By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator 

Overcast skies, chilly winds and the constant threat of rain greeted Bishop Michael G. Duca on his first visit to death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

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Bishop Michael G. Duca blesses a rosary Pope Francis sent to a prisoner on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola on Feb. 20. Photos by Bonny Van | The Catholic Commentator 

 

The bishop was joined by Angola chaplain Jay Jackson; Deacon Zeke Nola of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in St. Francisville; and, Linda Fjeldsjo, coordinator of Prison Ministry and Joseph Homes for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge. Fjeldsjo brought along bananas, legal pads and gift bags filled with donated essential items including shampoo, soap, a wash cloth and a pair of socks for the group to hand out to the 72 men on death row. 

Two inmates pushed large carts into the cell block corridors, known as tiers, and helped distribute the items.

“Bananas are a real treat for the men; they don’t get much fresh fruit,” said Fjeldsjo, who picked up 150 pounds of bananas before heading up to the maximum security prison. 

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Bishop Duca holds up a cross made by inmates at the prison using old cell keys. The cross was given to Bishop Emeritus Robert W. Muench, who passed it on to Bishop Duca.  

 

Bishop Duca wore a large cross, given to him by Bishop Emeritus Robert W. Muench, made by inmates at Angola using old cell keys. 

“Hi, I’m the new bishop,” smiled Bishop Duca as he introduced himself to the inmates before beginning a short conversation, which often ended in prayer. Topics ranged from where the men were from to family, food, sports, the weather and, for many of the men, their relationship with God. 

“One of them asked for prayers for themselves and for the victims of their crime,” recalled the bishop, who gave more than a few special blessings during the visit, including one for a rosary sent to an inmate from Pope Francis. 

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Linda Fjeldsjo, coordinator of Prison Ministry and Joseph Homes for CCDBR, checks gift packs for the prisoners.  

 

Most of the men were in a gregarious mood as they stood or sat in their cells waiting for the bishop and the other visitors to stop for a short chat. Many shook hands and appreciated the few moments of social interaction. 

One of the men spoke excitedly at length with Jackson about the weekly Kairos Prison Ministry Prayer and Share program that Jackson oversees. The group, started a year ago, includes 10 men, selected by wardens based on compatibility, who meet for two hours every Monday. The program consists of Scripture verses, reading assignments and introspective questions. 

“One of the things that I’ve noticed more than anything is their willingness to share and to trust each other,” said Jackson. “They weren’t really that familiar with each other when they first got into the program and being able to be introspective and talk about themselves, what they were like on the streets before they ever got to Angola. They’ve developed a very sincere bond of trust with each other and they’ve really opened up over the past year. This didn’t happen overnight.” 

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Bishop Duca, pictured far left, was joined by prison chaplain Jay Jackson, center, and Deacon Zeke Nola, of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in St. Francisville, during the visit to death row on Feb. 20.  

 

 

According to Jackson, even security offices have noticed a change in attitude and behavior since the Prayer and Share program started. And, the men are sharing the good news with their cellblock neighbors on their own tiers. 

“They’re evangelizing themselves now,” said Jackson. “They guys on the tier are able to get out of the cellblock for a few hours each day and they can mingle with each other, so they can talk about it. During this visit, I had names of people wanting to get in on the next program, whenever it’s introduced at death row, possibly in April.” 

The visit wrapped up after a stop to deliver more treats to the five women prisoners housed at Angola. Then, Bishop Duca, Fjeldsjo and Jackson joined Warden Darrel Vannoy for dinner and more discussions about the prison, its programs and prison ministry. The bishop concluded the day by celebrating Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel on the prison grounds.

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Treats left for one of the inmates on death row included a legal pad, bananas and pack of toiletries.