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Astoria nun spends 30 years on Rikers Island

By Bill Parry

A Catholic nun who was raised on Crescent Street in Astoria and still lives in a convent on Ditmars Boulevard has spent the last 30 years on Rikers Island, and she’s looking forward to more.

Sister Margaret McCabe, 75, is the chaplain of the Robert N. Davoren Complex, one of nine prisons on the island, which houses more than 1,300 male prisoners, most of them adolescents.

“I walk the corridor every day. I tour the jail and the clinics to make sure everyone knows who I am,” McCabe said. “I see them in my office and counsel them one-on-one, and without being judgmental I try to draw out of them what put them in the situation that put them here. I challenge them to make their future better. I want to be a caring spirit in their lives.”

She looks after every inmate, not just the Catholics, and she cares about each Correction officer as well.

“These officers do double shifts all the time,” McCabe said. “I ask about them and I care about them and their personal problems as well.”
She was honored last month at a roll call/plaque ceremony celebrating her 30 years of service and dedication. Speeches were delivered by Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte and several chiefs and wardens.

A number of Correction officers shared heartfelt experiences they had had with the chaplain.

“Sister Margaret is well-loved by her entire staff at RDNC as she goes from office to office, from area to area each morning giving hugs to each staff member she passes in the corridor,” RNDC Warden Karen Collins said. “She has been a matriarch to everyone for three decades, giving staff years of unconditional support and guidance.”

McCabe was offered three positions at the Department of Correction in 1985. She chose RNDC because of her 13-year background working with adolescents, many of whom were troubled.

“I come in quite handy as someone who will listen to people,” McCabe said. “I decided a long time ago that I didn’t get them arrested, I can’t get them released and I’m not their mother. I can’t undo what’s gone on in their lives when they were 16, 17, 18 years old, but I can be a caring spirit in their lives.”

She is also touchable and approachable. The nun remembers a tall and slender young man who used to cope with his mother’s mental illness by smoking marijuana and stealing cars.

“After I listened to his story I asked him what else I could do,” McCabe recalled. “He told me a hug would do and it did. Every time I saw him in the corridor I would give him a hug and the officers allowed it. The memory brings tears to my eyes. Some of these inmates are very good people, they just didn’t start out with a good moral compass.”

While McCabe would not talk about the high level of violence at Rikers Island or the ongoing reform movement undertaken by Ponte and mandated by Mayor Bill de Blasio, she would say she feels safe there.

“Not only does the staff look after me, but the inmates do as well,” she said. “Even if they’re mopping the floor, they go out of their way to make sure I don’t slip.”

The nun is in no hurry to end her time at Rikers Island, either .

“Catholic sisters don’t retire while they’re well,” McCabe said. “I see myself still doing this for another five years, when I’m 80. Besides, I still have a lot of work to do. I think that if they would all be good Catholics and not come back, well, I would have quit years ago.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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