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A death row inmate’s conversion: “It was Catholics who had shown me so much love and kindness”

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 09/02/15

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Hammer 2 cropped

A remarkable odyssey, from Sister Camille D’Arienzo in NCR.

She interviews David Hammer, 56, serving a life sentence without parole in Tucson, AZ:

Sr. Camille: 15 years have gone by since you first contacted me. You were an inmate in Allenwood, Pa., anticipating a January 1999 execution. Your request was for someone to pray for you and for your victim, whom you killed in prison, and to serve as a spiritual guide for the remaining weeks of your life. Unable to find anyone to visit you in the weeks before Christmas, I made arrangements to come myself in the company of the late Fr. Edward Doherty. The date was Dec. 30, 1998. What was that first encounter like for you?Hammer: It was a very profound experience. Even though the visit had been scheduled in advance, I wasn’t at all certain you would actually come. When I was escorted into the visiting area, I saw you and Fr. Ed, introductions were made. From the beginning, it was as if a dam had burst as I let the words and emotions pour out. I’m sure it was a combination of my circumstances, the kindness shown by you both and my need to connect with something larger, that being, to know God and be ready to meet Him. I felt His presence in that room. I didn’t know much about Catholics and nothing about confession, only what I’d seen on television as a youngster. When you stepped out so that I could converse with Fr. Ed alone, my version of a confession followed. I knew that God was listening. …What got you the death penalty? I was sentenced to death for the murder of my cellmate, which occurred on April 13, 1996. I pled guilty to that offense and received that sentence on the recommendation of the jury. My death sentence was imposed on Nov. 4, 1998 and my execution scheduled for Jan. 16, 1999. I had several more execution dates and once came within 48 hours of being executed. …What made you decide to become a Catholic? I wanted to be a part of the religion of the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of Providence. After my first visit with you and Fr. Ed, other Catholics came into my life. One of the most important is Sr. Rita Clare Gerardot, a Sister of Providence from St. Mary of the Woods. It was through you that she learned of me and became a regular visitor. You have often reminded me that, while you live too far away to come often, Sr. Rita Clare is the greatest gift you could give me and I agree. When I realized it was Catholics who had shown me so much love and kindness I wanted to be part of that community. How did that come about? One day Archbishop Daniel Buechlein from Indianapolis was visiting death row. I didn’t know what an archbishop was, other than that he was Catholic. After speaking with him for a few minutes I asked him to confirm me. He said he would be honored to do so. Over the next six months I received instruction and help from several people. My friend, Jeff Paul, was also preparing to be confirmed. Please describe the event. On Oct. 27, 2000, Jeff and I were confirmed by Archbishop Buechlein during a specially arranged ceremony on the death row unit at USP-Terre Haute. It was life changing for me. I could feel God’s presence in that room. The ceremony was attended by you, Sr. Rita Clare, Chaplains Bill Lang and Fr. Frank Roof, an associate warden, the warden’s assistant and three other inmates. Our individual cages were side by side. The blessings, anointing and Eucharist were given through food slot openings on the cage doors. The archbishop conducted a Mass and full ceremony. There was music, prayers, conversation and refreshments. The officers allowed us to have photographs taken and to receive a hug from Sr. Rita Clare and you. It was a most joyful occasion.

Read it all.

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