Mary-Anne Miskozie says while God loves everyone equally, inmates are more eager to receive that love than most others.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Mary-Anne Miskozie says while God loves everyone equally, inmates are more eager to receive that love than most others.

November 14, 2011
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Catholic prison chaplains don't judge prisoners and they love inmates as God does. They believe inmates should have the opportunity to change, to heal and to rebuild their lives no matter how hopeless or lost they feel.

"As a society we have no use for them, we are desensitized to them but they are human beings loved by God," says chaplain Mary-Anne Miskolzie of the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre. "God loves us all equally but the inmates are more keen to receive his love than we are."

"Christ's love is there for all of us," says chaplain Teresa Kellendonk. "God's love and mercy is there for all. If I didn't believe that I couldn't be a chaplain."

A former chaplain at the Edmonton Institution, Kellendonk is now assistant director of pastoral care with the Edmonton Archdiocese. One of her duties is to work with prison and hospital chaplains across the archdiocese. In addition to offering in-service training for chaplains, Kellendonk meets with them regularly.

Chaplains perform many roles, but their main responsibility is to tend to the spiritual and emotional needs of inmates and prison staff.

How they do that varies depending on the prison population and the problems each inmate faces. Chaplains, therefore, must be flexible and ready to offer counselling on a number of issues, including drug and alcohol addiction and anger control.

"We are companions on the journey," Kellendonk says. "We can provide them some tools but they do the work for change."

Thelma Pelletier, a full-time chaplain at the Bowden Institution near Innisfail, says her role is to support inmates in their spiritual journey.

"Many of them go through a lot of pain and brokenness and so we are here as support for them and counselling them and trying to help them in their recovery."

Kellendonk says in the prison system, the chaplain is the buffer - the one who listens to and counsels inmates in their sorrows and brings Christ's love to them.

"The (prison) chapel is a sacred space where inmates can feel safe. When they want to pray, prayer happens; when they want to be silent because they've had a trauma, they can be silent. It's the most sacred space within the walls of an institution and it's where sacraments take place: Eucharist, sacraments of initiation, Reconciliation."

Prison chapels are multi-faith. A prison chaplain could be Roman Catholic "but you also work with Protestants, with the Muslim imams, Buddhists, Hindus; you work in a multi-faith, ecumenical environment."

Many who have been victimized by crime see inmates as animals, "but they are not that label only," asserts Kellendonk.

NEW LABELS

"We say to them, 'Don't be defined by the label that somebody else chooses to give you. Create a new label for yourself but you have to do the work. We'll journey with you but you must put in the work.'"

Leslie Crowley

Leslie Crowley

Chaplains advocate for the inmates but "we also advocate for the victims because in our work we don't allow the inmates to forget about their victims," Kellendonk says. "They have to own up to what they have done and how they have hurt somebody."

In addition to conducting worship services, doing memorial services and providing pastoral counselling, Catholic chaplains work with prison staff and with the families of the inmates. "So (their work) is not limited to the physical space of the institution; they work outside of that as well."

Prison chaplaincy is a specialized vocation and those who pursue it need to have theological training and clinical pastoral education in their background.

Kellendonk says one challenge of the vocation is the violence a chaplain encounters in the institution, everything from beatings and stabbings to murders and suicides.

"There are some amazing times and stories when you are working with the inmates but there is violence in the institution and you never get used to it and you never should get used to it," she says.

"If you don't have an awareness of the risk of that environment, you should not be there. If you are not aware of your surroundings, you are being negligent about your own safety."

REWARDING VOCATION

Nevertheless, it's a rewarding vocation. "I love working one-on-one with the inmates, their families and the (prison) staff," Kellendonk says.

"Those one-on-one (sessions) are incredible moments of ministry because as a chaplain you see the other side of the inmate. You see the offender the way nobody else does. You see who they are as a human person.

"And if your theology is that all persons are created in the image and likeness of God, then you work in that theology with the inmates."

Edmonton Remand Centre chaplain Leslie Crowley doesn't get to see the inmates as much as she would like. "Here at the Remand there are only certain hours in a day that we are allowed to see the inmates or that we are allowed to bring them to chapel, which is not a lot," she explains.

"The other thing is the population is fairly transient so I don't get a lot of time with somebody. I may only get to see them once in chapel or once when we are talking to each other."

Teresa Kellendonk is assistant director of pastoral care for the Edmonton Archdiocese.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Teresa Kellendonk is assistant director of pastoral care for the Edmonton Archdiocese.

On the other hand, there are people at the Remand who are there for a couple of years "and then we do build a pastoral relationship."

RELEAXED, PEACEFUL

Crowley says the most rewarding part of her job is seeing the inmates more relaxed and more peaceful after attending chapel or after listening to them.

Crowley is one of two Catholic chaplains at the Remand. There is also a Protestant chaplain. Built for 350 inmates, the Remand has a population of nearly 800.

"For the most part, I find inmates very receptive and very respectful," Crowley pointed out. "I find that they allow themselves to be vulnerable when we are in the chapel and when we are together."

Chaplains at the Remand work with outside volunteers who provide religious services and activities inside the centre. "We have a volunteer who does the Liturgy of the Word; we have a volunteer who helps us with the Bible studies and one for the rosary," Crowley says.

Chaplains at the Remand try to meet the needs of all faiths. "If there is a Muslim here and he would like to speak with an imam we have a list of interfaith contacts that we help the inmates get in touch with," Crowley says. The Muslim community supplies chaplains with Korans for those of the Muslim faith.

Volunteers at the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre offer programs such as Scripture meditation, Bible studies and rosary.

MANY REQUESTS

Miskolzie, the chaplain there, says one of the biggest challenges she faces is not being able to meet all the requests for her presence. Many more inmates want to see her than she has time for.

One reward of her vocation is "to see inmates recognize that God loves them."

Miskolzie says inmates are "extremely receptive" to what she offers. "When they see a chaplain they see somebody who accepts them and acknowledges them."

Even though chaplains are part of the prison system, "inmates know that what happens in chapel is safe," Miskolzie says. "They know when they come to visit me on a one-to-one, it's very safe to speak their truth."

Pelletier, who is certified in grief support, has journeyed with a "lot of guys" at the Bowden Institution. Many have managed to "pick up their lives and are currently playing a more positive role in the community."

Due to a lack of volunteers, Pelletier and part-time chaplain Deacon Jim Scott don't provide many extra services at Bowden. But some volunteers do attend services on Friday evenings.

"They just mingle with the inmates, giving them a connection to the (outside) community," Pelletier says.

Most prisons offer Mass once a month. At Bowden Institution, "we used to have four priests that volunteered for us but now we are down to one."