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There was only a brief pause before a then 30-something young sister thought, “Oh, I think I’m in the right place.”

These aren’t the typical warm and welcoming words you’d expect to hear when someone’s realized their vocational calling, but you could say Sister Peggy Devaney, IHM is anything but typical.

Born in 1941 to Irish immigrants, Sister Peggy grew up on the west side of Detroit in a community of immigrant families where she says she became aware of the idea that, “There is something outside of where you are” at a young age. She attended St. Francis De Sales School from first to 12th grade and it was there where her love for the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was first planted. The sisters’ order was adjacent to the school, and it was in Sister Peggy’s classrooms where the sisters taught. When asked about her call to religious life, Sister Peggy puts it simply, “It’s seeking God.” She continues, “When we talk about a call to religious life that really is in your heart and in your soul, that’s not something you put in.”

Her discernment took her to a number of orders, but she couldn’t deny the connection she had with the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a connection that had been fostered for 12 years during her schooling. Ultimately joining the community in her late teenage years, Sister Peggy began her life of ministry and taught at Epiphany Grade School in Detroit and St. Michael’s in Flint.

In her 20s, Sister Peggy was sent to Florida to teach junior high and soon after moved into parish ministry. It was when she came back from her ministry in Florida that she questioned if she was being called to something more. “Something in me said, ‘It’s not enough.’ It’s not enough out of me. Something in me was urging me, but I didn’t know where I was getting urged to.” She spent a year in discernment at the community’s Visitation House of Prayer studying Ignatian discernment, attending various workshops and retreats and pursuing the writings of spiritual writers — one of whom was Thomas Merton.

One thing became clear to Sister Peggy following her time of discernment, “I needed to be with the poor and abandoned but I didn’t know how to get there.” It was her leaning on God that guided her to the next act of her ministry work. Through an organization in Detroit, Sister Peggy started an internship that took her to volunteer work at the Wayne County Jail. It was at her orientation, when she heard that curt welcome, that Sister Peggy knew she was where she was supposed to be.

A world she had previously known so little about would be opened up to her in a way that would fulfill her for nearly four decades.

Following her internship, she held an archdiocesan position, where she continued to serve the poor, the displaced and the mentally ill and became acutely aware of the needs of a community that is often left behind or forgotten.

“It’s one thing to be inside the jail and wishing people well when they go out the back door with nothing but the clothes on their back. A lot of them have lost their apartment, their house, any material items they owned, it’s all gone. Many of them have lost any connection with family.

Lots of times people give up on them.” With this sentiment, Sister Peggy started the Jail Outreach Ministry, an “all-inclusive ministry organization” that provides certified chaplains, interfaith services and services to all “individuals affected by crime — victims, offenders and families.”

The ways in which Jail Outreach Ministry services all those who they come in contact with are extensive. Creating the evolving procedures as it relates to various policies and religious activities, determining clearance procedures, organizing groups involved at the jail, communion services, Jewish and Muslim services and stocking their emergency closet and emergency pantry is just a brief overview of what the Jail Outreach Ministry offers to all those impacted by crime.

Within the scope of her work, works of mercy come to life throughout the day to day. She recalls a story in which a boy, whose mother was incarcerated, longed for a pair of black dress shoes so he could sing in the Christmas choir at his church. Each day, he asked his grandmother, who was taking care of him about them, and she would tell him, “Jesus will take care of it.” She was worried though, they hadn’t had a Christmas for two years because they couldn’t afford it. “I invited a motorcycle group that worked with us in the jail [outreach] to go help out his grandmother and assist her in tidying up her house,” remembers Sister Peggy, “Grandma’s house received a special cleaning, a full refrigerator, decorations and gifts,” including a pair of dressy black shoes. “While we were at her home, the boy came home from school. I really couldn’t believe it! He was wearing his grandmother’s oversized shoes, really oversized! A call to outreach and support of many volunteers made this miracle of Christmas happen.” On Christmas Day, the little boy’s voice was among those echoing throughout the church.

A unique angle to their ministry is the outreach and counsel that’s offered to the families of inmates. Sister Peggy has aided in the reconciliations of relationships within families of victims and offenders. She describes a story where a mom called, “beside herself” after she found out her son was facing a drug charge. After this mom had spent her life making sure her son had every opportunity available to him, she was ready to give up on her son, let him go to prison and cut ties. Quickly, Sister Peggy left her office to go meet this mom to console her and help her come up with a plan to advocate for him. “You’re not finished working with him yet,” said Sister Peggy.

Sister Peggy also serves on the board of Wayne County Outreach Ministry, which is similar to the Jail Outreach Ministry but also helps to provide the recently released with job assistance, education and medical and dental care. And it was through this ministry that Sister Peggy was directly tied to saving a life. After being released from jail, a woman went down to Florida to try and start a new life but got into “some trouble” and was facing the death penalty. Sister Peggy, along with a couple of others, was called by the prosecutor’s office to go to Florida and testify about the mitigating circumstances for the death penalty. Sister Peggy brought this woman’s file that was held at the ministry containing detailed police reports. With them, she was able to show the jury how emotionally undone the woman had become after multiple rapes and mistreatment. She was ultimately spared from the death penalty.

In talking with Sister Peggy, she shared numerous stories such as these, where she or her ministry had a hand in showing God’s tender love and mercy to those in need, those in trouble, those in pain. Sister Peggy has been a soldier for mercy on the ground fighting for human life to be valued and seen even in the darkest of circumstances where most wouldn’t consider going. She sees God-given dignity in the displaced, the marginalized, the abandoned and the suffering and has spent her last four decades advocating for them. As Sister Peggy sees it, “In this ministry, what happens if you allow yourself to be a part of it, you are being shaped so much more by the person you’re meeting than actually what you have to contribute to the situation.” She stresses the significance of the community of volunteers who assist in the work they do, many of whom have lost someone to addiction.

The Wayne County Jail corrections officer went on, “You know the biggest medical problem in this place? Rat bites.”
There was another brief pause when a then 30-something young sister thought, more certain this time, “Oh, I think I’m in the right place.” A place most would want to avoid, Sister Peggy, armored up with God’s love, was buzzed into the jail. She has borne witness to God’s mercy by extending a hand to her neighbors in Christ ever since.