We Remember: Sister Paulita Bittner

  "I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:36)

By Abby Blaes, Communications Intern

Sister Paulita Bittner taught in first, second, and third grade classrooms for 44 years and worked as a school secretary for seven. She found these roles to be gratifying and enriching. However, it wasn’t until after her retirement that she discovered her life's calling: prison ministry. 

The first place she felt her calling was in reading a book titled God Goes to Murderer’s Row, about an individual who had been sentenced to die after committing severe crimes and his conversion to Catholicism. This story sparked S. Paulita’s interest and consuming compassion for these individuals. In 1977, S. Paulita began visiting the local jail in Marquette, Michigan. She spent five days a week there, giving religious guidance to the inmates and generally being present for them. S. Paulita brought communion to Catholic inmates and organized weekly services for them. She also personally recruited and coordinated a group of 25 volunteers to provide similar services.

More than these tasks, she built real relationships with these people she served. Throughout her time volunteering in the prison, she got to know these individuals very well and valued her time with them greatly. “My primary love has been prison and jail ministry, which is closely related to the teaching gifts God has given me,” she said. “Through it all, I marvel at the working of God’s grace in these men who are often abandoned by society.”

In 1991, S. Paulita retired from her ministry work at Marquette County jail. She wrote in a letter to those she had built bonds with, "Ours has been a close friendship, but you and I know that nothing in this life can last forever. However, I feel that we are bound together in the Lord with ties that cannot be broken as long as we are faithful to Him, and you will always be in my prayers. You do not know how much your friendship has meant to me."

She was recognized for her good work in many ways. The U.P. Catholic Newspaper of Marquette wrote two pieces on S. Paulita’s retirement and the impact that she had on the individuals she had served. In one article written by Ken Wasko, it was detailed how she was able to grow the prison’s ministry and volunteer programs. She herself recruited 25 individuals to minister to the prison. In addition, six priests were recruited to work with the volunteers to keep the program strong.

S. Paulita worked so that her hard work would endure long after her retirement. Her hard work did not go unnoticed. Edward Carlton, an inmate at the time, stated that S. Paulita helped motivate him to strengthen his faith. “She’s been a truly wonderful person … instrumental in helping me to grow in my faith. I’m going to miss her,” he said in the previously mentioned article.

The assistant deputy warden also wrote a letter to Sister Donna Gunn, the provincial superior at the time, expressing his gratitude and appreciation for Sr. Bittner’s work.  He stated:

The impact that S. Paulita has had upon the prisoners with whom she established her bond of friendship may never be known. I am convinced, however, that the help, understanding, caring and spiritual support she rendered to those individuals had a positive effect on our institutional goal of maintaining a safe, secure and healthy environment for the countless thousands of prisoners who have passed through our doors during these past 20 years.

S. Paulita remained in contact with her friends at Marquette County jail as long as she was able. She passed away on December 15, 1999. Her work with these individuals will be recognized for years to come. As stated by the assistant deputy warden: “The example that S. Paulita set for us will be long remembered.”

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