‘You are not forgotten about’

Behind bars, a cardinal’s quiet prison ministry

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By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / December 26, 2010

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FRAMINGHAM — Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley was just out of seminary when his friary sent him to serve as chaplain at the Butler, Pa., county prison. His first task was to preach to the inmates, but he had never given a sermon before, much less to such a tough crowd. He consulted his preaching textbook, which advised: “Speak into the horizons of your congregation.’’

Inspired, O’Malley gave a lively account of the Bible’s great escape stories: Daniel and the lion’s den, St. Paul escaping over the walls of Damascus in a basket, St. Peter in chains. The inmates listened, rapt.

“The problem was, that night, several prisoners escaped from the prison,’’ O’Malley said with a laugh during a recent interview. “And I was afraid my first sermon was going to be my last. The superior was very unhappy.’’

O’Malley went on to become a well-regarded homilist; in a quieter way, he has also continued ministering to prisoners. He spent two years as chaplain at the Butler lockup. Later, as bishop of the US Virgin Islands, he sent chaplains to the local prison, and as bishop in Fall River he helped expand religious “retreats’’ led by lay Catholics inside the local prison. Even now, amid a schedule that includes international responsibilities as well as local concerns, he visits a prison or jail every other month.

“My presence there is a signal to them that they are not forgotten, that they are important to the church, that they are part of our family, and this is why we want to be present to them,’’ O’Malley said.

Last week, during a visit to MCI-Framingham, a women’s prison with 650 to 700 inmates, the cardinal pulled his white cassock and purple chasuble over his brown habit and said Mass for about 100 inmates in the prison’s chapel. With its hardwood floors, tall ceilings, and airy light, the room could have easily been mistaken for a college lecture hall — but for the metal grates over the windows. The women sat on wooden pews, dressed in green sweatshirts and denim jackets, jeans, and laceless white sneakers. A couple of Labrador retriever puppies in the prison’s service dog training program lounged quietly beneath the pews.

“Peace be with you,’’ he said.

“And also with you,’’ the women replied.

O’Malley’s prison visits have occasionally included clergy convicted of the sexual abuse of children and, once, Joseph Druce, the prisoner who strangled John Geoghan, a dismissed priest and convicted child molester who had been accused of sexually abusing more than 100 children. O’Malley called Druce “a pathetically sick man.’’

“It was quite obvious that this man was not fully responsible for the crimes that he had committed,’’ he said. He paused a moment when asked what he says to a person like Druce. “I try to talk to people about God’s mercy.’’

In meetings with criminals, he said, he trains his thoughts on “the person, rather than what they’ve done.’’

“It’s not my role,’’ he said, “to become involved in judging them or deciding what an appropriate punishment is, but to try and salvage their humanity, and to lead them on a path that will perhaps be one of conversion and of repentance for the evil that they’ve done — and a sense of hope that life still has something to offer them.’’

Catholics see prison ministry as an important work of mercy, O’Malley said, one that Jesus speaks about in the Gospel of Matthew: “I was naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.’’

The cardinal’s visits punctuate the routine work of hundreds of committed Catholic lay volunteers, priests, and nuns who work inside the nearly two dozen correctional facilities within the Archdiocese of Boston.

At the Framingham prison, the Catholic chaplain, Sister Maureen Clark, and a cadre of volunteers provide music for weekly Masses said by volunteer priests, organize religious retreats, and help the women reintegrate into society upon release. They also run an intensive program that attempts to help inmates explore underlying problems that might have contributed to their incarceration, and another program called “Read to Me, Mommy,’’ which sends inmates’ children videos of their mothers reading storybooks.

Lauren Bizzotto — a 30-year-old inmate who like three-quarters of the women at Framingham is recovering from addiction — said the Catholic-run programs have “really given me a whole new perspective on how to live my life.’’

“When I came in I was groping, I was homeless, I was sick,’’ she said. “And today I wake up and I thank God for another day clean and sober, I pray for my friends, and I live for happiness.’’

She and Rebecca Tolisano, 31, another inmate, were both raised Catholic, but they drifted away from the church. Tolisano said she used to pray “generic prayers, kind of, ‘Get me out of this jam,’ ’’ she said. That has changed in prison, where she has had a great deal of time to focus, she said. “I have actually built a relationship with God.’’

O’Malley began his visit to the Framingham prison last week with a brief meeting in a prison classroom with Bizzotto, Tolisano, and Valeda Talamini, 39.

“We look forward to the day when you are all reunited with your loved ones,’’ O’Malley told them in his rumbling bass, as the women wiped away tears.

“It’s a blessing. It’s an honor. I certainly wasn’t expecting this, being in state prison,’’ Tolisano said. “It just brings hope that we are not forgotten about.’’

“You are not forgotten about.’’

Prison officials would not let a reporter accompany O’Malley to solitary confinement. He said that his exchanges with the prisoners there tend to be simple, “just sort of a human exchange.’’

“Sometimes they may have a question or ask for a prayer for one of their relatives,’’ he said. He added, with a laugh, “Some of them might want to tell me that I confirmed them or something like that. . . . Or as one woman told me, she used to be my waitress at Victoria’s Diner.’’

He added that he often catches unexpected “glimpses of humanity and virtue’’ in even the most hardened prisoners.

“Sometimes seeing the generosity and the kindness of some of the prisoners working as volunteers in the programs we have there is . . . inspiring. Or,’’ he said with a chuckle, “to go to some of these Masses where the singing is actually much better than in some of the parishes.’’

O’Malley said his experience in prisons has caused him to think about how class can affect justice. He is a proponent of drug courts and rehabilitation programs, which he says can keep people out of prison and help prevent recidivism.

“Some people are in prison because they’re poor, ’’ he said. “I used to see situations where two young men would go out and get in trouble, and the one who was the son of an unwed mother who was on welfare went to prison. And the one who was the son of the insurance executive had a fine lawyer, and would get a slap on the wrist and be right back in his nice suburban home.’’

After visiting with prisoners unable to come to Mass, O’Malley made his way to the chapel, where he celebrated the sacraments of Communion and, for two of the inmates, confirmation. Many of the women sitting in the pews appeared to know the liturgy by heart. Some appeared downcast, their shoulders slumped; others seemed uplifted by the prayers and the singing.

O’Malley preached about how God helps people to discern what is truly good, rather than superficially appealing, and about the importance of remembering the Sabbath — allowing time and space for becoming more aware of God’s presence.

When it came time for intentions — the point in the service where the congregation was invited to mention specific prayers — the women offered a protracted outpouring of agony.

“I’d like to say a prayer for my mother, who is terminally ill, and for my sister, who is still in active addiction.’’

“I’d like to pray for our children, who are home without us.’’

“I’d like to say a prayer for my future daughter-in-law, who has breast cancer, and for all of those who are separated from their loved ones.’’

But there was also this, from a woman sitting in one of the last rows: “I’d like to pray for the future,’’ she said. “May it bring us joy and happiness.’’

As the inmates filed out of the chapel, O’Malley shook hands with each of them.

“Merry Christmas,’’ he said.

Tolisano was smiling. “What a gift,’’ she said.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at