“I was in prison and you visited me”. Mt. 25;36.

35 years on, Joan Sawyer is an inspiration and a challenge to us all.

Joan’s motto was ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’ and now during this Advent season as we journey with Our Lady, the woman wrapped in silence, so too we remember Joan who lived her motto to the full, even to the giving of life itself. She was a quiet shining light, not shouting from the roof-tops but was a beacon of light in Lurigancho Prison, Lima, where she ministered to the prisoners who sat in darkness.  John ODonohoe wrote:

May the Angel of Compassion open your eyes
To the unseen suffering around you.

Joan Sawyer was a Columban Sister who was shot dead in Lima, Peru, in December 1983. She used to go to the Lurigancho Prison in Lima three or four days a week to visit the prisoners there. The prison held over 5,000 men. Conditions were bad. Out of 5,000 prisoners only 1,000 were sentenced. The rest were pending sentence or perhaps innocent. Joan brought them some relief – medicines for some, a kind word for others, news about how she was progressing with their legal papers in the Ministry for Justice, etc. 

May the Angel of Wildness disturb the places
Where your life is domesticated and safe,
Take you to the territories of true otherness

Where all that is awkward in you
Can fall into its own rhythm.

The large majority of prisoners came, in her own words, ‘from the poor sectors of Lima where they never had enough to eat, didn’t finish school and couldn’t find decent work’. On the morning of 14 December 1983 a group of prisoners decided that at all costs they were going to escape. They took as hostages Joan Sawyer, three Marist Sisters and social workers. After all-day negotiations with the prison authorities it was agreed that the prisoners and their hostages would be allowed leave the prison in the evening in an ambulance, the most inconspicuous mode of travel for getting out unnoticed. 

May the Angel of Justice disturb you
To take the side of the poor and the wronged.

They were no sooner outside the prison gate than waiting police riddled the ambulance with bullets from all sides. Four bullets struck Joan, one through the back of the neck, two through her leg and one through her finger. When removed from the ambulance she was dead.

Joan went to Peru in 1977 and was 51 years old at the time of her death. The bleak cross still stands on the main road to Lurigancho Prison with the inscription: No Mataras. You shall not kill. Joan’s gentleness, compassion and going to the margins of society, is a challenge and inspiration for us to be in the margins, to be with those most in need.

May the Angel of Death arrive only
When your life is complete
And you have brought every given gift
To the threshold where its infinity can shine.

May all the Angels be your sheltering
And joyful guardians.

 “The Church grows, thanks to the blood of the martyrs. This is the beauty of martyrdom,”                          “It begins with witness, day after day, and it can end like Jesus, the first martyr, the first witness, the faithful witness: with blood.”

Pope Francis.