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Posted January 23, 2007

Prison chaplain devotes herself
to work that 'can't be measured'

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- At first glance, it wouldn't seem like a 64-year-old woman religious would possibly be able to relate to inmates at a women's prison. But that's not the case for Mercy Sister Natalie Rossi, a petite, gray-haired woman who works at the women's prison facility outside Erie, Pa.

Sister Natalie has a natural camaraderie with the inmates because she has no shortage of empathy.

For the past 12 years she has been a full-time chaplain at the State Correctional Institution for Women in Cambridge Springs, Pa., a minimum-security facility primarily for women nearing their prison release.

Sister Natalie, who wanted to work with people as far back as she can remember, started a prison ministry at a Navajo reservation in Arizona and worked in a variety of counseling programs and prison ministries in New Mexico and Pennsylvania, before becoming the director of the chaplaincy program at the Cambridge Springs prison.

These days she coordinates programs with part-time chaplains from other faiths, supervises church-based volunteers, directs spiritual activities and deals with reams of paperwork. But the most important part of her job, as she sees it, is one-on-one time with the inmates, either in daily visits to women in the prison infirmary or pastoral counseling sessions in her office.

In this role, she makes it a point never to judge. Instead, she views the inmates as women who have made "decisions that are not healthy" stemming from their lack of support systems or lack of love for themselves.

And after more than 30 years in this line of work, she is surprised by very few things. She is also more than willing to see herself in potentially similar straits.

"We all as human beings struggle with the same issues," she told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 21 telephone interview from her office. She had to field questions amid a barrage of interruptions including questions about upcoming Christmas services.

"Even though I've never been a prostitute and have never been on drugs, I have an awareness of the hurting of people," Sister Natalie said. She also knows how to listen, something she does constantly. She knows it might not produce tangible results, but she is convinced it can be the catalyst to help these women begin to heal or find ways to improve their lives.

When inmates seek Sister Natalie's advice, she resists the temptation to dole out even obvious answers. As she puts it, if she tells these women what to do, that advice is "theirs for about 20 minutes," and not necessarily something they will remain committed to for the long haul.

She believes the women, who are often facing complicated family issues and difficult child-custody situations, have to come up with their own solutions to their immediate challenges within the confines of prison and also for the difficulties they will face once they are released.

That's not to say she is not involved. On Dec. 20, she had spent the bulk of her day talking with an inmate whose child was about to be adopted and with others who were involved in the process. Knowing the inmate really loved her child, she said, she continually "prayed for wisdom" during the conversations.

"I have had lots of experience, but I'm not God. I don't have all the answers," she said.

She knows she would not have the strength to keep up this work if it were not for her personal time of prayer each morning as well as daily Mass. She also values her daily exercise and time spent with the women in her community -- two Mercy sisters and one candidate to the religious order. Some nights after putting in long hours at the prison, she admits she doesn't feel much like talking with her housemates, but she also knows they provide crucial support.

Sister Natalie works Tuesdays through Saturdays and does not take holidays off because she thinks it's important to always be present for the inmates. She also has no immediate retirement plans. "I still feel I am supposed to be here," she said, adding that when it becomes more obvious that she should be doing something else, she will probably work with youths.

"Even though I am not young, I have a deep compassion for young people," she said.

Although she occasionally wonders how many people she helps and sometimes speculates that those involved in lobbying and public policy for prisoners are more effective in making changes, she also believes that bringing inmates hope or making them feel at peace "has to help" and also "can't be measured."

In an article she wrote for the Mercy sisters' Web site, Sister Natalie said her life has been energized by her ministry to these women who struggle with addictions and life and death issues because they help her to "live out compassion and love."

"They say follow your bliss and you shall find God. Working with the women in prison has been a privilege and my bliss," she said. "They have been my salvation."