By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator 

On a bright sunny day just outside of the stucco front of Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola a small crowd of men gathered. They were lined up, waiting on family members to arrive for Mass and the annual Catholic Banquet held on Nov. 21. After going through the security checkpoint at the prison entrance, guests were shuttled to the chapel on buses, a procedure that pushed the start of the 11 a.m. Mass closer to noon. Finally, prisoners and family members entered the church and the atmosphere changed immediately, with an energy that was palpable. Many stopped to greet celebrant Father Todd Lloyd, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Lakeland, as they made their way to their seats. Inmates already seated, saving room for loved ones, were greeted with hugs, smiles and handshakes. Angst regarding the delayed start time was no match for such a happy reception.  

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Father Todd Lloyd celebrates Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel at Angola. It was followed by the Catholic Banquet. Families are able to attend Mass and have a meal with their loved ones at the annual event. More than 400 plates of jambalaya, provided by Prison Ministry of St. George Church in Baton Rouge, were served.  Photo by Bonny Van | The Catholic Commentator  

 

“I think the first thing is, one of the most important things for human nature is seeing you’re not the only one doing something and so whenever we’re able to have a banquet, we’re able to fill up the church and all these guys are able to see guys from Camp C, the other camps, the out-camps, and see that they’re all, even though they’re separated, they’re all together and worshipping God, practicing their faith in being Catholic,” explained Father Lloyd of the importance of the event. “And number two, I would say having your family come and spending that time doing something really important, worshipping together and then afterwards having a meal together and being able to introduce your family to me and to the other ministers and to your other brother inmates here at Angola, that helps to kind of grow the family. It grows the idea of their family.”  

Brother Ray Hebert SC, chaplain at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, and Deacon Zeke Nola, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in St. Francisville, assisted with the Mass along with two prisoners who were altar servers. The Angola Celestial Men’s Choir provided the music. The feeling of peace and love was apparent in the atmosphere, no different from a Mass outside of the prison walls.  

“It’s really kind of encouraging to me (to watch the interactions) because you know I go (celebrate) Mass at all the different camps. It’s this divided by three and it’s really even less than that,” said Father Lloyd. “Whenever you see just one face after another, you kind of lose track of what you’re doing and then when you see them in a full church you realize there’s a lot going on. So it helps to kind of put in perspective what we’re doing.”  

Following Mass, everyone gathered in a nearby dining hall where inmates served more than 400 plates of jambalaya laya and white beans provided by the prison ministry of St. George Church in Baton Rouge. Gerry Chidester, a member of the prison ministry team, said he cooked 25 pounds of beans for the banquet. He said he joined the ministry to help out and ended up making quite a few friends at Angola.  

“I got attached to some of them, a lot of them actually … I have a lot of friends there,” he noted. “And I feel a responsibility to do the ministry work for them, especially this banquet. There’s not a whole lot we can physically give them but this is one thing that I can help give to them.”  

Food for the Catholic Banquet at Angola is rotated each year between the prison ministries at St. George and St. Jude the Apostle Church in Baton Rouge.  

Patricia Holden of Covington, along with a family friend, joined her son, Julius Holden, for the Mass and the banquet. Holden has visited her son twice a month for the past 25 years. She said she loves the stained glass and murals in the chapel. 

“I love being with (my son) especially in church because I know God’s looking out for him for me,” said Holden.  

Julius said the banquet is important for reconnecting. 

“So it’s fellowship, it’s some time with family and that’s what we look forward to the most,” he explained. “It leaves us feeling good and you know, we go back to where we might see each other every four or five months but we can always look forward to this because it brings us together as a community, as a whole Catholic community here at Angola.”  

“This is a really special event for these guys,” said Linda Fjeldsjo, coordinator of Joseph Homes/Prison Ministry for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, who attended with Joseph Homes case manager Laverne Klier. “It gives the men a chance to not only be with their family members but with each other as well. And, for most of them, that is their family because they’ve spent 20, 30 sometimes 40 years together.”  

Jay Jackson, chaplain at Angola, said involvement from the church parish prison ministries is very important in bringing a sense of God’s love to the inmates.  

“I think it kind of brings us back to our humble beginnings. I think when you’re able to serve the less fortunate and be able to put a smile on their face, you see the goodness of God come through. And I think it’s all part of the foundation of our faith. And I think the only way you can witness it is if you participate and get involved with it,” said Jackson.