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DOWNEY − Teresa Doherty has been inside the California prison system for 39 years.
From the cops and the courts to the kids and the crimes, she’s seen them all. She’s witnessed the steady ebb and flow of juvenile offenders as well as the evolution of the nation’s largest prison bureaucracy.
Like many others, Doherty never imagined she’d be living life behind bars, but from inside Good Shepherd Chapel at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, the humble nun will tell you she’s never been more free.
Originally from Ireland, Sister Doherty came to the United States in 1958 to teach, but for the past four decades she’s been serving as the catholic chaplain at Los Padrinos, offering spiritual guidance to youth in need of redemption.
“There are lots of boys, 17-years-old, who haven’t done their first communion,” said Doherty, who started offering weekly bible services and after school sacraments for the young inmates.
“They’re free to come when they want. We have about 120-130 who come on Sundays…but often they just want to talk and get some encouragement. Some of them are facing four and five-year sentences.”
As a member of the Sisters of Charity congregation, Doherty has not only taken a vow of chastity and obedience to God, but also one of poverty, which includes ministering to the least in society. Founded in 1815 by Mary Aikenhead, the Sisters of Charity established one of the first hospitals in the western world ran entirely by nuns.
Doherty said Aikenhead’s devotion to the dejected attracted her to the congregation.
“Growing up, I felt a call,” she said. “You know it’s a call from God because if you say no, you feel like you’re doing the wrong thing. It’s hard to explain, but I had to go.”
After graduating from the University of San Diego, the call first led her to St. Pius X High School in Downey where Doherty taught English and World History classes from 1964-1967. But Doherty felt called to a new mission when Cardinal Timothy Manning of Los Angeles asked the school teacher if she would be willing to work with youth at Los Padrinos.
“I’ve been here ever since,” Doherty said with a smile.
Today, Doherty, who lives in Long Beach, organizes a Sunday morning mass at 8 a.m., a Wednesday bible study at 7 p.m., and afternoon sacraments from 3-5 p.m., Monday through Thursday. With no consistent funding from the state, Doherty says most of the programming is paid with donations from Monsignor John Barry, local schools and parishes.
Los Padrinos, which was established in 1957 as the second juvenile detention center in Los Angeles county, currently houses 320 inmates, a relatively low figure considering the facility can hold up to 1,000 inmates.
Doherty believes the decline is due to falling crime rates, California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s effort to find alternatives for juvenile offenders, and Proposition 21, which tries some minors as adults.
“The sentencing structure is more severe,” she said. “Kids involved in gang activity are going directly to adult prison now. There are 16-year-old kids getting five, 10, 15-year sentences.”
While most youth at Los Padrinos are serving time for violating probation, gang association, trespassing, and car theft, Doherty says some maintain their innocence, admitting they were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Nonetheless, Doherty is hopeful the ministry she provides brings some solace to those entrusted in her care.
“How do we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land?,” said Doherty, quoting the book of Psalms. “I write letters to them to help them during their time here — I believe they’re thankful. They come and they listen — here, they are happy.”
Published: July 24, 2014 – Volume 13 – Issue 15