9/6/12 | 564 views
A Loss at Abraham House
Abraham House in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx is experiencing a big change this month. Four religious—three Little Sisters of the Gospel from Belgium and one French worker priest—who have served there from its inception are leaving.
They have given their lives these past two decades to building the place as an alternative to incarceration for adult male first-time offenders. Abraham House also serves the families of the men by providing an afterschool program for their children and other services.
On Saturdays, the residents and their families visit the pastoral center where they can attend Mass and receive the sacraments, along with spiritual counseling. The day begins early and runs into the evening. Getting a chance to interact with their families in a prayerful atmosphere goes a long way toward improving the residents’ attitudes and participation in the facility’s other programs.
Abraham House, an affiliate of Catholic Charities, is nondenominational but that doesn’t mean religion takes a backseat.
“We are not just counselors, we are religious. We wanted to bring something more to that,” said Sister Simone Ponnet, L.S.G., who served as executive director at Abraham House until a couple of years ago.
She considers the spiritual work done at the pastoral center the most important aspect of life at Abraham House. “Without that, it would be a program like many in the city,” she said.
At Abraham House, she has served side by side with sisters from her congregation, Sister Amy Henry, L.S.G., and Sister Rita Klaus, L.S.G., as well as with Father Peter Raphael, M.D.F., a French worker-priest who was the longtime spiritual director. All are leaving this month.
Sister Simone said the nuns are heading back to Brussels in their native Belgium and will look for a smaller project in which to carry out their congregation’s apostolate of working with the poor.
In a sense, they are stepping into the unknown, much like when they first came to New York. For Sister Simone that was 1972. Six years later, she began serving as a chaplain at Rikers Island prison, a position she held for nearly three decades. Sister Amy and Father Peter also worked as prison chaplains while Sister Rita did nursing in Manhattan.
The seeds of what would become Abraham House were planted in the early 1980s in Brooklyn, where the sisters began an Alternative to Incarceration program. A decade later, an abandoned building on Willis Avenue in the Bronx was donated and Abraham House was born. Throughout the years, the program has expanded into adjacent buildings.
Their work has been a daily mission of not only working with the residents and their families, but also living alongside them, Sister Simone said. They’ve had to strictly lay down the law, so to speak, but also gradually allow the former inmates more freedom and responsibility. Of those who have completed the facility’s Alternative to Incarceration program, only 1.5 percent have been rearrested, according to statistics compiled by Abraham House.
“We see the change we brought in the life of many of our people…They come back with their families. They are doing great,” Sister Simone said.
Althea Brooks, deputy executive director of Abraham House, said the loss of the sisters and Father Peter Raphael is being felt deeply in the Mott Haven neighborhood, where they are seen as members of the family. “The community is taking this very hard,” she said.
Sister Simone said the lay staff has been well trained to do the work that needs to be done; still, she admitted some concern for what she called Abraham House’s “soul.”
“You have programs all over the world for prisoners…What makes us different is the spiritual component and the family component,” she said.
Correction: The Aug. 9 Editor’s Report about Transfiguration School in lower Manhattan incorrectly stated that St. James and St. Joseph’s School closed in 2010. That was the year the two schools merged.
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