While visiting her sister, Elaine Kinch in Racine this month, Marist Missionary Sr. Linda Ann Marzolo poses for a photo in her backyard. (Catholic Herald photo by Amy Rewolinski)

RACINE — Sr. Linda Ann Marzolo, 68, of the Marist Missionary Sisters never dreamed that looking at a photo magazine one day in college would change the direction of her life.

“One had a picture of a sister with a little orphan in Africa, and I said ‘cool,’” she remembered. “So that’s when I started investigating different orders.”

At the time, Sr. Linda was in college in her hometown of Detroit, studying arts and crafts, when she felt God’s calling to a life of Catholic service. After sending inquiry letters to convents, she found one that matched her criteria.

“I wrote to about 10 orders, but I wanted to get an order that would definitely, or almost definitely, send me out of the states. I kind of had my eye on Africa, but in the Marist Missionary Sisters, they said there was a pretty good chance that I would definitely get to go out of the states. That was kind of one of those things in this congregation, going to serve in another country,” she said.

The Marist Missionary Sisters, formally known as the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary, was formed in 1931, although its roots reach 1836. Through the Marist Priests this new order was formed, where women were given the responsibility to evangelize the Pacific Islands of Oceania. Today, more than 500 women worldwide have joined the order and live the Gospel in cultural community – exactly the kind of life for which Sr. Linda had been searching.

Drawn to prison work

She joined in 1962 and spent two years in Massachusetts working in the convent kitchens, learning the ways of prayerful living. Afterward she was sent to Peru, a country in the western part of South America. Here she discovered her calling: prison ministry.

“I was destined to go to the jungle in Peru, but one of our sisters had a Peruvian girlfriend who had a male friend who was in the island prison of El Frontón,” Sr. Linda explained. “So, they went for a visit and she asked me to come. I didn’t want to go. I thought, ‘What am I going to talk to prisoners for?’ I mean, what do you do?

“But that was it. I went there and realized that they were human beings and they were very courteous,” she added.

As Sr. Linda learned about the male prisoners during her many trips to see them, they, too, began to question her. One inmate discovered that she had spent two years studying arts and crafts in college, and requested that she teach an art class for them.

“So I went to talk to him,” she explained. “At that time it was summer and he just came in shorts, and every part of his body had a tattoo on it — every part. So, when he came in I was just reading him, I was just reading his whole newspaper. I said, ‘I don’t think you need me to help you if you do this.’”

The young man assured her that he wanted to learn more. With the permission of the director of the prison, she and her sisters offered classes for inmates.

Sr. Linda was just beginning to feel at home – as at home as anyone can be in a foreign prison – when her group of inmates was transferred to Lurigancho – another prison in Lima, Peru. She followed them.


Marist Missionary Sr. Linda Ann Marzolo is pictured with inmates from the Lurigancho Prison in Lima, Peru, who were participating in a 1988 alcohol and drug rehabilitation program. (Submitted photo courtesy Sr. Linda Ann Marzolo)

Most prisoners are polite

Named one of the most dangerous prisons in the world by National Geographic, Lurigancho was built for 3,600 inmates but today houses more than 10,000, with only 100 unarmed guards. The prisoners’ ages range from 28 to 45 years-old, according to Sr. Linda.

The prison is destined for males imprisoned for common crimes, such as aggravated robbery, murder, unlawful possession of a firearm, sexual crimes and drug trafficking, where first-time prisoners are locked up with repeat offenders. It wasn’t the ideal place for a religious sister, but Sr. Linda said that while some of the prisoners try to scare her and those in her order, for the most part the men are polite.

After coming to Lurigancho prison, the head of the institution, along with the bishop of Lima at the time, allowed Sr. Linda and her sisters to establish a chaplaincy for the inmates.

Best advice is to listen

When working with inmates, Sr. Linda employs the advice of a Jesuit priest.

“He asked me, ‘Do you have a good ear?’” she recalled.

After assuring him that she did, he told her, “Well, why don’t you just listen. Just listen for a whole year; don’t do anything.”

Sr. Linda did.

“That was a real education for me because I found out where they came from, how their parents were, if they even had any parents, how they were treated, how did they feel, and then I knew why they were there,” she explained.

After listening to the stories, Sr. Linda and others introduced a drug rehabilitation program to Lurigancho prisoners in 1994 as many of the 4,000 inmates were drug addicts.

In addition to a psychologist, nurse and various educators, two former prisoners help with the program, explained Sr. Linda.

“They came into (the program) to be kind of a mentor. In other words, I did it, you can do it,” Sr. Linda said.

Self-esteem classes also offered

Along with the drug rehabilitation program, human values, family non-violence and self-esteem classes are also offered. According to Sr. Linda, at least 60 men come to the courses, making it about 1,000 per month who try to turn their lives around while incarcerated.

“Some think that the chaplaincy is all about ‘Hallelujah Jesus, hallelujah Jesus,’” Sr. Linda laughed. “Well, that’s not our bag. There are evangelists who do that, and their thing is, you know, ‘Jesus Saves.’ Some fellows make it (in that program) but I found that – this is my personal opinion after doing this – is that it’s a prison religion. In other words, they hand them a Bible while they’re inside to make life more livable.”

Because a lot of times that approach causes the prisoners to lose interest once they are outside prison walls, Sr. Linda and other members of the chaplaincy in the prison discovered a new way to approach them: understanding why they were in prison in the first place through a healing workshop.

“It goes everything from who are you anyway to why are you here, what happened in your childhood?” Sr. Linda counted off. “Did you have a mother and father who loved you? Ha, ha, ha. Probably nobody. Did you have a father? If they did, they probably came home and beat up the wife, beat up the kids, and so what are the emotions that you felt as a child? Terror, afraid and hate. So, that’s what starts.”

Sees wonder in ‘delinquents’

The workshop is a five-month process during which a group meets from 9:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., two mornings a week. Sr. Linda has seen wonders in those whom others called “delinquents.”

“I always ask them, ‘Did you ever meet a little baby who was a delinquent?’ No, of course not. So something happened and that’s what they have to find out. Once you find out that, it’s kind of for them a whole new world. Like, hey, I’m not a real hardened son of a ‘b,’ you know? I mean, I really have something good in me, and I can do something about it. That’s real exciting, once they get that,” she smiled.

Admitting that not everyone who comes into the course makes it, Sr. Linda is adamant that their self-discovery is well worth the time spent once they learn about “sawabona.”

“Sawabona — it’s kind of a fun word to teach. It’s a salutation in a tribe from a group in Africa,” she explained. “Instead of saying hi or hello, they say sawabona, which means ‘I see the good in you.’

“Just think, if someone told you that from the time you were little ‘I see the good in you,’ well, gee. I think I try to be (that person),” she said.

While they have ex-prisoners come in to teach the class, they also make it a point to show those taking the class the harm their lifestyle has caused others.

Puts a face on the victim

“We also bring in victims. That’s very emotional for the guys because they are sitting like this,” she said, wrapping her arms around her chest in a defensive stature. “When he’s telling (his story) he doesn’t have any hate or anything, he just says, ‘Well, I was this, and I had this good job, and I wanted to get my kids through college, but then I was assaulted and they shot me.’ So now he has to walk with this cane, his one foot doesn’t work. It (the bullet) hit him in the spine, so his nerves don’t work. He can’t go to the bathroom by himself; he has to take it out with gloves until the day he dies.

“For a lot of the guys, that really hits home, that you have no right to destroy people just because you want money,” she added.

While they have some funds to continue the program, finding a way to keep the workshop going is always a challenge, said Sr. Linda. She came back to the United States this past June to visit fellow religious sisters, as well as her biological sister Elaine Kinch who, along with Sr. Linda, belongs to St. Richard Parish, Racine.

While in the U.S., Sr. Linda spoke to parishioners in New York and Chicago about her vocation.

“What’s so exciting when you see some of these guys, and you say, ‘Hey, I wouldn’t give 50 cents for them,’ and then you find out that beyond all that other stuff up there is a human being. Sensitive, probably filled with shame and fear, self-hatred,” she explained.

“Just the fact that there are (inmates) who have ‘found’ themselves in prison because of the possibility of coming into a chapel to where you’re treated like a human being and you’re not asked what you did, and they just tell you that you can learn to forgive yourself and people won’t hurt you, so you can move on with your life. It’s never too late (to move on with your life).”