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Archives Ministering to the imprisoned

Sept. 4, 2019

By Darcy Fargo

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him and say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” And the king will say to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” – Matthew 25:35-40

Heeding the Lord’s call, priests, deacons and lay ministers from around the diocese are visiting and ministeringPrison Ministry to the imprisoned as prison chaplains.

“Not too many people want to step behind those clanking doors to help those who are incarcerated,” said Tamra Murphy, prison chaplain at Altona Correctional Facility and the first female prison chaplain in the diocese. “In a lot of ways, inmates are pushed aside and looked down upon for what they’ve done in their pasts. When they walk through the chapel doors, they’re no longer inmates and their crimes no longer matter. They’re children of God, and that’s how I try to treat them. To have someone who looks at them as human and not just as felons gives them hope and a bit of self-esteem.”

In addition to administering or arranging for the sacraments, prison chaplains have a variety of ways they serve the inmate population, but they need to coordinate the needs of their ministry with the regulations and protocols established by the state and the facilities where they serve.

“Sometimes the state requirements and what I’d like to do with my ministry clash,” said Don Wilder, chaplain at the correctional facilities in Watertown and Cape Vincent. “When I first accepted this position, I thought I’d be having a communion service every day for Catholic inmates. It turned out, I get one and a half hours per week.”
Outside that hour and a half, the chaplains coordinate inmate participation in faith-based activities of all faiths and denominations.

“We’re the staff advisors for Muslims, Rastafarians, Native Americans, the Jewish population, Nations of Gods and Earths,” said Deacon Lawrence “Larry” Morse, chaplain at Ogdensburg Correctional Facility and Gouverneur Correctional Facility. “Those are the most prominent faiths in the facilities.”

“We also have a couple who practice Wicca or Jedi-ism,” added Wilder.

In addition, the chaplains make rounds in the facilities’ special housing units, for inmates who need more secure environments due to either behaviors or risk factors, as well as medical units and general population housing units.

“It’s about making connections,” said Deacon Bryan Bashaw, chaplain at Franklin Correctional Facility in Malone. “It’s an opportunity for inmates to approach you. Maybe they have a question about faith or the Bible. Maybe it’s completely unrelated.”

“Sometimes they want to talk about something personal,” added Deacon Morse. “Sometimes they want me to call the (correction officers) to make an appointment to come see me.”

The chaplains said they often help inmates process difficult situations.

“Once you establish connections, it doesn’t matter what faith or who you are, (the inmates) have the trust to come talk to you about anything,” said Wilder. “You’re the one person they can open up to about anything – what’s bothering them or what’s hurting them. If they lose a family member on the outside, we get to help them deal with it and support them. In fact, that’s one of the most rewarding things I do as a chaplain.”

“We’re also there to help the staff,” added Murphy. “Sometimes, they need someone to talk to, or have a question about faith, too.”

Father Alan J. Lamica, chaplain at Altona, Franklin, Bare Hill and Upstate correctional facilities, said he also finds saying Mass in the facilities to be a rewarding experience.

“It’s a very diverse group,” he said. “There are a lot of nationalities represented. And everyone who is there wants to be there, and they participate.”

When asked how the faithful can support the prison chaplains in their ministry, the chaplains had several suggestions.

“Pray for the inmates and staff,” said Murphy. “And pray for us.”

“Consider volunteering and supporting your local chaplain,” added Deacon Bashaw. “Of course, there’s no money in volunteering, but the rewards of helping someone is more fulfilling than any paycheck.”

“We can always use things like Bibles and Rosaries,” said Deacon Morse. “The state doesn’t provide those.”
“And we can use liturgical items, if a parish has surplus or if a church is closing,” added Murphy.

Deacon Bashaw also noted that a number of the existing chaplains are nearing retirement age.

“We’ll need people to take our places,” he said.

To donate to the prison ministry, contact Deacon James Crowley, chancellor, at 315-393-2920 or jcrowley@rcdony.org.

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