Sister Clara Smith, who taught grade school for four decades before finding her heart in prison ministry, died Tuesday, September 22, 2020 at the Caritas Center in Wichita, Kansas. She was 94 years old and had been a professed member of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ for 78 years.
Sister Clara was born on February 12, 1926 in Spearville, Kansas, the sixth of 12 children born to Andrew and Mary Elizabeth (Tepe) Smith. Influenced by her teachers and an aunt who had joined the congregation, Clara entered the community in 1940, the novitiate a year later, taking the name Mary Florentine. Later, she reclaimed her baptismal name of Clara.
She received a bachelor’s degree in education in 1959 from Sacred Heart College, now Newman University, in Wichita.
As Sister Florentine, she taught elementary school for 44 years in Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas and sometimes served as principal.
In 1977, while still teaching school kids, Sister Clara began visiting prisoners every Sunday in the Eddy County, New Mexico jail in Carlsbad and did so for five years. Thus began her new ministry.
Clara was teaching Bible classes at Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility in Las Cruces, where the warden asked her to consider becoming the chaplain, and in 1984, she became the first female chaplain at the New Mexico men’s facility and served there for four years.
She later filled a chaplain vacancy at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants, and stayed for 12 years. She walked among the inmates, hugging each one, greeting them by name, and listening to their fears, doubts and regrets.
She once said of her ministry, “If your brother were in here, wouldn’t you want someone to give him a kind word? I don’t judge these men. The judge passed a decision already. My job is not to look to the past. My job is to look to their future. I know that God is working through me and I know I am helping these men. That is what I’m here to do.”
She was New Mexico’s corrections employee of the year in 2001 for inspiring “those who are in need of hope and those who seek comfort in a time of despair and pain.”
Even after retirement in 2005 when she returned to the Wichita Center, she kept in touch with the men through letters.
In addition to her Sister Adorers of the Blood of Christ, Sister Clara Smith is survived by her youngest brother, Gerald, and a sister-in-law Edna Mae, both of Missouri, as well as a number of nieces and nephews.