Her name is Maryann and she doesn’t want her last name published. She is a 12-year survivor of breast cancer. She also has a son who is 25. He is in prison serving a term of two to five years.
Maryann, 60, attends regular support group meetings for her breast cancer. She also has started a support group for families who have a loved one in prison. The group is called the Mary Mother of Captives Prison Support Group. It meets on the second Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. at St. Charles Borromeo Parish Convent in Drexel Hill.
The first meeting was held last October. Maryann had met someone while voting in 2011 and that person had a son in prison. She received information about a support group at Our Lady of Charity Parish in Brookhaven run by Jack and Sophie Weber.
“At the time I felt I needed to find a support group or start one,” Maryann explained. “I went for a couple of months to Brookhaven. I met people I could relate to, people whose sons were in jail or out of jail in halfway houses.”
Jack Weber, who has been running his program for almost 17 years, encouraged Maryann to start a group at St. Charles Borromeo. Maryann talked with the pastor, Father Roland D. Slobogin, and he gave her the green light.
“Maryann is an awesome person,” said Weber, 75. “She’s doing a great job, talking to people in the parishes there [in Delaware County]. It’s a big job.” Weber and his wife started their program when their son was in prison in 1996. He is now out of prison, married and raising a family.
“There’s a stigma having someone in prison,’’ Weber said. “It took me six to eight months [to come around]. The families who come to the meetings are very appreciative. There’s a lot of compassion for the new people.” That first meeting in 1996 was held at the office of Catholic Social Services in the Northeast.
“There’s a lot of crime in our area,” Maryann said. “Upper Darby, Clifton Heights, Lansdowne every day you see something in the paper about crime. I asked Father Slobogin if I could start a support group. I felt that people have a need. The first step is having the strength to accept the things you can’t change. This [her son’s imprisonment] is something I can’t change. Families have a choice. They can hide their heads in the sand, be embarrassed until their son gets out, or just face it.”
Father Slobogin knew Jack and Sophie Weber and their work when he was a parochial vicar at Maternity B.V.M. Parish in Northeast Philadelphia in the 1990s. When Maryann came to him about starting a support group at St. Charles Borromeo, he was enthusiastic. “It’s a simple idea,” he said. “A corporal work of mercy. The need is there but the outreach isn’t. Having a relative in prison is a hard thing for people to bear, not having any hand reaching down. The Church is that hand.”
Father Slobogin admitted he expected “a greater response from people in general” but that St. Charles would maintain its commitment. “There’s no magic here,” he said. “The needs are there. It’s a matter of communication, personal contact and prayer. What we offer is an opportunity to be helped.”
Maryann said her son became involved with alcohol and drugs. “He wouldn’t be where he is if it wasn’t for that,” she said, declining to discuss the circumstances of his imprisonment.
She said when it happened she went through similar stages as when she discovered her breast cancer at age 48. Anger and fear come first before you accept your situation and begin deal with it.
“I felt I could be an inspiration,” said Maryann, whose husband Jim, who is 70, is very supportive of her work.
Three people came to the first meeting. Since then more people have come. The meetings are open to all religious denominations.
“We start out with a prayer,” Maryann explained. “Then we go around the room and ask how the inmates are doing, if there is anything new in the prison system. If they want to talk, they do.” The meetings normally last an hour-and-a-half. Maryann also attends meetings at Our Lady of Charity Parish in Brookhaven, held on the third Wednesday of every month.
“It was hard at Christmastime,” she said. “There’s a void in the family because the person isn’t there. The worries don’t stop for the ones who have gotten out [of prison]. They have to make good choices.”
Maryann feels she is qualified to offer help and encouragement to others because she has also been a victim of serious crime. “I was on the other side,” she explained. “My sister Terry was murdered in 2000 in Sarasota, Florida. The man who did this killed her and her boyfriend. He turned himself in and later died in prison.” This happened just months after her breast cancer diagnosis.
“I can see both sides throw away the key, the death penalty,” she said. “I don’t believe in the death penalty because it doesn’t bring back the loved one. Now I see the other side because of what happened to our family.”
She wants those in prison to know they are not forgotten. They are supported by family members writing letters and by their prayers.
Maryann and her husband visit their son in prison once a month.
“He’s doing well,” Maryann said. “He’s turning his life around. He’s involved in a rosary group, and he goes to Mass every Sunday. When he gets out he want to come and speak to our group. He wants to reach out to people who feel alone (even though) they’re not.”
Jack and Sophie Weber also started a Pen Pal Prison Ministry in 2000. The program for prisoners “was instituted for those who have lost contact with family and friends through years of incarceration.” According to Weber, the Pen Pal list has over 850 inmates in 136 institutions across 26 states.
In 2006, the Mary Mother of Captives Ministry began to sponsor art shows that “feature art, poetry, prayers and writings of inmates across the nation.” Two shows in which the artwork will be on sale are scheduled for Saturday, March 17 at Maternity B.V.M. Parish in Northeast Philadelphia from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and at St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Glenside Saturday, March 24 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday, March 25 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. “Whatever the art sells for, it goes right to the inmate,” Jack Weber said. “We don’t take a dime.”