Diocesan Residents Encounter Christ program celebrates
two decades of reaching out to ‘visit the imprisoned’

By Dave Jolivet
Anchor Editor

DARTMOUTH, Mass. — Of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy, arguably, the most difficult is “Visit the Imprisoned.” There are several reasons for this point of view, not the least of which is that most “people in the pews” don’t have the opportunity to visit those in prison. Others find it a very uncomfortable environment, and still others are afraid. 

Not to say that many faithful Catholics don’t pray for those who are incarcerated, but it takes a unique person to step outside that comfort zone to share their faith and compassion with those who have made some very consequential choices in their lives.

In the Diocese of Fall River, there is a core group of folks with that special something to make sure those often cast aside by society get to feel the love God has for them. The Residents Encounter Christ program members visit diocesan prisons weekly and they periodically offer separate retreats for men and women inmates.

On November 4 the REC ministry will celebrate 20 years of service in the diocese with a Mass of Celebration at St. Julie Billiart Parish in North Dartmouth at 11 a.m., followed by fellowship and light refreshments. The program sends out a warm invitation to the joyous event to “all current and former members of the ministry and their spouses, especially those who were instrumental in its formation, growth and continuing success.”

The foundation for REC was laid slightly more than two decades ago when then-Bishop Sean P. O’Malley, OFM Cap., called upon Sacred Hearts Father Matthew J. Sullivan to serve as chaplain at the House of Correction in Dartmouth.

While Father Sullivan was small in stature, he was a giant among the men and women inmates as well as the staff at the HOC. Through his love of his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and his hard work and dedication to the ministry, the REC program was created. 

Father Sullivan enlisted the very able assistance of several deacons and couples to head up the program, among which were Permanent Deacon Richard J. Murphy, Pat and Mary Ann Breault, Charlie and Ruth Sullivan, and Al and Betty Rivet.

The first men’s retreat, under the direction of Deacon Murphy, was held in February of 1998 with another taking place in June of 1998.

The first women’s retreat was held in September of that year.

“Mary Ann and I were asked by Father Sullivan to help start REC with Al and Betty Rivet and Charlie and Ruth Sullivan,” Pat Breault told The Anchor. “We started our journey by attending REC in Barnstable Prison on the Cape. We started Dartmouth doing men’s and women’s retreats.

“There have been so many blessings being a part of this over the years. There were blessings in the preparation of team, praying for a team and asking for guidance as team was in formation.

“But for me the greatest blessings were working with the men and women who were dedicated to the program and the many inmates who were blessed because of them. The time and the work shows a true love of God.”

Recalling the infancy of the REC program, Charlie Sullivan told The Anchor, “I was asked to go to the Barnstable jail to observe the meeting and get a handle on the program.

“While there I heard a song that for me captured the essence of our journey, regardless of the life circumstances. An elderly man played an ancient guitar and sang:

“‘Holy Spirit You are welcome in this place. Omnipotent Father of mercy and grace You are welcome in this place.’ It continues with welcome in my heart, soul and life.

“This song, with its message of invitation of grace into all of it, has been played and sung at every gathering of this community inside and outside the prison.”

Claire Amiot joined the REC Program shortly after its formation. “I have been involved with REC almost from the beginning,” she told The Anchor. “I was recruited in the fall of 1997 together with others who had lived Cursillo in the diocese to attend an information night. 

“My first retreat was in September 1998. It was REC 3 for the women. I have been involved ever since. With the retreat this October, REC 69, I will have given every talk on the retreat at some time or other.’’ She is also one of the lead musicians at meetings and for retreats. 

“Blessings abound from this ministry,” she continued. “I met some amazing fellow team members who modeled lives of faith for me. Each talk I wrote helped me look at my relationship with myself, others, and God. I went on to further my education and earned a master’s degree in Pastoral Ministry from Providence College and had the blessing of serving in a volunteer lay chaplain’s position for five years — leading Communion services, discussion groups, and visiting one-on-one with inmates.

“The people who have been part of the ministry have all been amazing people of faith who contributed as they felt called and added depth to the work. So many different talents and personalities came together to be family to one another and to the men and women we serve. All have carried the love of God.”

Jeanette Ferri also enlisted her services shortly after REC was formed. “A friend of mine informed me about a ministry being formed at the Dartmouth HOC,” she told The Anchor. “I attended and knew that I wanted to join.

“I have received blessings of friendships with the residents and the team. Our stories are different, but as human beings we are very much alike. I have learned compassion and understanding for residents who have had difficult, insecure, unloving childhoods. I also learned how unfair it is for us to judge others.”

As have other REC family members, Ferri says the blessings she receives are countless. “The REC ministry has been a blessing for me,” she added. “The residents keep thanking us for coming in. It is difficult to express to them the gifts that we receive from what they contribute to our REC meetings.

“With trust and courage they share their stories with us. A lot of their stories are very sad. We hug them when they enter our meetings and when they leave.”

Deacon Douglas Medeiros has been a long-time REC family member. He previously told The Anchor that, “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.”

And the message of Christ’s love for everyone isn’t lost on many of the residents who attend a REC retreat and the follow-up meetings. Deacon Medeiros told The Anchor that a former inmate came back to lead a REC weekend. “A former inmate became a facilitator of a weekend,” he said in an earlier Anchor feature. “That is the first time in our history where we’ve had a former inmate direct the retreat.”

In January of this year, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V. appointed Father Rowland Omuegbu, S.D.V.,  a member of the bishop’s Vocationist order, as a full-time prison chaplain for the Diocese of Fall River.

Father Rowland balances his time between the Barnstable and Dartmouth facilities. 

A native of Nigeria, Father Rowland was ordained in 2000 and spent his first years as a director of vocations. In 2012 Bishop da Cunha asked him to work with him in the Diocese of Newark, N.J., where he got to know the young priest.

Bishop da Cunha was seeking a full-time prison chaplain for the Fall River Diocese and Father Rowland was recommended.

Despite having no prison ministry experience, Father Rowland eagerly accepted and is learning as he goes. “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 told The Anchor earlier. “And I give them the opportunity to be human. So I see that aspect of the residents, 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. I am there to give them a listening ear without judging them.”

The REC family works in partnership with Father Rowland, who carries on the labor of love started two decades ago by Father Sullivan.

Earlier this month Bishop da Cunha celebrated Mass at the women’s facility at the Bristol County HOC helping to mark the 20th year of REC at the facility. The Liturgy celebrated was the Mass of the Lord’s Supper which included the washing of the feet in remembrance of what Jesus did for His Apostles (see photo on this week’s Anchor cover). It was a powerful moment for the residents and the team when Bishop da Cunha washed the feet of some women inmates. It was just one of myriad powerful moments at the two prisons over the last 20 years.

“It is always a special experience celebrating Mass for the inmates,” the bishop told The Anchor. “I find that they have to have a special openness to the Word and the rites, perhaps because of their limited exposure to outside distractions and lack of freedom.

“The Mass I celebrated this time coincided with the conclusion of their REC retreat which is celebrating 20 years of existence in the Diocese of Fall River. What I find most impressive about the REC ministry is how it impacts not only the lives of the inmates, but also the lives of the volunteers who minister to them. These volunteers have remained dedicated and faithful to this ministry all these years because they find joy in serving others and sharing their faith with them. 

“What I see when I go to celebrate with them, is how the inmates are touched by the ministry of those volunteers and how the volunteers experience joy and happiness in being able to bring the Word of God to the inmate population. The volunteers are ministering to the inmates and in many ways they are also ministered to. They receive as much as they give. There is a mutual benefit that takes place in the REC Ministry. I hope more people will discover the grace and value of this ministry and that we will be able to continue offering it for years to come.”

Some of the long-time REC members shared with The Anchor moments that will stay with them forever.

Charlie Sullivan told The Anchor, “During a meeting a man rose from his chair, walked across the room, stood in front of another man and said, ‘I’m sorry I shot you.’ The man stood up and said, ‘I know you are.’ The two embraced as brothers both in tears.”

“One of the first remarkable moments for me was a sharing by a woman who had never spoken at a meeting and this one evening was going to be her last one before leaving the jail,” recalled Amiot. “She shared that the night she was arrested she prayed to die because she couldn’t stand the life anymore and felt so unworthy of living.

“She told us that she knew she had never spoken at a meeting, but had come week after week and our faithfulness of coming week after week made her convinced that she was indeed worth something and she was leaving the facility preparing to live a better life and take care of herself. 

“That was a special moment for me, because in my life at that time I felt that my worth was wrapped into what I could ‘do’ and this woman taught me that showing up and being present was enough.”

Ferri shared, “I have continued writing to a resident from our first retreat. He is now in a federal prison, sentenced to life without parole. He is a good man, despite his serious crime. I would like our prison system to make positive changes regarding balance between punishment and more compassion and understanding for a prisoner who is worthy of returning to society.”

A little more than 20 years ago a tiny priest with a big heart and an even bigger love for God and his brothers and sisters in Christ was asked to reach out to people who many in society shun and condemn.

The largest of conflagrations can start from the tiniest of flames. That tiny flame, in the person of Father Matthew J. Sullivan, ignited the hearts and souls of countless lay faithful, and even more importantly, the hearts and souls of countless incarcerated men and women to be open to the love God and forgiveness God has for them — unconditionally.

Father Sullivan died in 2002, but the legacy he started in the late 1990s still burns brightly today.

In 2000, Father Sullivan, shortly after he retired from prison ministry, was honored by the Bristol County Sheriff’s Department at a dinner at White’s in Westport with more than 300 people in attendance.

“Father Sullivan was more than a chaplain to the inmates,” said Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. “He was a friend and confidant to everyone at the Sheriff’s Office. Staff members at every level love this man of God who was comfortable being a man of the people.”

Hodgson continued, “Who among us has watched this humble priest whisper forgiveness to a criminal through the bars of a cell at Ash Street and not felt the presence of Christ the Priest? Who has heard Father Sullivan’s compassionate message at a thousand Masses and not felt inspired and closer to God? Who has watched this tiny man hug a hulking and sobbing inmate and not felt that they were at a sneak peak preview of the Last Judgment?”

The little big man is no longer gracing the cells of area houses of correction, but the love and compassion he once brought to countless inmates continues to be shared through the hearts of a dedicated group of faithful men and women, many of whom walked the walk with Father Sullivan for years.

Amiot told The Anchor, “If a person is considering becoming part of the REC Program they should speak with someone on the team already who would become their sponsor. They could come to a meeting to see if they feel called to the work. They should pray and discern whether the Holy Spirit is the Initiator of the desire.”

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts