Note: The ideas and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the authors' and should not be ascribed to the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes or its members. On August 5, 2021, we archived old blog posts. You can find the archive by clicking here.
Sister Janet and Death Row
While serving in a L’Arche community in Mobile, Alabama, Sister Janet Ahler CSA was invited by two staff members to visit Holman prison in Atmore, the holding prison for men awaiting execution. In the CSA spirit of “pastoral concern for those whose faith life or human dignity is threatened” (CSA Constitutions # 4), she was soon a regular visitor with James Bill Hubbard. James consistently held that he was innocent of the murder with which he was charged and condemned claiming that the murder weapon was handed to him after the shooting occurred, leaving his fingerprints on the gun. He never reported this, he said, because the actual shooter promised to kill him if he did. Sister Janet has written up James’ story which is in the CSA archives.
At the time of James’ sentencing, if a person had an IQ of 70 or less in Alabama, he was not sentenced to death. James had an IQ of 71. James was simple and straightforward. “You are like a mother to me,” Sister recalls James saying to her during one of her visits.
The day prior to his execution, Sister Janet joined members of Kairos in visiting and praying with James. Kairos is a lay-led, interdenominational Christian ministry in which men and women volunteers bring Christ's love and forgiveness to prisoners and their families. Also present was James’ daughter who was ashamed of her father, but who on this last day came to visit him. Sister Janet had been asked to be a witness of the execution, but James’ daughter witnessed instead. It was a memory that Sister Janet said she did not need.
Sister Janet accompanied another man on his last day, meeting with the family and with members of Kairos. She remembers offering comfort to his family by relating the good this condemned man had done in prison, shielding new people to the prison from being taken advantage of by others and aiding them in preparation for court procedures.
Since this interview, Sister Janet has succumbed to cancer. Up to that time, she had been corresponding with a man on death row in Ohio. She had always promised to pray for him, but said in her last letter to him, “It is your turn to pray for me.” For years, Sister Janet took turns with sisters and associates writing to the people whose execution dates were drawing near, promising the prayers of the CSA community for them. At Christmas time, she would invite sisters in the motherhouse community to join her in sending cards to the people on death row in Alabama.
The death penalty is authorized by 27 states and the federal government and prohibited in 23 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In three states, California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, governors have imposed formal moratoriums on executions. The majority of executions take place in Texas and Oklahoma.
The Sisters of St. Agnes have taken a public stance in opposition to the death penalty in line with the teaching of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church.
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