Teacher first, sister always

By Leslie Scanlon For Sister Lee Ann McNally, R.S.M., ministering to prisoners started as a new adventure, but it was also an extension of the work she is sure God had in mind for her right from the start.

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Image: SISTER LEE ANN gives a hug to Carol Harrison, who has benefitted from the Center for Women in Transition in Little Rock, Arkansas.

DAPHANY RAGLAND MET Sister Lee Ann McNally when Ragland—who was then in the Pulaski County Jail in Little Rock, Arkansas and on her way to prison—took a class called “Reinventing Your Life” that McNally taught.

“I was known as a habitual criminal and they said I wasn’t fit to live in society,” Ragland said. But McNally told her, “You have so much good in you”—something Ragland had never heard before. “More than anything, she was patient, just listening. And to think that a nun would take the time with me, that was very impressive to me. When my family wouldn’t take the time to listen to me, she would.”

Ragland now works for McNally at the Center for Women in Transition, a nonprofit agency McNally helped to found as an outgrowth of her work teaching in jails and prisons, to help women being released from incarceration make the transition back to living in the outside world.

For McNally, teaching prisoners was a new adventure after many years of teaching in schools but also an extension of the work she is sure God had in mind for her right from the start.

Take your pick

When McNally decided to join the Sisters of Mercy in the 1960s, “We were given a choice,” she said. “You can be a teacher, you can be a nurse—take your pick. I chose the teacher.”

Those who chose teaching could major in history or English in college. She earned a degree in both history and English from Maryville University in St. Louis and says frankly: “I am an excellent teacher” of anything but math or science. “I just knew from the beginning that being a teacher was what I was called to be.”

McNally is confident but not arrogant, plain-spoken but also kind. She’s determined to make a difference in the lives of prisoners who may not have anyone else to help them find their way. Her friend and colleague Sgt. Robin Ballard of the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility said McNally “is like a friend and a parent. A friend tries to guide you and help you and give you suggestions. But when you don’t do right, the parent comes out and says, ‘This is wrong, you’re not going to get by with this.’ She’s got that nurturing part, and then she’s got the proverbial nun.”

“I’m in their faces when I need to be,” McNally said, “and they know that.”

On the right path

McNally, now 63, grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi, the oldest of nine children in an Irish Catholic family, and a straight-A student. “I was taught by the Sisters of Mercy all 12 years in school, and I had excellent, excellent teachers,” McNally said.

But as a senior in high school she decided, “No way was I going to go to the convent. So I went to college for a year. I was there for one month before I knew that was not the right thing. So I finished the year, and then I entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1965. I was 19 years old. I have never really had a vocation crisis in all these years. It is amazing, which is another sign to me that I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing.”

For much of her career McNally taught in schools in Louisiana and later in Arkansas, mixing that work with other assignments, leading retreats and prayer services, and working in campus ministry. She earned two master’s degrees—one in secondary education from Loyola University in New Orleans and a second in pastoral studies from Loyola University in Chicago.

In 1990 she moved to Little Rock, working for a decade in adult faith development at Our Lady of the Holy Souls parish and teaching at Mount St. Mary Academy, a girls’ school. She asked for permission to live by herself—something she wanted to try because she’d never lived anywhere but in a convent or with “nine kids and a mom and dad and one bathroom.”

Now she has a cat and some peace and quiet when she’s not working—important, McNally said, for an introvert who spends so much time helping other people sort out their lives. She loves to read and hunker down on the weekends watching football on TV, but she’s also connected with the community at Mount St. Mary Academy through prayer and discussion groups, a vital connection, she said, because “that’s where my spirituality gets fed.”

Asked what she would say to someone considering a religious vocation, McNally responded: “I’d be like Jesus and I’d say, ‘Come and see.’ Just come and see. There’s more here than what you see on the outside, and community really is a significant part of it. I do the work that I’m doing better because I’m a Sister of Mercy.”

Teach us to forgive

For the past six years the focus of that work, somewhat to her surprise, has been in jails. After having moved to Little Rock, McNally founded a spirituality center for women, and after a few years “I wanted to take our spirituality program to the women in jail who could not come to us.”

When she approached the jail officials, they said she couldn’t offer the spirituality program but they did need someone to teach a “Life Skills” class. McNally agreed, although from the beginning of her work there in 2002 she put her own twist on it.

Sister Lee Ann balances tough with tender while teaching a class at the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility in Little Rock, Arkansas.
SISTER LEE ANN balances tough with tender while teaching a class at the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility in
Little Rock, Arkansas.

When the women arrived she told them, “This is what jail says you need: how to write a check, how to balance a checkbook, how to apply for a job. You tell me what you need.” Immediately one woman said, ‘Teach us how to forgive ourselves for what we’ve done.’ And another said, ‘Teach us how to communicate with our children so they don’t end up like we did.’ ”

McNally thought to herself, “Gosh, I’m into something I’m not really prepared for here. But God put me here, so I must be able to do something for these women.”

She now teaches classes in the Pulaski County jail on anger management, relapse prevention, and life skills. She works as a chaplain’s assistant—sort of a spiritual advisor—in women’s units in the Arkansas prisons and recently has been placed on the visitation list for two men, one serving a life sentence without parole (who has no other visitors) and the other serving a term of 40 years.

Working with prisoners, “one of the very first things that I learned is that my concept of convicted felons was not necessarily correct,” McNally said. She estimates that nearly all get into trouble initially because “they’ve got some kind of addiction that is severe. And of that 99 percent, 96 percent are also victims of violence and abuse. Very often the women will say . . . almost down the line that they started drugs and alcohol to cover up what was going on in their homes growing up.

“So what I see are good people who never had anyone respect them as individuals. Respect to me is very big. I teach that, I act that way in class, I insist that the women treat each other with respect.”

Everyone’s mama

Most of these women are moms who feel guilty and ashamed because they’re locked up and someone else is taking care of their children.

When they come to her classes “they come because they want their lives to be different,” McNally said. “They just don’t know how to make that happen. They’re not bad people. They are people who have made really poor choices based on the poor choices made for them when they were young.”

“That’s where her faith side comes in,” Sgt. Ballard said of McNally—the idea that God does see the worth in these women. “Where most would write these prisoners off,” Ballard said, “she always looks at it that that person can be saved.”

Ragland, now 44, had been in and out of jail by the time she met McNally. She gave birth to a son at 14 and watched him lose his life to gang violence. Her image of nuns, based on her experience in a Catholic grade school, was that “they never showed any emotions or laughed. It was like a ‘God is going to get you’ type of attitude. It was ‘either do this or go to hell.’ ”

But McNally taught her that “I’m way more than the lies I’ve been told all my life. And when I’m ready to grow and change, then change is possible. It’s all about what’s going on inside of me and how important it was to pull up my own self-esteem. . . . I literally feel as if a black cloth has been lifted from my life. And by being with a nun, I feel I have found favor with God.”

In Little Rock the “word on the street is that she’s all of our mamas,” Ragland said. “If you want somebody you can really count on and trust, call Sister Lee Ann.”

Leslie ScanlonLeslie Scanlon is a writer in Louisville, Kentucky.

2009 © TrueQuest Communications

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