Story of Justice: S. Mary Ann Figlino

Finding Justice Wherever She's Planted

 

By Mary Flick, CSJ, Justice Office Coordinator

 

Outside of the more traditional works of women religious, Sister Mary Ann Figlino has found ways to serve the dear neighbor and further the work of justice. She has taught primary grades, served as a hospital chaplain and ministered in a parish. But she’s also worked in a bakery and a flower shop and a jail. All of these have prepared her for her current ministries teaching scripture, mentoring a young adult and preparing meals for homeless women.

After almost 30 years in traditional ministries as a Sister of St. Joseph, Sister Mary Ann found a new energy and a true passion for the dear neighbor whom she encountered through the Empowerment Program. This non-profit program, based in Denver, ministered to women in poverty, women who were homeless, victims of violence or leaving the penal system.  Mary Ann tutored women as they worked toward earning their GED. “We had graduations for the women, complete with caps and gowns, pomp and circumstance,” S.  Mary Ann recalls. “It was like us getting a Ph.D.!” 

Mary Ann Figlino

During her 13 years with the Empowerment Program, she also created Project Bedtime Story.  “I went to jail every Monday,” she says. Bringing children’s books and a tape recorder, she would have the mothers in prison read to their children, then mail the book and tape to the children. Project Bedtime Story was featured on the Hallmark Channel. The program continues today. 

S. Mary Ann likes to say she went from felons to flowers, for she found her next ministry in a flower shop. “I learned to make beautiful arrangements,” S. Mary Ann says. Her work, however, was more than creating bouquets and centerpieces.

“It was the discussions I’d have, when people would ask, ‘You’re a nun? Why are you doing this?’ Or when they would open their conversation with ‘I don’t agree with the Church on...’.”

Often, she would be called on when a customer, who was asked, “What do you want on the card?”  couldn’t find the words, or found themselves in tears. Then S. Mary Ann would be called out of the back room to talk with them. “It was a backdoor approach to ministry,” she says.

Her next ministry took her back to primary education, but this time she was planning workshops for teachers, helping them bring more enthusiasm into the classroom. Drawing from the teaching experiences of Sisters Pat Dunphy and Marianne Keena, there was never a shortage of enthusiasm for their work.

Along the way, she earned a master’s degree in scripture in 1998, returning her to her first call as a teacher. “I like teaching Scripture,” she says. She has four groups she currently works with in Denver. The longest-standing relationship is with a parish group that she has been leading for 11 years.

It is not just the teachings of Jesus that S. Mary Ann explores, but the context in which the Master taught. “We ask, what was going on in Jesus’ day? What was the culture of society then? Why were the women so bold as to approach Jesus? What was Jesus such a rebel in his ministry to women?” Mary Ann says. “And as we work in scripture, we ask, where does this fit with us?”

She referred to the parable of the Great Feast, when the Master sent his servants to bring in those on the highways and byways to fill his banquet hall. “We can’t invite people off the highway,” S. Mary Ann acknowledges. “But my groups will ask, how do we reach out to people different from us? One woman suggested that when she goes her friend at a nursing home, she might go into the rooms and talk with the other residents she doesn’t know. Together, we open up scripture and realize what a challenge it is!”

Today, that challenge is also found as she mentors a would-be college student during a transition time of life. It was Mary Ann’s experience in with flower arrangements that first got her involved with fundraising dinners at Arrupe Jesuit High School in Downtown Denver. Its Christo Rey model of education engages students in academic studies four days a week, then has them in the work force on the fifth day. While arranging flowers for a fundraising banquet, S. Mary Ann was encouraged to mentor a graduate through her college experience. “Myra is so self-directed,” S. Mary Ann says. “We just meet as friends and have coffee and talk.” They have been meeting for three years.

Myra had to quit college after her sophomore year so she could care for her four siblings while her mother went back to school. She was able to land a job in the administrative offices at Arrupe Jesuit, and so has been able to help with her family’s finances while she cares for its youngest members. “She wants to be a nurse,” S. Mary Ann says. “She is an inspiration.”

So is Mary Ann, as she serves today on a team in the Dolores Project at her parish, Most Precious Blood.  Each month, she helps prepares meals for the women at a nearby shelter. She knows these little ways of connecting with the Dear Neighbor make a difference. And it is the relationships she has formed which remain. “One woman I knew from the Empowerment Program called me on Sunday to tell me she had earned her GED.” Once again, Mary Ann had reason to celebrate.

“How enlightening it is when I think I’m doing the ministry and I walk away and see I’m the one who has been ministered to! Working with felons taught me way more than I taught them,” S. Mary Ann insists. “The customers I met at the flower shop educated me with their faith and family values. So do the women in the parishes I serve.  Just listening to people and their stories means so much. I think I’m teaching what is going on in Jesus’ day. But they share with me the way they see it today.

“We all have a piece of the pie in scripture, a piece of the truth,” she says. “They are feeding me and feeding each other.” Perhaps that is the blessing for those who hunger and thirst for justice.

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