Sept. 4-10, 2003
Beads and Bars
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Volunteer teaches and prays with inmates
Pope John Paul II proclaimed October 2002 to October 2003 as the Year of the Rosary. “To recite the Rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ,” he wrote. “The Rosary turns out to be the form of prayer most needed.” Helen Day, an 87-year-old Syracuse resident, has lived by this belief most of her life. Along with her other charity work, Helen’s latest mission is reaching out to people in need by praying the rosary. Her prayer partners are the inmates at the Onondaga County Justice Center.
Helen has been visiting the Justice Center for over a year, along with other members of the Jail Ministry who offer spiritual support to the incarcerated. “I had a friend who worked with the jail ministry who was very ill and has since died,” said Day. “I admired her work with the ministry so much. But my husband was not comfortable with me doing this.” When Day’s husband died, she decided to donate her time doing work that both fulfills and inspires her. “My purpose is to pray the rosary,” said Day. “The Blessed Mother has been very good to me. I feel very happy and privileged to be doing this.”
Each week, the inmates wait for Day to arrive. She visits regardless of inclement weather or poor health. “When Helen doesn’t come, the inmates ask for her,” said Patty, another jail minister. “And when it’s time for her to leave, they escort her to the door. They take good care of her.”
Although her eyesight and health are declining, Day is happy to be able to work as a spiritual minister. “This is the most gratifying volunteer work that I do,” she said. “It’s all about giving them hope. If I can help someone get over their difficulties, that is very satisfying to me.”
The inmates are very protective and respectful of Day. “She’s so sweet. I want to protect her,” said Melissa McAllister, a 27-year-old inmate. “It’s not as scary when she’s here. I’ve prayed the rosary with Helen three or four times. For me, I get such a feeling of peace from her. You know that there’s more beyond this.”
On a recent Saturday, Day arrived at the Justice Center with the tools of her trade — a box of rosary beads, a stack of instructional pamphlets and her unparalleled faith. The rosary beads are luminous so that the inmates can see them in the darkness of their cells. Helen shared with the inmates the significance of praying the rosary. “Know that the Blessed Mother will intercede for us if we pray to her through the rosary,” she said. Day explained the mysteries of the rosary. “Saturday is the day we say the Glorious Mysteries. The first Glorious Mystery is the Resurrection. Think about how God is giving us strength and an increase of our faith,” said Day. After making the sign of the cross and instructing the inmates to look in their pamphlets for the Apostles Creed, Day began the first decade of the rosary.
While the prayer session took place, other inmates stopped by to listen or to request their own set of rosary beads. “She’s making a wonderful impact down there,” said Patty. “She is able to let go of her humility in order to do the work that needs to be done.” Day’s acceptance of others is what draws the inmates to her. Throughout the recitation of the rosary, Day praised the inmates and instructed them to speak like they were talking directly to the Blessed Mother. Danielle Menzari, a 20-year-old inmate, paid close attention. This was her first time praying with Day. “I’ve never met with her before,” said Menzari. “She has given me more faith and hope and makes me want to pray the rosary again.”
While Day has only been visiting the Justice Center for a year, she has a long history of volunteering. She has graced St. Joseph’s Hospital, Francis House, and the Cunningham Rehabilitation Facility at Loretto with her presence and commitment to Christ. In addition, Day has been part of a neighborhood prayer group since 1978. When the prayer group started,there were four members who met on Tuesday nights to pray the rosary. Now, there are 35 members, representing seven parishes. “Our group is well known,” said Day. “We get calls from all over, some from long distances away, asking us to pray for them.”
What is it like to pray the rosary with Justice Center inmates? “If you’ve ever sat around a table with 12 men, some of whom have never seen a rosary, or know what it’s about, it’s very gratifying to teach them,” said Day. “They are eager to learn. It has to be explained to them from the very beginning. I tell them that the best way to learn the rosary is to pray it.” Msgr. Eugene Yennock, pastor of St. Daniel Church in Syracuse has worked and prayed with Day for years. “The inmates love her,” he said. “She is very effective in a very quiet way. The residents really respond to her.” Inmate Janie Saya, 27, agrees. “Helen taught me how to pray the rosary and I’ve prayed with her a couple of times,” said Saya. “She is such an inspiration. I feel at peace when I’m with her. She gives me hope.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). To be merciful means to have compassion for people who have gone astray. It means to forgive those so unprincipled that they hurt themselves as well as others. Day’s compassion is humbling to those around her. Her love of God and the Blessed Mother inspires her to share her grace with others. At the end of the recitation of the rosary, the inmates gave Day a hug and thanked her for her time. “You do more for me than I could ever do for you. You give me such joy,” she said as she made her way toward the next group ready for prayer.