It was right before her 80th birthday when Daughter of Charity Sister Anthony Barczykowski got the call. The prompting of the spirit came suddenly, in the form of an invitation from Deacon Bill Jarrell, and it came with the speed and swoosh of a Japanese bullet train.
Sister Anthony is a tiny woman with sparkling blue eyes, and her gray hair that came in decades ago adds to the grandmotherly image of someone who has spent a lifetime of service to pregnant teenagers, homeless women and children, and anyone else who has craved a soft hand or an attentive ear.
Deacon Jarrell dropped the open invitation at an archdiocesan Administrative Council meeting: the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office was launching a new program to train chaplains of all faiths so that they could ride with deputies on a regular basis as they answered calls in the line of duty.
The idea was to simply be a spiritual “presence” for the officers, whose life-and-death experiences have led across the country to an 80-percent divorce rate and much higher-than-normal rates of alcohol and substance abuse.
To complement an ample supply of male pastors, they were particularly looking for a few good women.
“I began thinking about it,” Sister Anthony said, chuckling, “particularly since Bill was saying they were looking for women.”
Sister Anthony is the executive director of the archdiocesan Department of Community Services, and in that position she oversees the umbrella of social services provided by Catholic Charities.
She knew that if she agreed to accept the “ride-along” volunteer assignment, it would mean an eight-hour shift beginning Friday afternoon, and she didn’t want that to conflict with her job.
“I thought it might impact my work schedule,” Sister Anthony said. “In discerning whether or not this was something I should do, I asked Archbishop Aymond what he thought. He said, ‘Go for it!’”
She did. After a training program, Sister Anthony began riding along with deputies in March 2010, and in short order, she began riding a weekly shift, far above the normal requirements of a monthly commitment.
At roll call, the sight was right out of central casting. There was this tiny nun in a room full of strapping deputies, and then she’d be assigned by the commander to ride with someone. In the beginning, some of them asked, “How long are you going to do this?” and, perhaps more telling, “Why are you doing this?”
She had a ready response.
“I was to be a spiritual presence offering support whenever and to whomever I could,” Sister Anthony said. “I was not there to tell the deputies how to do their jobs!”
The jokes came naturally and were good-natured. A deputy spotted her one afternoon and asked “if this was bring your daughter to work day.” Actually, it was bring your grandmother to work day.
The training taught her that 85 percent of police work is routine – which she found out was true.
“For the most part, officers see themselves as protecting the community, enforcing laws and taking criminals off the street,” Sister Anthony said. “We talked about presence. Just as I was a spiritual presence, I would reinforce with deputies all the time that their presence was a deterrent to crime. Imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have police and patrol cars on the street. We often take presence for granted.”
Along the way, Sister Anthony learned to deep-six any stereotypes she had of deputies. “They have a tough and often frustrating job,” she said.
Their small kindnesses often go unnoticed. There was the time a deputy stopped by to check on an elderly person who lived alone and who had fallen the day before.
Another deputy stopped to talk to a group of children. “In the past, a neighbor had filed a complaint, and since then he would stop and talk to the kids just to ask how they were doing,” Sister Anthony said.
Sometimes Sister Anthony would be asked to console a victim. One day a teen slipped her foot onto the accelerator and smashed through a plate-glass window at a store.
“She was sitting on the ground completely upset and she was crying – all just irrational in terms of, ‘I’ll never drive again,’” Sister Anthony said. “What precipitated it was that she was on her phone and having an argument with her mother. I just got down and knelt. I asked if there was someone I could call who could be a help to her. She did call a friend, and she helped her, while I excused myself.”
Sister Anthony, now 81, has decided to retire her chaplain’s duties and is hanging up the bulletproof vest she was asked to wear when she went on ride-a-longs. It’s time. But she will miss the coffee shop chats she had with her buddies.
Invariably, the deputy would finish his coffee and say, “Time to go, Sister. Let’s go out there and be a presence.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.