Diocesan prison ministry causing a ‘chain reaction’

By Becky Aubut
Anchor Staff

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FAIRHAVEN, Mass. — Volunteers for the prison ministry program of the Fall River Diocese have been visiting the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth for almost 20 years, spending multiple weekends during the year on separate Residents Encountering Christ retreats for men and women inmates, and visiting weekly for follow-up meetings.

Passing more than 60 retreats at this point, longtime prison ministry volunteer and Spiritual director from St. Joseph’s Parish in Fairhaven, Deacon Douglas Medeiros said that the recent men’s retreat “was just unbelievable. I would say our retreats have just gotten better and better. The retreats are based on the Paschal Mystery, so Friday night is about dying, Saturday is about rising and Sunday is about Christ coming again into our lives. The talks are focused around those themes.”

This past men’s retreat also had a first for the program — a former inmate as a facilitator of the retreat “and that is the first time in our history where we’ve had a former inmate direct the retreat,” said Deacon Medeiros. 

The program currently has two former inmates on team and during Deacon Medeiros’ past 10 years in the program, there’s never been any former inmates on team: “They are just incredibly powerful examples of what can happen when you let your faith be so part of your life, and you practice it,” he said.

“In the back of my head, growing up, I always wanted to be a pen pal to a person who was an inmate — I always had that little leaning there,” said Sister Marianna Sylvester, R.S.M., a member of Our Lady of Assumption Parish in New Bedford who has been involved in prison ministry for the past 18 years. “When I was asked to participate, I was still hesitant. What I discovered and what I had read is, you meet Jesus in the poor. If you want to have a relationship with Jesus, you need to be with the poor. I feel really, really appreciative of that because it’s absolutely the truth.

“You learn more about yourself, and your own relationship with God, being in the midst of this group of people who are beautiful human beings and who, from day one, were loved by God but somewhere along the line they got a different message from the people around them, and didn’t have a chance.”

The group meets Mondays with the women, and Tuesdays with the men, from 7-9 p.m. Each meeting begins with a “hug line,” often the only loving physical interaction the inmates experience during the week. Then the group sits down and lays out the rules and guidelines: confidentiality, one person talks at a time and to listen to one another. 

Singing is a huge part of the meetings “and they love it,” said Sister Sylvester. “They have this respite to be away from the confusion and the noise, and the negativity. They just look forward, from week-to-week, and they can’t thank us enough because they think they’re the scum of the earth, and we think they are beautiful people.”

Meetings also offer intercessory prayer, Scripture, and then sharing through group talks. Many inmates talk about how they’ve changed, said Sister Sylvester, while others touch base in a supportive way; if someone is being let out, the individual is prayed over by the group and blessed.

“They do change,” said Sister Sylvester. “They become less angry, more accepting, the family begins to see changes — it is amazing. You do see the fruits of being in community.”

Joseph Martino was coming out of Mass at St. John Neumann’s Parish in East Freetown about seven years ago when he was approached by the parish’s deacon and asked if he wanted to join the prison ministry.

“My wife had just gone through the RCIA and it rekindled my faith; I learned so much about it. I was open to saying yes,” said Martino. “I never had thought about people in prison, it wasn’t anything I was pursuing. I remember thinking before I went in — I had to go through a CORI process and training process — I thought I’d go in there and tell them about the way I try to live, and give them examples about how they can be successful in different things. That was my mindset going in.”

When a new person joins the prison ministry, their first introduction into the program after training is to attend a retreat. Martino said seeing the inmates sing, bear witness, participate in adoration and embrace a true appreciation of their faith overwhelmed him.

“I went in thinking that I would share examples of my life and I was completely blown away by the honesty that they shared, the compassion that they had for one another, the humbleness they displayed, the appreciation of their faith, the depth of their faith; it was jaw-dropping, and I realized I was onto something that was intensely close to where Christ is, and where His meaning is, and what He wants. I was just completely amazed, and I knew it was something I wanted to do,” said Martino.

About four years ago, Martino was asked to direct a retreat and he wanted to do something special, so he tapped into his creative side.

“It’s a learning process you go through,” said Martino, “and in preparation for this, I wanted to do something unique to show the respect and intensity of what we were doing. The main focus of the retreat was ‘breaking chains’ that repeat these people from falling into these traps in his or her life, and it affects their children and their children’s children.”

Martino got the idea of taking two pieces of chain and fastening them together into a cross to make a pendant for a necklace. It was a chance to “take something that is such a negative symbol, of being chained, and transform it into a symbol of love,” said Martino. “I obviously couldn’t give these to the inmates, but I could give them to everybody who helped me on the retreat.”

He was able to get a friend who was a machinist to help him fashion the two pieces of chain together. While Martino admits he’s “creative,” the mechanics of putting the chains together was a steep learning curve while working in the basement of his home: “We made two good ones out of every three or four; we created the way to do it,” he said, but the hard work and determination paid off when Martino presented the finished necklaces to the team during a meeting. They were in “awe.”

His display during the meeting held signs like “poverty and addiction” alongside the necklaces with the idea of promoting “breaking the chains” of these issues. He had his team members select a cross. After the retreat, Martino said he wanted to continue to share the message and “that we all have chains we need to break, and that God’s love transforms everybody.”

He consulted a lawyer about trademark and configuration of the cross to protect the image, and has been selling them at St. John Neumann’s Parish, at St. Julie’s Parish in North Dartmouth, Heritage House in Brockton, the Lighthouse Christian Bookstore in North Dartmouth, and he’s hoping to get into the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro. 

He also offers necklaces for different Catholic schools as a fund raiser, using the school’s colors, unique packaging and a message for its students, “and this way the students could give a student a scholarship, like an incoming freshman.” His full inventory is can be found and ordered online: www.ChainCrossing.com.

All proceeds go directly to the Faith Formation programs of the parishes that sell them, or other charities like the Jimmy Fund for cancer, food banks, “or whomever,” said Martino. “All I do is cover the costs [of materials], I’m not looking to make money on this. I’m just trying to get this message out.”

Martino now has the chains made in a small machine shop in Rhode Island, making it more economical. He uses a smaller chain and now “it’s compressed for an uplifting image,” he said. “It’s strong, it’s not welded, and it’s compressed together. I have them coated in different coatings. I created the artwork and different messages. I have done it all from the ground up.”

Sister Sylvester recently ran into a former inmate, who pulled her aside and shared with her that he was attending Bristol Community College, had an apartment and was back on track with his life. Having former inmates on team offers additional motivation for incarnated inmates, said Deacon Medeiros, who can see a former inmate who had lost so much but “that it didn’t stop him from putting his life together.”

“I’ve been a deacon for a long time and I don’t think there’s anything more important than this work,” he said. “A lot of the people who we’re working with don’t have anybody else. We’ll go in for a [weekly] meeting and they’ll tell us that we’re their only visit; they’ve burned bridges with family and with friends, or they just don’t have anybody [local]. 

“To know that people need us to be there; Christ said that’s what we’re supposed to do, visit the imprisoned, to visit the sick, take care of the orphans and the widows — those are some of the most important things He said. When you do that work, you recognize Christ in these people who have forgotten themselves.”

And when you run into the former inmates on the outside and they’re just beaming, you feel a sense of warmth and joy that this little thing, giving up a couple hours a week and giving up a weekend every few months, have an impact in someone’s life, said Deacon Medeiros.

“The priests who come in and work with us are just so kind and gentle to the men and women, it’s incredible,” he added, sharing a story of an inmate who was suffering from cancer on a retreat. In tremendous pain, the inmate kept coming each day and doing his work in the chapel, and after Mass the priest helping during the retreat was asked to pray over him. It turned out that the priest had brought his oils, and was able to perform the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

“Team members and inmates alike were extended healing hands,” recalled Deacon Medeiros. 

Though there are restrictions and rules to follow in the jail, Deacon Medeiros admits it doesn’t even feel like the group is in jail and surrounded by inmates during retreats or at meetings. An inmate shared during a weekly meeting that he had never felt as much love as he feels during the meetings. 

“They’re always trying to thank us and we tell them it’s a two-way street, that when you give, you receive,” said Deacon Medeiros. “It’s not what people think. When I talk about doing prison ministry, people [think] it must be hard. I say, not at all. The hardest part is getting my butt out of my house at 6:30 in the evening after I’ve worked all day. When you get there, it all goes away. You think how could you question and want to sit home, watch TV and miss this? I don’t know how I thought that 50 minutes ago. It’s having that sense going there makes a difference. It’s what we’re called to do.”

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