The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe made its way through the narrow halls of the Century Regional Women Detention Facility in Lynwood on Sunday, Nov. 27. Stopping at several two-tier cells at the facility’s east and west towers, Gonzalo de Vivero, director of the L.A. Archdiocese’s Office of Restorative Justice, together with Knight of Columbus Mark Padilla, pulled a makeshift cart carrying the digital reproduction of the original copy of the Guadalupana, a gift to the archdiocese of from Mexico City’s Basilica a decade ago. Accompanied by a few of the facility’s deputies and volunteers from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the men also carried the Virgin’s message of love, forgiveness and reconciliation to the incarcerated women, showing them that they too are important to the Church.

Catholic Chaplain Evelia Ortiz couldn’t miss the visit. Every week, from Sunday to Thursday, she offers the incarcerated female the support, comfort and counsel they so much need. Most of the women long for her visit because in Evelia they find someone who does not judge them.

“There’s so much hurt, fear, anxiety in them, especially with the ones who are away from their children,” said Ortiz, who is supported in her work by volunteers and priests. She also started as a volunteer and was slowly captured by the women’s needs, which changed her life. 

“They (the incarcerated women) need our support; an opportunity to find their own path. Some of them tell me these are the only visits they receive,” said Ortiz.

‘We’re here for you’

The visitors stopped at each cell for a few minutes, while De Vivero, Padilla and Imelda Bermejo, the Office of Restorative Justice’s coordinator of Families of the Incarcerated, offered a summary of the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s encounter with St. Juan Diego at the Hill of Tepeyac, and they invited the women to venerate the Morenita during a minute of silence. 

“Think about how amazing it is to have a Mother in Heaven who listens to us and sends our prayers to her son, Jesus Christ. Ask her for her intercession,” De Vivero told them with an empathetic voice.

Some of the women looked with curiosity through the thick windows or through slots on the bottom of the thick steel doors, while others remained silent. Some got emotional and cried as they heard more of the story of the apparition of the Virgin to Juan Diego, about the miracle of the roses that Juan Diego found on a hill, during a season when no roses grew, and her request to the humble indigenous to build a Church at Tepeyac, Mexico.

De Vivero invited the women to a minute of silence “to feel her unconditional love and to turn her into their celestial Mother at that moment.” In unison, the visitors and the incarcerated women prayed “Hail Mary,” and to end each visit, Bermejo sang a few verses of a very candid song for God.

“We are here for you,” De Vivero told the women, adding that Archbishop José H. Gomez had asked him to communicate to them his daily prayers, and asked them to please pray for him. “Let’s pray for one another so that we all can move forward together,” said the director of the Office of Restorative Justice. Some of the incarcerated bid farewell with shy claps or waving good-bye. As the visitors moved to the next cell, they left the women behind — most of them young, trapped in their own stories, between the metallic doors and bars.

‘She’s a mother, just like me’

Rosa María, 29, is one of the nearly 2,000 women incarcerated at Lynwood’s facility. She was jailed two years ago; first in Orange and then she was transferred to Lynwood’s jail. The masseuse, who also worked at an optical shop, is waiting for her sentence. Many of her peers are in the same situation, as most of the judicial cases last more than expected. Soon after her arrest, Rosa María suffered from deep depression, remaining all day in her cell under the bed sheets, but the attention and support from Catholic Chaplain Evelia Ortiz and archdiocesan volunteers helped her overcome her crisis.

With teary eyes, she expressed to Angelus News how the image of La Peregrina had brought her hope and joy because as a Catholic she feels a “special connection with the Virgin.”

“She’s a mother, just like me,” said the mother of three children, ages 2 to 12, who are under relatives care. They visit her every two weeks.

“Faith has helped me a lot, and here in prison my faith has increased. I take Bible courses that I receive by mail and I reflect very much about how to be a better person.” She is also completing studies to earn a high school diploma.

Imelda Bermejo, who in her role as the archdiocesan coordinator of Families of the Incarcerated organizes support groups for the families of the women in Lynwood’s facility, said several of the women are behind bars for minor crimes that turned into felonies due to procrastination, and some others are in jail for supporting their partners’ criminal activities.

Although chaplains and volunteers ignore the reasons of most of the women’s imprisonment, Ortiz said the crimes vary from minor crimes to serious felonies, including sentences of life without parole.