By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

When Sister Virginia Jenkins graduated from West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Girls in 1955 and immediately entered the Sisters of St. Joseph, she could reasonably expect a life-long ministry in the classroom – that’s what most St. Joseph Sisters did back then.

And it did hold true for well over two decades. She taught at St. Francis of Assisi, Our Mother of Consolation, Visitation B.V.M. and St. Carthage schools, all in Philadelphia, and also taught in Delaware.

Then in 1979, in response to her desire for a closer connection to the poor, her congregation suggested she take up prison visitation. It’s no secret the poor are more likely than others to wind up in jail.

Starting in a small way, this expanded in 1982 when a formal prison ministry was begun, with visitation to both men and women who were incarcerated. Sister Virginia gradually concentrated on women inmates.

But one thing leads to another. What happens to the women who leave prison with no place to go and no workable plan for the future?

Sister Virginia and Sister Paula Knox, who at the time was working mostly with AIDS patients, approached the congregation with a proposal for a little house that could be a sort of half-way house for a few of these women.

“They gave us their blessing but no finances; we had to raise our own money,” Sister Virginia said.

Raise they did, and they even got a little house donated for a dollar. After extensive renovations, Hannah House was born.

It takes its name, Sister Virginia explained, from the Biblical mother of Samuel, who was misunderstood in her life. It is indirectly a tribute to an early enthusiastic supporter of the project, the almost legendary Trinitarian Sister Peter Claver, who was active in social ministry throughout her very long life. Sister Peter Claver’s birth name was Hannah, Sister Virginia explained.

But a building and high ideals aren’t enough. Sisters Virginia and Paula worked mostly off-site, and the women they housed were pretty much on their own. Consequently recispanism with re-incarceration was all too common.

The sisters realized a larger facility was needed where closer monitoring and counseling would be possible.

According to Sister Virginia, who is the former director of Hannah House and currently involved in day-to-day work at the residence, use of the rectory at the then-recently closed St. Bonaventure Church in North Philadelphia was made available by the Archdiocese in 1995.

“Our capacity is 30 women, and we usually have about 28,” she said. “We have a staff of 10 with two or three former residents as full-time staff and a couple of part-time staff.”

Keeping the whole operation going is a challenge, especially given the state of the economy.

“We do have government funding and wonderful and generous donors,” Sister Virginia said. “It’s God’s work, so it’s up to God.”

Yes, some of the women have committed serious crimes in the past, and some will end up back in prison, but the work will go on.

“Sometimes I don’t even know why they are here,” Sister Virginia said. “It doesn’t affect our relationship with them.”

The goal of Hannah House is to change the lives of the women residents for the better, but it’s a two-way street.

“Life never had such a meaning for me before I had a connection with the poor,” Sister Virginia said. “They are wonderful women. They don’t know the great glory they give to God. I’m grateful for what they have taught me, they have such tremendous faith. This has deepened my belief that God is constantly with us, and no matter what anyone has done, God is absolutely and crazily deeply in love with us.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.