MIAMI — Sister Beth Butler had been in and out of maximum-security prisons for 10 years, since she signed on as a chaplain with the Miami Police Department, where she is affectionately known as the Blue Nun.
The 52-year-old Irish Catholic nun is an associate professor at Barry University and has taught in the criminal justice system for nearly 30 years.
She probably is one of the few Dominican nuns to have handcuffs and a club hanging on her wall. Both belonged to her late father, a Detroit police officer.
Police Part of Her Life
"My relatives were police, my cousins were police. Police have always been a part of my life," she said. "I tell people my mother was a saint and my dad was a policeman, so you put the two together and you get a nun in criminal justice.
"But being a nun is the No. 1 priority. I am a nun first."
Sister Beth is one of eight volunteer chaplains with the Miami Police Department, the only woman among them. She is a trim, brown-haired woman who wears sensible clothes and has an efficient, no-nonsense manner.
Like many others, her order abandoned the long, flowing habits for shorter clothes, then abandoned even that for civilian garb about 15 years ago.
When she joined the chaplaincy corps in August, 1986, the local distillery for Blue Nun wine sent her a congratulatory letter with 12 bottles of wine and a cardboard blue nun that hangs on her office wall.
Like the officers, she had to take a physical exam and undergo a lie test, during which she was asked whether she attended drug parties or indulged in kinky sex. When she took the urinalysis test, she was told that the lab had detected the presence of holy water.
A Sympathetic Ear
Like the other chaplains, she attends funerals and monthly prayer breakfasts with the officers and counsels them and their families in workshops designed to ease stress and prevent divorce.
She offers a sympathetic ear to all of the city's 1,100 officers.
"I do not force myself on the guys. It takes a while for them to open up to you. When morale is low, we ride with the men, in case they want to talk. It makes it a little easier for them. When you ask for an appointment to go see the chaplain, people think, 'Oh, you've got problems.' "
All conversations between the officers and the chaplains are treated with the confidentiality of a confession.
"There is no paperwork. It totally does not leave that car. They can just spill out their guts and know that it stays right there. I don't have to repeat anything. I can't be subpoenaed.
"Wouldn't Oliver North loved to have had me on his side?"
She goes on patrol with the officers once a month and for one month every six months, she is on call 24 hours a day. A beeper summons her to the scene of shoot-outs, drug busts and domestic dramas. She carries no weapons and "when the bullets fly, I wait in the car."
Her first day as a police chaplain took her to the home of a 16-year-old boy who had threatened his family with a broken bottle while high on drugs. She was also called to the home of a city dweller accused of illegally keeping a horse in his yard, and to the scene of a drug shoot-out.
"It hit the fan. I thought to myself, I will die when I see all the blood and gunshots. But it didn't bother me," she said.
"I'm just amazed that they (police officers) can do it day after day. The average person wouldn't see what they see in a lifetime, and they see it in six hours."
The reaction among the officers is varied. Those who grew up attending Catholic schools are familiar with nuns and trade gentle barbs with Sister Beth.
Those whose only exposure to nuns are "the namby pamby, 'yes father, no father,' little nunny types" they see on TV tend to be a bit more reserved, she said.
"They say, 'Oh, gosh, here comes the chaplain. We have to watch our language,' " she said.
That draws a chuckle from Sister Beth, who taught sixth-grade reading and math to convicted felons at a maximum-security prison in Jackson, Mich., for 10 years. She took over for a young teacher who had been beaten and raped.
"I've heard it all," she said, shaking her head. "The police job is nothing compared to that prison."
She later worked as a probation officer, and now teaches prison guards, police officers and probation officers at Barry.
"It is one thing to open a textbook. I say, 'Let me tell you what it's really like.' "
Sister Beth lives with her police-trained Australian shepherd, Murphy, and two cats in a sparsely furnished home that she is looking after until it is sold, an arrangement made by a real estate agent friend. Her home is a way station for visiting nuns and students and lost travelers.
Her brown Datsun with the City of Miami logo was seized from a drug dealer.
In keeping with her vows of chastity, obedience and poverty, she has never married and lives on $4,500 a year.
"Our vows set us free to be of service. I am free to go at anybody's beck and call. If I had a husband, a family, I couldn't. Everything is taken care of with us," she said. "My life is so much fun.