The Malta Independent 14 April 2021, Wednesday

‘The prisoners are my children and I love them so much’

Andrew Azzopardi Wednesday, 3 March 2021, 09:08 Last update: about 2 months ago

‘I am like any other mother who comforts her children. I want my heart to grow so that I can love them even more’.  – Sr Adele.

Last Saturday during my radio show on 103 Malta’s Heart, I interviewed Sr Marija Adele Baldacchino, known as Sr Adele, an 82-year-old woman who has dedicated all of her working life to helping prisoners who live in prison. I have met few women who are as determined and passionate as this exquisite Sister of Charity.    

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She told me that she has been working in the prison for these last 28 years and has only stopped contributing due to Covid-19 restrictions.  She kept repeating during the interview that, the moment this pandemic passes, she will be back toiling at full strength till the end of her life.  Sr Adele shared with me that she is dying to be with ‘her children’, as she lovingly refers to the Inmates – a term which has brought her the nickname, ‘il-mama tal-prigunieri’ – which I first noticed was written on a placard as you walk into the RISE Foundation.

Sr Adele is a fascinating and an enthralling personality.  She is unpretentious and candid like few others.   

When Archbishop Scicluna sees her, he always tells her; ‘give my regards to your children!’ 

Sr Adele does not brush aside the horror of this Institution and the pervasive impact it leaves on its residents. She keeps advocating for the Inmates to try and make the best possible use of time, which is probably the only ‘luxury’ they have.  She speaks about the Jail as if it’s her second, sorry, first, home, a place she claims is bursting with pain and unhappiness, despondency and gloom which can only be healed by strong doses of love.

But I asked; ‘what triggered you to start working in such a setting?’ She answered candidly that even though she was happily teaching kindergarten children, she answered to the call of her superiors.  In fact, ‘Obedience’, was her quick-fire answer to my question!

Since then, Sr Adele spent 10 years living in the prison precincts on a day-on and day-off shift (which she still used many a times to work with the Inmates). At her retirement age (of 65 years), she asked to keep working on a voluntary basis. This request was granted, and she has kept doing what she loved doing most till this day - comforting the swollen hearts of these people she called her own. 

She also said that at one time, the Female Division of this Institution was run by the nuns themselves. She spends her time there, ‘being a mother to them’, listening and empathizing.  She insisted that what she does is give the inmates her heart through simple gestures - she loves the inmates so much that her eyes light up every time she speaks about them. Sr Adele states that these people are mentally in a wreck and in need of help and nourishment of the soul. She voices the need that it is we who need to adapt to them, to understand them, to appreciate from where they are coming and what has brought them there.

Sr Adele declares that she never expected to change anyone, but what she tries to do is lead with example and hope that through her actions she inspires these people to live an honorable life. Sr Adele shows an interest in everything that they share with her. She says that there are ex-prisoners who still contact her every week, even after they have finished their sentence because they become so affectionate with them. 

What fascinated me is that at one point she said that she never asks them why they ended up in prison, as for her their actions do not define them – she feels that they shouldn’t be judged by her.  What seems to hurt her most is that, when speaking about ‘her children’ she says that she cannot take it in that public treat them so badly. 

‘They are human beings who deserve to be respected. Their dignity needs to be valued. They should be given another chance’.  She says that people ‘out there’ keep behaving towards them in that way because they never have the privilege to encounter them.  What breaks her heart most is when she hears people saying that these people should be forgotten, and that the key should be thrown away.

‘Just because somebody makes a mistake doesn’t mean they should be obliterated from society’. 

She humbly explains that her role is to provide support, to listen to them, to help them get in touch with themselves and possibly mediate with God. When I asked her what the biggest challenges Inmates face are, she replies without thinking for one moment; ‘loneliness, boredom and the lack of contact with their family’. She continues to say ‘some simply do not have any visitors’.  She says that with the population of prisoners continuing to growing, it is difficult to provide work and activities for all of them. She says that she uses the Church as a point of encounter and prepares them scones and cake after mass with some hot tea – and listens to them.

She affirms that prisoners are ordinary people. When people ask her whether she is afraid to be with prisoners she answers, ‘these are not ghosts, they are normal people’.  Sr Adele kept emphasizing that respect is returned in abundance.

She also speaks about the excitement expressed by prisoners when they are about to end their time in incarceration. She states; ‘they get nervous and anxious not knowing what they are going to find when they are out there’.  She recalls when prisoners would be let out at midnight years back, a practice which has since changed.  She cannot bear the thought that there were some ex-prisoners who just didn’t have anywhere to go, no family, no home. 

As I was ending my interview, she told me that her favorite ‘duty’ was to administer the Sacraments to the prisoners, organize the Chapel events and reach out to those who wanted to get to know God.  Sr Adele says that some of the inmates, with time and through patience, start reflecting on their lives. This, she said, helps them deal with the desperation they face on a day-to-day basis.

One big concern that Sr Adele has is that there are innocent people in prison; ‘they have told me…they are there because of a miscarriage of justice or else because they are afraid of someone and are better-off admitting to something they didn’t commit.’  

Her eyes continually filled up with tears of happiness every time she spoke about ‘her children’. 

I’ve spent the last 12, 13 years interviewing people on radio and never have I felt so close to understanding what dedication to a cause really means.  

 

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