Project Description

Stephanie Cassatly’s mother was murdered in a convenience-store-robbery in New Orleans in 1980.

The impetus to learn about my mother’s killer came from a virtual stranger. My husband and I were attending a meeting at a church when the head of a prison ministry stood up and spoke about his work at a local men’s prison. I couldn’t help but secretly characterize him as a holy roller as he paced back and forth, carrying his small worn Bible and speaking of the positive impact forgiveness could have on prisoners’ lives.

While I believed that forgiveness was generally a good thing, I had never considered forgiving the man who killed my mother.

That brand of forgiveness was for extremists who went on Oprah.

In fact, I strongly supported the death penalty, silently bitter that my mother’s killer had only received a life sentence.

After all, he had put her through hell. He’d held her at gunpoint while she gave him all of the money from the register and then, backing out of the store, fired a shot that hit her in the chest. She died within minutes in the arms of a co-worker.

Two days later, her killer was apprehended, driving a stolen car. He was sentenced to life without parole at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. I was a freshman at College in Georgia, brought home for the funeral, half out of my mind and deep in shock.

Now, years later, the prison minister had tapped a deep vein. I began to wonder, could I ever forgive the man who had irrevocably changed the course of my life? Having been spared the horror of the trial, I now wanted to know about this person who had killed my mother, so I researched the crime like it was a job assignment. I placed all my notes into a special folder, slowly developing a detailed mental profile of my mother’s killer, Nathan Wolfe.

All the while, I continued to be confused about this question of forgiveness, until one afternoon when I was casually leafing through my folder and a piece of paper fell out. It was the telephone number of the chaplain’s office at Angola State Penitentiary. I decided to dial the number.

The phone was answered by Father Damereaux who asked me how he could help. I told him that I was trying very hard to find a way to forgive the man who killed my mother. “I also want to find out what happened that night and whether he feels any remorse,” I said. “Does it make a difference if he feels remorse?”, asked Father Damereaux.

I really didn’t know the answer to this. It would obviously be so much easier to forgive someone who showed remorse, but somehow I felt that shouldn’t drive my decision.

Father Damereaux offered to serve as a mediator and suggested he could personally deliver a message from me. He asked me to tell him exactly what to say. I thought for a second and then with a sudden burst of unexpected clarity, I said, “Please tell him the daughter of the woman he killed in 1980 wishes to forgive him and would like to know if he has anything to say in return?”

Father Damereaux said he’d need a week to get the message to Nathan and asked me to call him the following Friday. When I hung up the phone I felt desperate, totally unsure of what I’d done. What if he was released and came after my family? What if I wasn’t really ready to forgive?

The following Friday I called Father Damereaux. He described how, after locating Nathan in Camp A, a minimum-security area, he’d gone to see him to deliver my message. “As you might imagine, after twenty years he was very taken aback…in fact he was speechless,” said Father Damereaux. “After a few moments, he said he needed time to think about it, so I told him I’d be back in a few days.”

Father Damereaux then explained how the following Wednesday he’d gone to Camp A to give his usual service when he saw Nathan sitting at the back of the room. “After I finished, we spoke,” he said. “But before I tell you what he said, I need to tell you that Nathan is dying. I believe he has cancer.”

Of all the scenarios I’d imagined, it never crossed my mind that I’d be forgiving a dying man. Trembling, the tears streamed down my cheeks and I realized for the first time since 1980, I felt at peace. I had nothing left to fear.

“Nathan wishes me to convey how grateful he is for your forgiveness,” continued Father Damereaux. “He said he’s turning his life over to God and preparing for the end. He also asked me to tell you how deeply sorry he is for what he did. He said that he could never make an excuse for it, but that it was a very bad time in his life, that he never intended to kill anyone, that he was out of his mind on drugs. He asked you to convey his deepest regrets to the rest of your family.”

I thanked Father Damereaux and hung up. Sitting at my desk, tears of relief, sadness, gratitude and closure began to flow. Then, as if a window had been opened, a cold air blew in and I felt my mother sitting next to me for the first time since she died. She was right next to me, with her arms wrapped around me.

Two days after Christmas, a thin white envelope with blue lettering arrived from Angola State Penitentiary. It read,

Notice of Release

            Pursuant of Department regulation, this office is required to notify you of Nathan Wolfe’s release. He expired on December 23, 2000.

I stood, holding the letter to my chest, thinking about the word “release”. We both had been set free. So many years of grieving my mother. How strange now to grieve her killer, for the life he never had, the bad choices he made and the love he probably never felt.

Since then, Stephanie has become a wife, mother, professor, speaker and writer. Much of her work is centered on grief, healing and the possibility of forgiveness: