New prison chaplain sees ministry as ‘expression of mercy’

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

WAREHAM, Mass. — If you ask Father Rowland Omuegbu, S.D.V., the new full-time prison chaplain serving the Fall River Diocese, prison ministry work is an expression of “the mercy of the Church.”


“I will tell you that the Church shows that mercy by having prison ministry, because if we see them as people who deserve no mercy, then no minister should go to them,” Father Rowland recently told The Anchor. “And for individuals, in their heart, I pray that they will also find the mercy to forgive them.”

Father Rowland, who first arrived in the diocese in December but officially began his work in January, was appointed by Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., as the first full-time priest devoted to prison ministry work in some time.

Since arriving here, he has been dividing his time between the Barnstable Correctional Facility in Buzzards Bay and the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth, and also filling in as part-time chaplain at Cape Cod Hospital.

“It’s a new ministry for now, so a lot of things are still in discussions,” Father Rowland shared during a meeting in the rectory of St. Patrick’s Parish in Wareham, where he resides most of the week. “I’m a tenant in this parish, and also at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Hyannis, where I stay two days a week. Because if you’re not assigned in a parish, you are just like a resident.”

A native of Nigeria who was ordained there eight years ago, Father Rowland probably never expected to be appointed prison chaplain for the Fall River Diocese when he first met his fellow Vocationist, Bishop da Cunha, during a stint at St. Michael’s Parish in Newark, N.J. in 2012.

“For the first two years (after ordination), I worked in the formation house as the director of vocations,” Father Rowland said. “Then I was asked to come to the U.S. in 2012. I was assigned to the parish in Newark, and Bishop Edgar was living a few blocks away in a property belonging to the diocese. That was the first time I got to know him. From Newark I moved to the south and worked as a chaplain in a hospital for three years. Then I moved to Vermont, then back to New Jersey. Bishop Edgar had been made bishop here and asked a superior for someone to help in the prison ministry, because he wanted someone full-time, so they asked me.”

Even though Father Rowland had no prior experience with prison ministry work and he readily admitted it wasn’t something he felt drawn to do, he thought about it and prayed over it and decided to “give it a try.”

“The bishop has been very supportive and he often calls and emails to ask how my experience is and he’s been very willing to give me whatever I need to make the ministry work,” Father Rowland said. “So I am working and learning ... and the officers there are also learning what it means to accommodate a priest. So it is a whole new thing. I struggled with it at first, because it is my personal view that people think it is a bit like (Pope Francis). But when the pope is going to a prison it is very different from when I am going into a prison.”

Father Rowland said the Holy Father will visit a prison with an entourage of security and media in tow and there’s usually never any impending danger involved. But he typically goes to visit inmates one-on-one and is often alone with them, which was a bit unsettling at first.

“I’m there by myself,” he said. “It is these individuals and myself, and I have no radio to call — that’s just the reality of it. I know that the officers are watching and they try to make you feel safe, but it is an environment that evokes that fear — whether you like it or not.”

Now a few months into his tenure, Father Rowland has adjusted to the work and said he makes up his mind every morning to go there, knowing full well the possibility that “anything could go wrong at any moment.”

“And when I get in there, I see those who want to speak to me or with me or want me to pray for them or who need anything that a priest can help with ... or even just to listen,” he said. “And I give them the opportunity to be human. So I see that aspect of them, the humanity in them. I see them cry, I see them regret the things they have done, the choices they have made in the past, and they make promises to themselves.”

Sadly, many of those incarcerated have spouses and children at home, and they often will talk about their families and share that they “worry so much about the impression that it gives.”

“I am there to give them a listening ear without judging them,” Father Rowland said. “I have never had any discussions with any of them about what crime they committed. I just go in there and ask: ‘How are you today?’ It’s a ministry of presence — just being there for them.”

Although his ministry involves administering the Sacraments, including hearing Confessions and celebrating four weekend Masses — one for each of the male and female inmates, and two more for those being detained by immigration services on the Barnstable campus — Father Rowland said some prisoners aren’t even Catholic.

“They just want a religious leader, a religious figure whom they can trust and speak to,” he said. “So it’s been positive because at the end of my encounter, it has taught me so much.”

Father Rowland recalled being moved during a recent Sunday Liturgy when he asked the inmates what they wanted most from God.

“All of them mentioned forgiveness,” he said. “It was moving, it was powerful.”

Despite their own predicament, Father Rowland said most of the time the inmates will be thinking about others.

“They will even pray for people outside,” he said. “When they follow the news, they will often pray for people who may be hurt, or maybe those who are going through experiences outside, or maybe relatives who are going for surgery. That is an aspect that touches me so much. Most of them will tell you that their relatives have forgotten them, that nobody wants to connect with them — but you’ll see them praying for people on the outside.”

While he has encountered prisoners with no religious interest or affiliation, Father Rowland said he is often surprised by the level of devotion and faith in others.

“Some of them will tell you that they abandoned God for a long time; only to come to prison to meet Him again,” he said. “I have a poem written by an inmate that he gave as a gift to the ministry and I wish that people could read it. It’s such an amazing write-up because he’s been in prison — in and out, in and out — and he’s writing about Jesus as his friend who never makes parole. He’s always there in the prison, and when he goes out to mess up again and he comes back, he’ll get to meet Him again.”

Ironically enough, Father Rowland noted that many of the hardened inmates refuse to speak about God or religion outside the walls of the prison.

“I think it’s because we’ve removed the Bibles from schools and we’ve removed religion and any moral teaching from our formation,” he said. “But the only thing I’m allowed take into the prison with me is the Bible. So they may have abandoned God outside, only to find Him inside.”

Prior to his arrival, in recent years most of the prison ministry in the diocese was done by deacons and a dedicated group of part-time volunteers under the Residents Encountering Christ (REC) program, and Father Rowland said they will continue to support and assist each other.

“The REC ministers, they are all wonderful people who devote their time to go there every Monday evening and every Tuesday evening — even if it is on Christmas, even if it is on a holiday,” Father Rowland said. “They give up their own time to make sure that they have that two hours. So they have been doing that.

“I do attend their meetings with the residents, because it is a way of encouraging them. And they are so happy when they see me because I let them know that the bishop is aware that they do this for the Church. So my presence is that connection between this ministry and the Church.”

As a new transplant to Cape Cod and the Fall River Diocese, Father Rowland is finally settling in and looking forward to a busy season — although he is a bit concerned about the threat of summertime “Cape traffic.”

“I spend a long time driving from here to the prison,” he said. “I’m always driving back and forth because I have no office in the prison — I am just a contractual worker. So what I do is I come in only when I am allotted time to be there. So if it is 30 minutes, after 30 minutes I have to drive back here, and sometimes after one hour I have to go back again. So sometimes I will be on that road for six (trips) in one day.”

But he remains optimistic that the ministry is well worth the time and effort.

“Guilt does not preclude human rights — no matter how guilty someone is, they still have human rights,” Father Rowland said. “And if you go to visit them, it doesn’t mean you are approving of what they’ve done.”

To that end, Father Rowland recounted a young inmate’s story about his mom coming to visit.

“He wanted to get out so quickly, and she told him, ‘you know, why not wait? Because I think God wants you to use this opportunity to fix yourself before you come out,’” he said. “And he was so happy to hear that from his mom. The mom said she didn’t support what he did, but she promised to visit him all the time. So abandoning them and saying: ‘no, I disconnect’ doesn’t help because if one day they get out, they come out and into an environment where they feel that everybody rejected them, and that can make them relapse and fall back into their old ways.”

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