The Christmas Cards That Helped Save A Life

October 13, 2014

Christmas Card imageby Sister Camille D’arienzo, RSM

Sister Camille D’arienzo is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Community of the Sisters of Mercy. She is the founder of Cherish Life Circle and is a prominent radio commentator. Sister Camille served as president of the Brooklyn Regional Community of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas from 1993 to 2001 and served as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) from 1998 to 1999.

A  Scripture scholar reflecting on Jesus’ declaration that faith, “even small as a mustard seed” would grow into something unexpectedly large, so large that birds would nest in it, said this image was an example of Jesus’ sense of humor.  Mustard seeds, she said, grow not into large plants, but into bushes more like weeds.  For me, a lifelong city dweller, this was a revelation.

Still, the point of what Jesus said holds true.  A small act of faith may inspire great courage.  A random act of kindness may heal a bruised spirit.  A tiny pill may cure a large illness.  Christmas cards, without the sophistication and excellence of Hallmark, can save a person’s life.  I can prove that if you will journey with me back to June 2000.

The Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh went to his execution on Terre Haute’s Federal Penitentiary’s Death Row without expressing remorse for the 168 lives he took and 500 people he wounded when he set off a bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.  His lack of remorse was a crushing blow to his fellow inmate, David Paul Hammer, who had tried his best to convince McVeigh to express some sorrow to his victims’ families.  During our subsequent visit, David bemoaned his inability to achieve any good for any one.  He couldn’t even persuade McVeigh to offer a small, humane gesture.

Out of my inability to console David a new idea surfaced.  “David,” I said, “you’re an artist.  How would you feel about designing Christmas cards which I’ll complete and market and we can give the money to agencies that help children in need and at risk.”

That’s how it began.  Today, David is very different from the man sentenced 20 years ago. Thirteen years of Christmas cards from death row has resulted in our being able to raise about 80 thousand dollars for those who help children.

Some of the recipients of our earnings made their way to a courtroom in Philadelphia this past June to give witness to the help received from David Hammer who was being retried for a murder he committed in 1994.  Among them were Mercy Sister Karen Schneider, who hosts Mercy Medical Mission out of Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore and brings pediatric care to penniless families in tropical regions, Sister Kay Crumlish, executive director of Mercy Home, which cares for developmentally disabled adults, Sister Breige Lavery, executive director of the Dorothy Bennett Mercy Center, which provides after school programs for children and adult services for immigrant families,  and Sister of St. Joseph Tesa Fitzgerald who runs Hour Children, providing a range of services for incarcerated and paroled women and their children.

As the Sister who has known David the longest, I was called to testify for three hours over two days.  Judge Joel Slomsky listened to testimonies from the defense, as well as from the prosecution which tried, without success, to minimize the good evidenced by the witnesses.

His Honor’s verdict reduced David’s death sentence to life in prison without parole.

So it happened that the Christmas cards, designed to help children in need, helped save David’s life.

Those wanting to continue this good work may receive an order form displaying the cards by e-mailing cherilife@aol.com.

This article first appeared in CMN’s October 2014 newsletter.