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The quality of mercy confronts a killer


Life is what happens when you’re planning something else.

This simple wisdom from an Argus poster printed half a lifetime ago validates itself daily in occurrences large and small. It was waiting for the Sisters of Mercy to assemble in St. Louis for nine days in July 1999.

The 150 or so sisters attending the 7 o’clock morning Mass the opening day of our Third Institute Chapter had come with a packed agenda -- well-laid plans to elect a new leadership team, a process to help us ponder the possibilities of our shared future, to intensify our commitment to our direction statement and to strategize for creative ways to extend the ministry of mercy into the next millennium.

Dominican Fr. Thomas Condon, the celebrant of that early morning Mass, prayed for mercy for Robert Walls, a man to be executed in Missouri the next week.

Robert Walls was not on our agenda.

The notion that God, too, might have an agenda, insinuated itself in the homilist’s reflection on the day’s first scripture reading. It told of Abraham and Sarah, people who, the priest observed, lived in undeviatingly predictable times. They, nevertheless, kept their door open to the unexpected, the absurdly unexpected announcement that set Sarah laughing in secret: They together would have a child and progeny beyond counting.

How could the unexpected not crash through our predictable? How could Sisters of Mercy confine themselves to business as programmed in the face of a merciless decision to execute a repentant human being for a crime committed 14 years earlier? How could we ignore the plight of this person when we were gathered to discover ways to help the poor and marginalized, while knowing that Catherine McAuley, our revered foundress, had a special concern for people in prison?

“You could write to the governor,” the priest suggested in response to a request for direction made after Mass. Sr. Karen Donahue of Chicago drafted a letter asking Missouri’s governor, Mel Carnahan, to extend clemency to Robert Walls. Copies were on the 50 tables in the Assembly Hall the next morning. By noon it had garnered 410 signatures without discussion or debate.

The letter, faxed to the governor and to the media, fell upon deaf ears and a closed heart in the case of the governor and was embraced with open arms and interest by the media. The governor denied our request on the basis of its providing “no new information.” Radio, TV and newspaper reporters spread the word of our petition and plumbed and published the rationale for our opposition.

The eve of the execution found over a hundred Sisters of Mercy at a vigil on the steps of the Municipal Court Building in St. Louis. Their presence, organized by Sr. Eileen Hogan of Connecticut, more than quadrupled the presence of the city’s faithful opponents of capital punishment, giving heart and hope to the event’s sponsors. The sisters’ final public appeal to the governor was read by candlelight to a background of prayers and songs. Local TV stations recorded and reported “the largest demonstration of its kind in St. Louis.”

Meanwhile, in Potosi Prison, priest and penitent waited in a non-contact cell on death row. Time dragged on. Then came the 10 o’clock news. The lead story brought into that place of isolation row upon row of people holding candles and keeping vigil for Robert Walls.

The next day Fr. Condon spoke emotionally of the impact of our unexpected presence in that maximum-security cell.

“Bob was very touched. He also knew of your letter to the governor with over 400 signatures. We had talked several times about the meaning of his short life. At that moment, he understood.”

The priest told him that his story had reached many people, and even though his life would not be spared, others might stand a better chance because of the sisters’ actions in his behalf.

In a letter to the Mercy community, Tom said, “I want to express my profound gratitude to all the Sisters of Mercy for your actions this week in St. Louis in behalf of Robert Walls. You took his case to the governor, to the media and to the streets, in your attempt to reverse his death sentence. What you did was a wonderful example of what all religious strive to do: Put your charism in practice. Your cry of mercy in the face of a terrible evil did not go unheard.

“I want you to know that you made a great difference in the life of this good and decent man who did not deserve the fate the state of Missouri handed down to him.”

Robert Walls’ death happened while we “were planning something else.” Although the issue never made it to the chapter floor, the fate of this man and the issue of capital punishment were in the air we breathed throughout our time together.

At the closing session, Sr. Theresa Kane of New York asked that our engagement with this case be recorded with chapter proceedings.

It felt right. The God of Abraham and Sarah remains the God of constancy and of the unexpected.

Sr. Camille D’Arienzo is president of the Brooklyn Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy.

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999