mytra said. 

The military tore through buildings breaking furniture and throwing clothes, looking for weapons.  Families were terrified, she described.

People in Allende’s government, including parents of many students, had no work. It was dangerous to walk even a few blocks.  So the school closed.  Many innocent people, including priests and sisters in poor areas, were killed, she continued.

In the Chile she left, people stayed in their homes as if they were in prison with limits to meetings, curfews, food rationing, book burnings and control over what was taught in schools and what was preached in pulpits.

Now when she visits Chile about every three years, she finds that life has become much like life in the United States.

In all aspects of her life, Sister Myrta is amazed how God’s providence goes where needs are and prepares people to meet those needs. 

“I’m impressed with our sisters’ faith and simplicity of life,” she said.  “We trust in God’s providence, even as there are fewer sisters and many are aging.

“We do not know what God knows or how God will change what work we do.  Providence guides the community from day to day,” Sister Myrta said.

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © November 2006