Sister Myrta Iturriaga serves in ministry with Catholic Services Spokane. She also serves as a Eucharistic minister at St. Aloysius Parish and does spiritual direction. She was the first of 13 children born to her parents in Temuco, Chile, in South America.
In addition to her primary work as a prison coordinator, in which she serves those who are in prison, she leads retreats, conferences, and catechetical formation to the Hispanic community.
A resident of Spokane, Washington, she enjoys walking, swimming, music, film, and nature.
How did you find out about the Sisters of Providence?
I am from the south of Chile and the Sisters of Providence had a school there. I attended it until I was 19. My vocation at first was not for the Sisters of Providence, but for a contemplative order. My priest and spiritual director thought I had a call for being cloistered and I wrote to the order for five years.
In my senior year, a teacher asked me what I was going to do after I graduated, and I never really thought about it until then. I wanted to be a sister, but I didn’t know what the sisters did. That was the click. So I went to the superior of the Sisters of Providence and said, “I want to be a Sister of Providence. I need to know what to do.”
I don’t know why I changed my mind. I think it’s because a priest told me he couldn’t see me in a convent. He saw me with the world
When did you arrive in the United States?
I came here (to Washington State) in 1988. Why did I come here? Because I wanted to be a missionary, but when I raised my hand to be considered I was thinking about going to Peru or Central America, never the United States. But a priest in Connell, Washington, called the Sisters of Providence here and asked for a sister who spoke Spanish, so they called the sisters in Chile.
I came here with another sister who was older. It was a difficult adaptation, but we worked with the migrant workers, catechists and youth
How did you get involved with prison ministry?
I was studying English at Gonzaga University and I felt like I had to do something. So I went to St. Joseph’s Parish (Spokane) to see what I could do to help the people. I met a woman there who went to the prisons and said they needed more people to go minister because there were a lot of Hispanics there. So I began going. First, I just spoke with them, then I started doing the services
Do you find prison ministry easy or challenging?
For me it’s easy, especially with the Hispanics because they have a big love and respect for religious life. They know I’m a sister and for them that makes a difference. Most of the people in prison are men and many are from the poor areas of Latin America, where the macho image is very strong. Some don’t allow women to speak. But with women religious, it’s different
How is it different when ministering to Anglo prisoners?
With Anglos (for me) it’s different because of the kind of people we have in prison. There is a lack of respect, and it’s difficult in the way they see you. I have to keep my boundaries with them, but with Hispanics I can be more friendly because they try to make their boundaries themselves.
Are the prisons pretty open to prison ministers?
Yes, but sometimes when you do something wrong, you want to clean up and change everything in one day. You can go from one extreme to the next. In prison, you find people who are spiritually hungry so they can clean up the emptiness that is inside. Sometimes, it’s kind of obsessive and I don’t think it’s healthy. They’ll be reading the Bible, or praying in an obsessive way.
It’s clear people in prison have an attitude that is open to God, but sometimes it’s superficial. The conversion is not long. But there are people who do take it seriously.
How is prison ministry different from jail ministry?
In the county jail, people are there for a short time. They are coming and going, so you have short contact with people there. But in the prison, you have a lot of time to be with them and know them more personally. Those in the county jail are worried about what is going to happen to them. In prison, they already know they’ll be there for a while so they can be more open.
How do you help the prisoners deal with their problems?
It’s difficult, but you have to go and believe in the people, and trust them. You love them, and you believe in them. You are not naive, but you believe what they think because it’s their truth. So I listen to their truth, and from there I can work something.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
I enjoy working with the people, not just sitting in an office. I like being in contact with people, and serving outside.
Do you do other work aside from prison ministry?
I’m a Hispanic ministry resource for the parishes of the diocese, if they need me. They may call me for catechist information, spiritual direction, translations. Sometimes I translate for doctors if they have patients who don’t speak English.
What has been your motivation?
I love people, and I feel their need and isolation. I don’t have my family here, but when I go to the prison they are the people who are interesting. They love me and give me a lot. They fill me with energy.
Even in times when I’m tired because I worked all day, then go to an evening service, it’s difficult. But when I begin the service, I forget about everything. I’m tired, but I speak for the people and time goes by — it’s their time and God gives me the grace.
What do you enjoy the most about Sisters of Providence?
I think the big respect they have for each other and for their gifts. That allows me to embrace my own gifts and offer them to the community. I know they trust in my possibilities. They don’t impose on me to do this or that; they leave me to see what I can do and where I can do my best. I know they will respect what I decide. The relationships are nice; they are always welcoming.
I love people, and I feel their need and isolation. I don’t have my family here, but when I go to the prison they are the people who are interesting.