Our story actually begins one hundred and forty-three years ago when, in September 1864, a young Dominican priest, Père Marie-Jean-Joseph Lataste, O.P., was sent to preach a spiritual retreat at the women’s prison in Cadillac-sur-Garrone, France, near Bordeaux. He went there with skepticism and all the preconceived notions pertaining to the incarcerated, which permeated society. He would later confess to a friend, “I entered with considerable embarrassment, persuaded that the undertaking would prove futile.” During the retreat there was a transformation. Père Lataste was the first to be converted by what he preached, and then the Word of God touched the prisoners’ hearts. During the retreat, Père Lataste kept asking himself, what would happen to these women when they left prison. Society would surely mark and stigmatize them as former prisoners, which would draw them back down that dark road of sin. Who would help them? While praying with the prisoners in front of the Blessed Sacrament, he came up with a radical idea for that time—to found a new religious congregation for women coming out of prison. The answer he proposed was called the House of Bethany.
Why Bethany? Père Lataste explained: The Gospel tells us that at Bethany there lived two sisters: Martha of inviolable virtue and Mary Magdalene who had been a sinner. Jesus loved to come and rest in their home, where one served him and the other listened to his words. He made no distinction between them—or did he…? It is rather Magdalene who is preferred. Martha is surprised and Jesus answers kindly but still gives preference to Magdalene: “You worry and fret about so many things; yet, few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the ‘better part’ and it is not to be taken from her.” (Luke 10:41). What was the better part? It was that Magdalene loved more. She who had been a sinner had advanced further in the way of divine love than Martha, the model of virtue. When God loves us and gives us his grace, he does not ask us what we have been; he is only concerned with what we are—not with how far we have fallen, but with how much we love. He judges us only on the strength of our love. Happy are those whose past urges them on to a greater love, and happy those others who, in a sort of rivalry, redouble their own efforts in order not to be left behind.
Père Lataste understood prison reform and the need for rehabilitation. In 1866, he published a booklet entitled, Les Réhabilitées (Rehabilitated Women). In it Père Lataste wrote: This idea of rehabilitation is not new. At the present time, society is manifesting a keen interest in such problems. We can no longer remain passive spectators of this kind of suffering. As we see so many barriers and class distinctions being broken down, we may well be surprised that this problem still remains. Père Lataste’s propositions in Les Réhabilitées are as valid today as they were in 1866. He regarded conditions in prison as favorable for spiritual growth. He asserted that what prisoners needed were: …a home, a family, where they will be loved and esteemed. The world, with all its power and riches, cannot give them this―it is the work of God. But religion alone cannot do it because, though rich with the gifts of heaven, she is poor in the riches of this world. So, let the world and religion unite and the work will be accomplished. Let those who possess riches put them at the disposal of those who have nothing, and this great work will be born. Père Lataste concluded Les Réhabilitées by stating: Now you understand our aim and the means by which it can be achieved.
You have seen the problem and you have seen how it can be solved. These [prisoners] are worthy of your compassion. It is for you to give them some recompense for those long years of prison. Dishonored in the past but long ago rehabilitated before God, they must now be rehabilitated before humanity. They must be saved, not only from the past dishonor, but from that inevitable return to crime; they must be saved, not only for this life, but for eternity; they must be saved out of love for him who said: ‘The Son of man has come to seek and to save what was lost.’
The congregation that Père Lataste founded with Mère Henri-Dominique would come to be known as the Dominican Sisters of Bethany. From France to Switzerland, to Italy, to Belgium and eventually to the United States, the Dominican Sisters of Bethany would prosper and grow. Père Lataste’s vision for the rehabilitation of prisoners, the rejected, and for all sinners to a new life in God continues to this day. His spirit and vision are alive. They have journeyed across the Atlantic to a prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts. The radical ideals of St. Dominic and Père Lataste continue to spread across the United States and to all corners of the world.
Prayer of Father Lataste
Oh my Jesus, I want to love you. Give yourself to me and grant that I may give myself to you. Make me one with you. May my will be yours. Unite me to you, so that I may live only in and for you. Grant that I may spend for you, all that I received from you, keeping nothing for myself. May I die to all for you and bring others to you.
Oh my Jesus, many others. Amen
“God does not look at what we have been; God sees only what we are.” (Words of Fr. Jean Joseph Lataste OP – from a retreat given to the women at Cadillac Prison, France 1864)