The Catholic Commentator  

“A maximum security prison does not seem like the most ideal place to learn about God, but it turned out to be filled with love, kindness and a heart-warming experience I will remember forever,” said Bryanne Pierce, a confirmation candidate from St. John the Baptist Church in Brusly. Pierce is part of the growing number of church parish confirmation groups in the Diocese of Baton Rouge visiting Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola each year for a retreat and discovering with wide-eye surprise God’s love and grace is everywhere.  

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St. John the Baptist youth recently made a confirmation retreat at Angola. Gathered together before the retreat, are,  from left, clockwise, Hailie Tuminello, Sydnie Luke, Brooke Bourgoyne, Kristen Conner, Daniel Babin and Saylor Young.  Photo provided by June Hebert 

 

“In Angola, there are prisoners who have committed murder, robbery and other major crimes,” said Babin. “You go in with the mindset that these people are cruel and don’t deserve redemption, but as I was hearing the prisoners bravely tell me the crimes committed and how they found their way to be not only trustees, but men of God, I realized that God’s intended version of someone is often brought out through second chances and learning from their past mistakes. The surrealness of the person allowed me to face a reality that God can be found in any darkness and strengthen you, even in your greatest weakness.”  

St. John’s first Angola retreat on July 22  said June Hebert, director of religious education at St. John.  

“When looking for a new venue for our confirmation retreat, the Holy Spirit led me to explore the option of participating in the Angola State Penitentiary Retreat,” said Hebert. “I had heard how it impacted the candidates in several of our surrounding church parishes. I must admit I was somewhat skeptical and a little afraid of going to a maximum-security prison myself, much less taking a group of high school juniors. After meeting with Pat Chidester at St. George Church (in Baton Rouge), she alleviated many of my concerns. She did say it was a retreat that the young adults would never forget and she was right.”  

St. John pastor Father Matt Lorrain said, “The retreat started with a visit to the hospice unit where we heard talks from two inmates who volunteer to help care for the dying. They set the tone for the retreat by talking about their faith and the joy they receive from caring for the sick and dying. They also make quilts that they sell to raise money to support their ministry.”  

Hebert noted, “These men spoke with gentle voices filled with compassion, concern and love for those in their care. We watched a short video of their ministry and listened to two beautiful songs sung by one of the trustees. It brought tears to my eyes. We visited the death chamber where we prayed for those who lost their lives there. This was so powerful I have no words to describe it.”  

The group also visited the Red Hat Cellblock, which was used at one time to confine the most dangerous and violent prisoners and has a replica of an electric chair. They toured the entire property and ended up at St. Augustine Chapel, where they ate lunch and had their retreat.  

“The trustees who facilitated our retreat were so honest and humble in sharing the stories of their past crimes and their faith journeys while in prison,” said Hebert. “Several were ‘cradle Catholics’ who practiced the faith in their youth and strayed away from the church while other trustees were converts to the faith who participated in the RCIA process while in prison.  

“It was truly apparent these men were filled with the Spirit as they raised their voices in song and prayer with us. They are a true testament to the loving mercy of our God who is always ready to forgive and welcome us back.”  

The retreat ended with Father Lorrain celebrating Mass.  

“I thought the retreat was very successful,” Father Lorrain said. “I like the idea of traveling off campus for a retreat so we can leave the familiar behind and see God’s love in a new light. Traveling to Angola helped to remind us that God’s love can be found everywhere, even in the most unlikely of places. If the Catholic inmates can practice their Catholic faith in that setting, then how much more can we witness to the activity of the Holy Spirit in our own daily lives. Holding the retreat at the prison gave our 11th graders the opportunity to practice one of the works of mercy even as they were preparing for their confirmation. It was obvious that the inmates also enjoyed the visit of so many young Catholics. I would recommend the retreat to other parishes looking to enhance their confirmation preparation.”  

Jay Jackson, chaplain at Angola who also organizes the retreats, said the retreats “drive home” the importance for Catholics of learning social justice teachings and practicing the works of mercy.  

Visiting the death chamber leaves a strong impression on the youth, he said. 

“It gives them the reality of the room and how it is set up and how the operations are set up,” said Jackson. “It gives them a ‘first-hand’ experience of where the execution is carried out.”  

He said the inmates facilitating the retreat are the “cream of the crop,” and some have received advanced degrees from the Loyola Institute for Ministry. They have also given retreats for Jesuit novices and deaconate formation classes.  

He said the inmates are glad to do “something good” for the youth.  

“I refer to this as a ‘win-win day,’ ” Jackson said.  

He said the number of church parishes participating has grown over the past 15 years from the first one organized by Audrey Gipson for youth from St. Alphonsus Church in Greenwell Springs to 20 – 25 groups per year.  

The St. John youth said their Angola experience broadened for them the meaning of “seeing the face of Christ in others.”  

“Our faith journey to Angola State Penitentiary was a life changing experience for all of us. Not only did we grow closer to God, we completely changed our way of viewing others in our community,” said Daniel Babin. “Many of us now realize that no matter how bad a person is or was, God can connect with them and make a difference in their life. Many of the trustees were very nice people who cared about their faith and God was the only thing keeping them going. Also, they cared about what we said about our faith and shared experiences with us.”  

“The confirmation retreat to Angola Prison was a once in a lifetime experience,” said Matthew Jones. “Being able to hear the trustees’ stories of how they took a wrong turn in their life, but ultimately changed while in prison was inspiring to all of us. Their stories taught us how, no matter what your situation is or how far you have strayed from God, he will always welcome you back with love. The trustees showed us they deserve a second chance, and even though a lot of people in today’s world won’t give them one; God will give them their second chance in heaven. The people were truly caring and welcoming, and if I had the chance I wouldn’t hesitate to return on the same retreat.”  

Jackson said the confirmation retreats have been so successful he is working on starting retreats for adults in the church parishes of the diocese. Those who are interested in participating can call 225-235-5845 or email  jjackson@ccdiobr.org.