SPOKANE, Wash. (CNS) — A Sister of St. Joseph who directs an organization that helps women in prison and former women inmates as well as their children has won the 2014 Opus Prize for faith-based humanitarian work.
With the honor comes $1 million that Sister Teresa “Tesa” Fitzgerald, the winner, said will go to provide more housing for those served by her organization, Hour Children.
“We are really in need of additional living space where we can welcome women from prison for the opportunity to reunite with their children. That’s a real thing. The money would be used for the acquisition of an additional site,” she said in a statement.
The Opus Prize was announced the evening of Oct. 16 at a ceremony and reception in Spokane hosted by Jesuit-run Gonzaga University and the Opus Prize Foundation.
The two other finalists were named and each received $100,000. They are Gollapalli Israel, of the Janodayam Social Education Center in Chennai, India, and Redemptorist Father Joseph Maier, of the Human Development Foundation-Mercy Center in Bangkok.
Don Neureuther, executive director of the Opus Prize Foundation, said Sister Tesa’s work represents the best faith-based humanitarian work being done in the world today.
“Our penchant in the U.S. for incarcerating record numbers of men and women, particularly people of color, makes this one of the great social issues of our time,” he said in announcing the winner.
“Sister Tesa and her staff have developed one of the most successful program models in the country because they respond with passion to the needs of each woman and child,” added Neureuther, “and their personal commitment is grounded in a deep faith that is lived in service to others.”
Hour Children, founded more than 25 years ago, is based in Long Island City, New York, in the borough of Queens. Its mission is to help incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their children successfully rejoin the community, reunify with their families, and build healthy, independent and secure lives.
The organization provides a range of services “and encourages all to live and interact with dignity and respect,” its website says.
Services include free transportation to enable children to visit their mothers in prison; advocacy and case management support; parenting education; programs for preteens and teens; re-entry programs for former women prisoners; job training and employment assistance; child care programs and supportive housing; mental health support, addiction counseling and mentoring; and runs thrift stores and a food pantry.
Hour Children’s offers transitional housing for more than 70 women and 70-plus children. They live in small, residential homes that facilitate interaction and community-building among the women.
“Sadly many of the women have not had women-to-women relationships. A lot of their relationships were around men and needing men. Peer friendship and support is very important to their progress,” Sister Tesa said.
“I do think this community building is important and helps the women feel a sense of trust and support that helps them in their struggles. The word ‘struggle’ is very much a part of their lives,” she added.
Sister Tesa, 68, who is celebrating her 50th year in the Sisters of St. Joseph, founded Hour Children in 1986 when she became a foster parent to eight children of incarcerated mothers at the convent where she lived.
In 1992, when Hour Children became a 501 (c) (3) organization, she offered support services to other incarcerated mothers and their children. Before that, she was responsible for New York state curriculum oversight for Catholic elementary schools for the Diocese of Brooklyn, and was both a principal and teacher at Catholic elementary schools.
Hour Children is named for the important hours that shape the lives of children with mothers behind bars: the hour their mothers are arrested, the hour children visit their mothers in prison, and the hour of their release. “It builds hope among women who have had few reasons for hope,” the organization says.
The Opus Prize has been awarded annually since 2004 to honor and support people who are committed to transforming the lives of others and to inspire the next generation’s involvement in humanitarian and social work careers.
Each year, the foundation chooses a different Catholic university to serve as the university host and partner for the Opus Prize.
The 22-month process to seek, nominate and review candidates has been distinguished by the intense involvement of Gonzaga students, according to Michael Herzog, chair of Gonzaga’s Opus Prize Steering Committee.
“The Opus Prize Foundation intends for this philanthropic work to inspire college students, and it has provided an exceptional and broad educational experience for all those involved,” he said in a statement.