Sr Viera: A Life among the Inmates

SFP sistersSFP sistersHer name is Sister Viera and she is a Franciscan Sister of the Poor. I met her in Frascati. With simplicity and candor, she was interviewed in the Italian publication “Controluce.”  Sister Viera talks about her life experiences as a volunteer in the Italian prisons.

Who is Sr Viera now? And before?
I am Sister Viera, a Franciscan Sister of the Poor. My baptismal name is Melina Farinelli. Before leaving my family to see what God might want from me, I worked for ten years in a winery and then spent my teenage years in a factory working with people much older than I. It was a difficult life in that environment.

At 22, tired of living that way and feeling distant from God, I found myself on the terrace of a three-story building thinking about a way to end it all. My life seemed to have no meaning. After four hours of crying and inner conflict, I thought about my Mom. If I had taken my life, she would have spent the rest of her years in desperation. So I did not do kill myself, but was ready to flee and go far away even if this might mean ending up in prostitution or drugs.

On a Sunday in August many years ago by chance I met Sister Cristina Di Nocco. I had never seen her before and she invited me to attend a meeting for young people. I decided to go -- just to be a troublemaker. When I arrived there were 90 young people sharing their experiences of God and love. They were joking, sharing meals, and having fun. At the beginning I teased them, but in the evening, before falling asleep, when I thought about the evening there was a sensation of peace and inner harmony in my soul.

I continued to participate in these meetings for one year and at the same time to undertake a serious journey with God. I started going to the factory with a new attitude. I refrained from using vulgar expressions and engaging in ambiguous behaviors. I ran into difficulties. Nobody could understand what was happening to me! At 23 years of age I left home and my job and entered the Youth Center to continue my formation among the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor.

Thirty eight years have passed. I cannot deny there have been times when my faith is deeply challenged. But I am still here, more convinced than ever. During these past seventeen years I have been engaged in a volunteer ministry in the Rebibbia prison and, beginning this year, also in the Pistoia prison.

Pistoia prison?

Since I have started coming here the atmosphere is more serene. I go to the prison three or four times a week and hold conferences with the inmates in the chapel, before Jesus in the Eucharist. This location is particularly suitable to hear their stories, their dramas, challenges in living together and the difficulty of accessing primary necessities!

There is a new warden so some changes have been made that benefit the inmates. For example, he renovated a room with the help of some outside managers and the cooperation of the Pistoia population, which now houses 3,000 books (most of them new).

Thus a library was open for the inmates to use. We hope this will be followed by a crafts workshop.

There are about 200 inmates who are imprisoned for various kinds of crimes. There is also a small section where inmates are detained for committing very serious crimes. I will obviously extend my ministry to this section too, but with the necessary security. The males are less needy and more respectful, not so vulgar, jealous and envious. At the beginning it was difficult. In Rebibbia I had always been with women and with almost exclusively female personnel. But now with the warden, staff, commander, and instructor, who would update me on the progress of some inmates, we are really on the same page.

Everything is very respectful, open and welcoming. Every time I enter this environment, I think about Blessed Frances, who assisted the inmates to their death, and the love with which she would listen to their anguish, problems, fears, and their returning to God in the last moments of their lives. Here too, beyond holding conferences, I bring pens, stamps and cards.

And Rebibbia?

altI continue to go to the Roman prison because there are about twenty inmates with whom I have established a deeper relationship.

Among them there are many who will have to remain in prison for more than eight years and want to continue a dialogue with me. Going periodically back to Rebibbia is for me a special blessing, because there I feel that the charism of Blessed Frances is more alive than ever.

A few concluding thoughts?
Here are is an excerpt from a letter written by an inmate I had met only a week before: “Dearest Sr. Viera, It was good for me to talk with you. I am asking you to remain as close to me as possible because I feel lonely and abandoned. I often think about the Lord, but I cannot find strength inside me…. I thank you for all the things you do; they are beautiful because they are done with love. Thank you, M.”

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