By Diana Marie Waggener
More than a very long walk
For more than one thousand years, millions of pilgrims have walked the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), which culminates at the tomb of St. James the Greater in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Saint Francis reportedly began his pilgrimage in 1213, arriving in northwest Spain a year later, and Saint Pope John Paul II took the journey in 1982 and in 1989. This past fall, Angela and Jon Howdeshell, parishioners of St. Paul’s Newman Center in Laramie, followed in the footsteps of the many pilgrims who have gone before them. “We walked 500 miles in thirty-five (35) days,” says Angela Howdeshell, M.D. “Our journey began right on the border of France, and our guide said our first hike into Spain would be a warm-up. We thought that, since we’d trained at 7,200 feet, we would have an edge, but we were mistaken.”
Early pilgrims took the Camino for the faith. They would literally begin their journeys at their own doorsteps, leaving behind their homes and families and crossing boundaries of
ethnic groups and languages where they found the same faith, the same apostolic memory, the same historic foundation, and the Universal Church, the source of their way of life. The Camino gave pilgrims a chance to search for personal dignity and purpose and the occasion to encounter other pilgrims and experience communion.
In modern times, people take the Camino for many reasons. Some do it to ask for God’s grace for themselves or someone else; others do it in thanksgiving for blessings received; others do it as penance for past sins; still others do it to discern the will of God in their lives; and some do it because of the athletic challenge. The Howdeshells, like most pilgrims, walked the Camino together but with somewhat different purposes. Angela, who was born into a multi-generational Catholic family in the Philippines and grew up attending Catholic schools, says, “In the forty- seven (47) years that Jon and I have been married, we have done a lot of hiking, backpacking, and camping, but walking the Camino was different. It was a religious pilgrimage, a communion with God and nature, and a chance to enjoy the beauty and grandeur of God’s creation. Prior to the hike, I chose to prepare myself to be a vessel or a sponge to absorb every message He would send my way.”
Before walking the Camino, the couple had taken three previous trips to Spain. In 2012, while touring in France— ten days in Paris and five in Lourdes—they rented a car with a plan to drive to Santiago de Compostela. Jon plays classical guitar and had learned that the late Maestro Andrés Segovia had once offered master classes there; he wanted to see where the famous guitarist had done his work. Driving through Spain proved to be so difficult for the Howdeshells that they only made it as far as Bilbao, approximately 350 miles away from Santiago.
Nonetheless, Angela could not get Santiago de Compostela out of her mind, so she began conducting research on the Camino and on St. James the Greater. “In July 2013, while we were talking about what we would do the next year, I said with definiteness that we would walk to Santiago de Compostela. Beginning on October 1, 2013, we started training.”
Jon’s purpose in walking the Camino was profoundly cultural. “I have always enjoyed this country (Spain) and seeing it and experiencing it while walking intrigued me because it would allow me to get to know the people, the country, and the customs more deeply.”
Meeting companions on the journey
During the 35-day trek, the Howdeshells confronted many miles of steep uphill and downhill trails, roads covered with loose rock, muddy paths due to rain, routes along the side of paved roads with a great deal of vehicular traffic (each year, a few pilgrims are hit by cars in these areas), and wind (something to which all Wyomingites are accustomed). “I told myself to be positive with everything that comes my way,” Angela said, “because one way or another there would be a message from God, from the challenging mountains, the wind, the rain, and the people I would meet along the way.”
Encountering fellow pilgrims is among the greatest blessings for those walking the Camino and epitomizes the song, “We are Companions on the Journey,” written by Carey Landry and Carol Jean Kinghorn. The communion that develops among those who travel together leads to life-long friendships and inspiration. “Two pilgrims inspired me on the journey,” says Jon. “The first was my wife Angela—regardless of conditions or sore feet, she never complained. She was always there to help and encourage me with kind words and a smile. The second, was a member of our group, Frankie. He was a newly ordained deacon from Puerto Rico, and on our walks he would share his ideas on religion and the gospel in a very upbeat way. He also gave us the Eucharist on the last day when we arrived in Santiago.”
When Angela originally began preparing to walk the Camino, Jon was not as interested, but once he realized that she was determined, he began training too. Consequently, Angela cites Jon as one of the pilgrims who inspired her. “I know he had physical problems, but when he made the commitment to walk, he was true to his word,” Angela noted. “He experienced a lot of pain on the Camino, but he persisted. His faith and belief guided him. I admire and respect him.”
The Howdeshells walked the Camino with a touring group, and their guide, a thirty-something English woman, worked tirelessly to ensure that the group had food, water, and hotels. She also held a foot clinic every morning to take care of the blisters that many of the pilgrims had developed on their tortured feet. “During one of our conversations at lunch, she and I were talking about the choices we made in life,” said Angela. “I told her that I admired her choice in life. She has worked and volunteered as a guide in many countries and learned to speak four languages. She told me that there is a side to her life she does not like—she is alone, she has no home, all of her belongings are in storage, and her home base is the house of her sister, whom she loves dearly.”
Camaraderie on the Camino is evident as pilgrims cheerily call out “Buen Camino” to each other and often stop to help one another along the way. Residents are accustomed to assisting the occasional lost or confused pilgrim. “When we took a wrong turn on the trail, if anyone was close by, likely as not, they would put us on the right path,” said Jon. “A number of locals and pilgrims offered to share their food and wine with us and were eager to talk with us.”
“Once we were lost in the city of Carrion de los Condes,” Angela added. “We asked one kind, well-dressed gentleman who spoke Spanish to please show us how to find our hotel destination for that day. He walked with us explaining all the time in Spanish. Many words we could not understand until he said, ‘Todo derecho,’ (straight ahead), while pointing to the bridge we were looking for because it would lead us to our hotel.”
Choices on the Camino
Pilgrims have many options for traveling the Camino. Some, like the Howdeshells, trek with a tour group and guide that arranges for food and hotels. Others carry everything in their backpacks and pay a support company to make hotel reservations for them at specific destinations. Still others travel without reservations and find hotels when they are finished walking for the day; and some prefer to stay at an albergue (dormitory hotel). These choices, Angela noted, are not necessarily due to finances, but they do determine the kind of pilgrimage a traveler will have—predictable or arbitrary, comfortable or tough. Often, when pilgrims arrive in a town, they are met with the news that there are no vacancies at the albergue or hotels, so they must move on to the next town.
Angela noticed one particular woman who traveled alone carrying everything in her backpack and staying in albergues along the way. “We met this woman along the trail several times,” Angela notes, “red in her face, with a bandana over her forehead. I often saw her arriving in town about sunset, looking for an albergue, while we were
sightseeing after our group meeting. My heart went out to her.” Angela added that, by God’s grace, the woman always seemed to find a place to stay. They would see her on the trail with them the next morning.
Solitude on the Camino
Just like the woman who wore the bandana, many pilgrims choose to walk alone. Some walk unaccompanied to pray or meditate, while some walk in isolation to see if they can find their way without others leading them. “On the next to last day of our walk,” Angela said, “I asked Jon if I could walk alone. Up to this point, I would just follow whoever was leading. I wanted to hike by myself to see if I could do it. It was raining all day so I had my poncho on. I was alone for most of the sixteen (16) mile hike. I was walking in the forest by myself. I felt His divine presence; I felt protected, and I was not afraid.”
Signs and symbols on the Camino
The scallop shell, often found on the shores of Galicia (the part of northwest Spain where Santiago de Compostela is located), is the longtime symbol of the Camino de Santiago. A metaphor of the Camino, the grooves in the shell meet at a single point, representing the various routes pilgrims travel to reach the tomb of St. James the Greater. The shell also is a metaphor for the pilgrim; as the waves of the sea wash shells onto the shore, so does God’s hand guide pilgrims to Santiago. Pilgrims usually receive a shell at the beginning of their journey and wear it as a sign that they are on the Camino. Shells also can be seen along the various routes, as a sign to pilgrims that they are on the right path. Practically speaking, for early pilgrims, the shell served as a makeshift bowl to gather and drink water.
In addition, painted yellow arrows and yellow and blue shell symbols are found on all the routes that lead to Santiago de Compostela. These are painted on posts and rocks and placed throughout the various villages and roadways. Just as Dorothy and Toto followed the Yellow Brick Road to Oz, so too does the pilgrim on the Camino follow the yellow arrows; and, sometimes, when yellow arrows are few and far between or too confusing, pilgrims get lost.
As Jon and Angela learned, getting lost is not the end of the world. “Getting lost on the trail,” says Jon, “like getting lost in life, shows how one needs the help of friends and family to get back on the path.” Angela chimed in, “We got lost four times on the Camino. I look at this as a metaphor of life; we can get lost in life too, but we will always find the way if we have faith.” Angela also pointed out that she and Jon purchased cell phones that would work in that area so that they could stay in touch with their guide after becoming lost for the fourth time.
Sights along the Camino
While walking the Camino, pilgrims come across beautiful landscapes like magnificent woods with trees that press in from all sides, fields rife with sunflowers, vineyards, and glorious waterways. Pilgrims also find both water and wine spigots (yes, the wine is free and good) along the way. Gothic cathedrals and monasteries, as well as bridges and cobblestone streets, are among the man-made artifacts to be seen. “The most profound sight was the cathedral in Santiago,” says Angela. “We made it! Walking hand-in-hand with Jon, wet from the rain in the last nine miles, we were healthy and excited with overwhelming emotions of infinite gratitude and profound humility.”
After the Camino
Each pilgrim who has walked at least sixty-two (62) miles or bikes 125 miles receives a compostela, a certificate of accomplishment. Pilgrims present their stamped and dated passport or credencial, which they receive at the beginning of their journey, to prove that they have traveled at least the prescribed number of miles to reach Santiago.
Arriving in Santiago de Compostela after thirty-five (35) days of hiking—much of it in the rain—is awe-inspiring. Angela said that all the pilgrims who had traveled together or seen one another along the path hugged each other when they reached their final destination. “Yes, we were there at last,” she exclaimed. “With God’s love and protection and prayers from our family, friends, and St. Paul’s Newman Center congregation, we survived the challenging mountains of the Pyrenees, the mud and rain of
the plains of Spain, and the perilous mountains of Galicia.” Jon added, “Walking the Camino brought me closer to Angela and showed me what I can do at my age. The quiet, the scenery, and the friendship of other pilgrims and Spaniards we met made it all worthwhile.”
Advice for potential pilgrims
“Train, train, and train some more,” said Jon. “Get used to walking lots of hills and take time to make sure you have the correct shoes for your feet. Also, make sure you want to do the walk for yourself.”
Angela agreed that physical training is a must. “Walk, walk, walk,” she said. “Walk uphill and downhill, twelve (12)
percent and nineteen (19) percent grade mountains. Walk in the rain. Ride bicycles—stationary and standard. Train your lungs. If you are a swimmer, swim laps to make your lungs stronger.”
In addition, Angela offered spiritual advice for those preparing for pilgrimage. “Pray, pray, pray,” she suggested. “Prepare yourself to be a vessel who can absorb and hear all the messages from God, as they come in many forms. I prayed a lot, sang many times the Our Father, Hail Mary, and the only Latin prayer I remember from my childhood, Gloria Patri. Open your heart and soul to God, and you will feel His divine presence and protection— messages through the mountains, the terrain, the trails, the leaves, the wind, the trees, the sun, the rain and mud.”
A little history
The Camino de Santiago consists of a large network of ancient pilgrim routes that stretch across Europe and come together at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. Between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, these roads played a fundamental role in encouraging cultural exchanges along the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe. In addition, pilgrimages were an important aspect of life during the Middle Ages, and these routes were equipped with facilities for the spiritual and physical needs of pilgrims. The Camino de Santiago
encompasses the most complete physical record of European artistic and architectural evolution, from Romanesque art to Gothic cathedrals and chains of monasteries.
The tradition that the apostle, St. James the Great, brought the Gospel to Spain was recognized by the year 700. According to this tradition, James preached the gospel in Spain and then returned to Judea, where he was put to death. In the Latin Breviary of the Apostles, St. Jerome said that apostles were buried where they preached; so believers assumed that the body of St. James had been returned to Spain from Jerusalem, where, according to the Acts of the Apostles, he was martyred by the order of Herod Agrippa I. In the ninth century, during Alfonso II’s reign, St. James’ tomb was identified in a forest where Santiago de Compostela now stands. The fame of the tomb of St. James the Greater spread quickly across Western Europe, and by the beginning of the tenth century, pilgrims were taking the Camino from various French routes. In 1139, the first so-called guidebook, Book V of the Calixtine Codex, emerged. The hand-copied document listed pilgrim facilities and described the precise alignment from Roncesvalles, Spain, to Santiago de Compostela.
In 1987, the Santiago de Compostela was proclaimed the first European Cultural Itinerary by the Council of Europe. Buen Camino!
Author biography: Diana Marie Waggener is a parishioner at St. Paul’s Newman Center. She is the editor for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Wyoming and teaches interpersonal communication and public speaking at LCCC Albany County Campus.
Story and Photos by Matthew Potter, Director of Development and Stewardship for the Diocese of Cheyenne
He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” (Lk 4:16-19)
I woke up at 5 that morning, just like I do every morning. The difference this time was that I knew I was going to prison in just a few hours.
No, this isn’t the beginning of a bad country song. I was on my way to Rawlins, Wyoming, home of the Wyoming State Penitentiary, to follow the Reverend Sam Hayes as he attended to the pastoral and spiritual needs of inmates of the penitentiary.
Father Sam is the pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic parish in Rawlins. He is an anomaly in our Diocese in that he is the pastor in the parish in which he was raised. Born in Rawlins, Father Sam came from a family closely connected to the prison, as were many people in Rawlins. His father was the assistant warden at the prison when it was just north of downtown Rawlins. Prior to his entering the seminary to be formed for the priesthood, Fr. Sam worked as a guard at the prison for several years.
The old prison is now a tourist stop, complete with clanging cell doors and tales of ghosts. Today’s “corrections officers” and “inmates” were “guards” and “prisoners” in those days, and prison management was a far cry from what it is now. The old prison was built in 1901 and held inmates until 1981, when all the inmates, administration and operations were moved to the new prison just south of I-80.
The “new” facility, now called the North facility, held inmates for 20 years, when it had to be abandoned due to groundwater and subsidence issues, rendering the buildings unsafe for habitation. Everything and everyone was then moved to the newly constructed South facility, which faces subsidence issues of its own. The North facility stands empty, a stone’s throw from the South facility, resisting the constant wind that sweeps the barren landscape, its windows looking like the eyes of so many silent sentinels.
Fr. Sam and I met at St. Joseph’s rectory. We’ve known each other for a more than 30 years, having met as a young priest (him) and a young teacher (me) at the old Seton Catholic High School. Today he is still a priest, Dean of the Rock Springs Deanery, and I am the Director of Development and Stewardship for the Diocese of Cheyenne.
We shared greetings as old friends do, chatted about the weather and some of the happenings of the Diocese before climbing into his car to make the trip to the penitentiary. We were scheduled to be at the gate of the penitentiary at 11:00. We left at 10 minutes before 11:00 and arrived early. That’s how small Rawlins is, and how intertwined the penitentiary is to the community.
On the way over, Father Sam gave me some idea of what to expect once we arrived at the gate. We would meet the prison chaplain, Stephen Dechert. Rev. Dechert is the pastor at Providence Reformed Community Church in Riverton, Wyoming. Like so many of us engaged in church work, he wears a number of hats, and most relevant to us today is the fact that he is the Wyoming State Penitentiary Interim Chaplain. He is also the Chaplain for the Wyoming Honor Farm in Riverton, as well as the Volunteer Coordinator for the Wyoming Department of Corrections. I didn’t ask him what he does in his free time.
The Wyoming Department of Corrections is responsible for the operations of five separate institutions in the state.
- The Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins
- The Wyoming Medium Correctional Facility in Torrington
- The Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk
- The Wyoming Honor Farm in Riverton
- The Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp & Wyoming Boot Camp in Newcastle.
Fr. Ray Moss is the pastor of St. Rose of Lima parish in Torrington. He and his associate pastor, Fr. Andrew Duncan, both minister to the needs of the inmates at the Medium Correctional Facility in Torrington.
Fr. Moss told me that prison ministry is “very exciting” and not dangerous. There are multiple safeguards put in place by the Department of Corrections to make certain that volunteers are safe. In order to volunteer inside the facility, there is first a background check, followed by an all-day class that discusses rules, regulations and safety inside the prison. The volunteer is then encouraged to visit the prison several times before engaging in ministry in order to become more familiar with the way things run inside the building.
Prison ministry is different for each minister. I assumed that celebration of Mass took up most of the volunteer’s time, but in fact it is just the opposite. Activities such as helping inmates read, teaching about the faith, sacramental preparation and individual visits account for much more time than Mass.
Rev. Dechert joined us at the entrance to the facility, telling us where to drive and park. In order to get inside the main facility, we had to go through a security checkpoint where a Department of Corrections officer examined everything I brought with me, then ushered me through a metal detector. A quick walk across the driveway and we were in the prison.
I have never been inside a prison until this day and, frankly, had no idea what to expect. Immediately inside the building are offices, people working in those offices, and an imposing, dark-windowed structure that dominates the landscape. Rev. Dechert told me this is Delta Control, the “nerve center” of the penitentiary. Nothing opens or closes in the building without it happening from there.
The three of us – Fr. Sam, Rev. Dechert and yours truly – wait for doors to open so we can make our way down the pod to the chapel. As we walk, we pass the chow hall, multiple prisoners and corrections officers, all engaged in their regular routines. The sight of the three of us was a bit unusual, and we did get more than a few curious looks.
The chapel is not a chapel in a traditional sense. Rather, it could better be described as a utility room, with a stack of chairs, cabinets with locks on them, a large wooden table that serves as the altar, and not much else. According to Steve Lindly, Deputy Director of the Department of Corrections, practicing ones religion is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment and the Department of Corrections cannot discriminate as to what faith practices are made available in the system. Rev. Dechert’s job is to make sure that all inmates have access to practice their faith. That means they must have the space, the instruments of worship, and the time to worship. “Worship” here is defined in its broadest terms, as it includes Christian worship as well as Buddhist, Wiccan and Satanic practices. While the chaplain does not have to lead those services, he ensures the inmates have what they need, always balancing that against what is allowed. Once all those things are put in place, the chaplain and the corrections officer observe the proceedings from a windowed room adjacent to the chapel. That way, if anything goes awry, they are right there to take care of things.
Mr. Lindly sees prison ministry as a positive influence on inmates, although there isn’t good research available on its efficacy towards progress in rehabilitation. Nevertheless, he sees it as a worthy undertaking, a sentiment that was shared by every person interviewed for this story. He stated that he is, on behalf of the Department of Corrections, also deeply appreciative to all their volunteers who help carry out this vital practice.
I've been in here eighteen years, that's a long long time, I know. But time don't mean a thing to me 'cause I've got life to go – “Life to Go” by George Jones
Now we wait for the inmates to show up. Soon enough, a few men in orange are escorted down the hallway to us, where, before entering, they are patted down by the corrections officer. When they are inside, they start organizing things for Mass. They arrange pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and icons of some saints against the walls, move the altar in place and drape the altar cloth on it, arrange chairs and chat with Fr. Sam and each other. One inmate, Tom Rivera, approached me right away.
I was easy to pick out, as I was new to this scene and had a camera draped around me. Mr. Rivera introduced himself to me and proceeded to tell me his story. Mr. Rivera said when he was 17 and in high school, he shot and killed a 17-year-old classmate. In 1996, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He fully expected to die in prison until the Wyoming Legislature passed a bill making the possibility of parole available to inmates sentenced as minors and who have served at least 25 years of their sentence.
Mr. Rivera never claimed anything but that he was guilty of the crime for which he was sentenced. He told me that he has worked hard in prison to rehabilitate himself, and that God has been instrumental in that effort. He credits the support of his family in Cheyenne, as well the support of Fr. Carl Gallinger, pastor at St. Joseph’s parish in Cheyenne, for helping him to get things straight with the Lord. He was encouraged by the actions of the Legislature, and had great hope that he would, indeed, be out on parole at some point in the future. He spoke about the fact that he has six years to go before his parole will be considered, but the way he spoke about it was as if that was just around the corner.
Jim Tate and Jim Hartmann are parishioners at St. Margaret’s parish in Riverton, home of the Wyoming Honor Farm. For many years, they have been tag-teaming prison ministry at the Honor Farm. Every Sunday they attend 8:00 Mass at St. Margaret’s, then alternating between the two of them, they take Communion to the inmates at the farm. Fr. Demetrio Peñascoza, pastor of St. Margaret's, celebrates Mass at the Honor Farm a number of times each year. Fr. Demetrio told me that St. Margaret’s parish is quite supportive of the inmates at the Farm.
Mr. Tate told me that he has been doing this so long that he can’t imagine NOT doing it, as that would be letting down the inmates who count on his and Mr. Hartmann’s visits.
But their work does not go without reward. Mr. Tate has been thanked “immensely” by those he serves. He has also gained a great deal of knowledge of the Faith, raising his ability to discuss issues with questioning inmates and give them the answers they are seeking. He said that this has given him a deeper faith, which is a gift beyond measure.
What is Apollos, after all, and what is Paul? Ministers - through whom you became believers, just as the Lord assigned each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth. (1Cor 3:5-7)
Fr. Drew Duncan is the Associate Pastor at St. Rose of Lima parish in Torrington. Part of his duty is to minister to the needs of the faithful at St. Leo parish in Lusk, which happens to be the home of the Wyoming Women’s Center. He also ministers to the needs of the men in Torrington, along with Fr. Moss. It is clear that working with the women inmates holds a special place for Fr. Drew. When asked about the differences between the two prisons, the first thing he mentioned was that the women love to sing. They also are very open and forthcoming, as well as being active members in discussion groups, which is a different experience than that with the men.
Fr. Drew said that prison life is a lot like a monastery. I had to chew on that for a while, but his explanation makes sense. A monastery is a very structured place, where monks pray seven times a day, at the same time every day. Their time is divided between prayer, work and spiritual reading. They are engaged in a very long spiritual journey, one made up of prayer, obedience, poverty and simplicity. Prison is much the same, although it is not voluntary. There is a lot of time for prayer and reflection if one should choose to pursue those things. Unlike a monastery, the women all have a roommate. Avoidance of others is impossible, and they have to learn how to get along with others. They have very close contact with one another, and a sense of selflessness is developed because of that.
Fr. Drew says that the prison is fertile ground for evangelization. He has had women join the Church and complete their Sacraments. It is a time that can be used to reconnect with God and experience a spiritual awakening. On the other hand, for some of the women, the Church is a stabilizing force, a constant in their long incarceration. Some of the women have had a Church relationship with priests and volunteers for 25 years or more.
Finally, Fr. Drew tells us that when inmates have served their time and are released, they need a strong network at home, and a vital part of that network is their parish. He said we must reach out to these people, invite them in and love them. Without that support, they tend to return to their old circles, to family and friends who do not understand this new person. This leads to following old habits and behaviors, and the chance of a return to prison are great.
Following Mass with the inmates in the Maximum Security section, Fr. Sam, Rev. Dechert and I walked to another building for another Mass with a different group of inmates. These men had a little more freedom and mobility in their pod. “Freedom” is a relative term here, however, meaning that they simply get to spend more than an hour outside their cells. We enter the chapel in this area and prepare for Mass in much the same manner as the first group. One of the inmates placed opaque holy images in the windows of the chapel, making it look like miniature stained glass.
Fr. Sam then introduced me to this group of inmates, and they were very friendly to me. One of them got out a chair and a missalette for me so that I could follow along. The men were reverent and attentive, and, like the other group, proclaimed the day’s readings and psalm.
There are no kneelers in the room, but that didn’t prevent anyone from praying on their knees. Fr. Sam mentioned that most of the inmates were regular attendees, but one he had not seen before. The Lord directs people in His way and His time, and this man was proof of that. He chose not to receive Communion, but he participated in the Mass and listened carefully to Fr. Sam’s homily.
Deacon Ken Pitlick is a deacon at Corpus Christi parish in Newcastle. He is also the Chaplain at the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp & Wyoming Boot Camp in Newcastle. This is a minimum security prison in the Black Hills of Wyoming and, for many men, is the last place in the prison system they will be before they are released. They have to earn their placement here, and bad behavior can get them sent back to Rawlins or Torrington, which is not a very good option for the men.
Deacon Ken is a part-time employee of the prison, contracted for 20 hours a week. He and Deacon Joe Sandrini, also of Corpus Christi, provide weekly communion services for the inmates, and will occasionally provide a service for the Christian inmates, as well as for the Boot Camp.
The inmates are comfortable with both deacons, sharing with them their struggles and joys. They also express their gratitude to the deacons for their guidance, their love and the gift of faith that they bring. For Deacon Ken, it has been a great blessing for him to be a part of prison life. This is in spite of the fact that he was, at first, a bit concerned about working with criminals. Like the others interviewed for this story, he has never felt threatened by the inmates. The men and women our ministers work with are immensely grateful to them for the spiritual gifts they bring.
After the second Mass is over, Fr. Sam and I walk out of the building with Rev. Dechert. I am struck by the bleak surroundings of the penitentiary – the treeless horizon, the gray skies, the skeleton of the North Facility, sitting empty and ghost-like just a few hundred yards from us. In between is the involuntary home of nearly 700 inmates, watched over by a legion of corrections officers, administrators, therapists, office workers and tradesmen. There are cars in the parking lot, and aside from the miles of razor wire and the imposing fences, this could be almost any governmental facility in any part of the state. Two things are fundamentally different, however: When the employees of the penitentiary go home, the inmates cannot; the second is that, for the inmates, hope is in short supply.
Fr. Sam and Fr. Joey Buencamino, pastor of St. Ann’s parish in Saratoga, alternate weeks providing for the spiritual needs of Catholic inmates at the penitentiary. Both of these men deeply appreciate the needs of the men inside the prison. Our society has a tendency to lock up men and women who have committed crimes and then forget about them. When people are forgotten, they tend to lose hope. Both Fr. Sam and Fr. Joey bring a different message to these men: That our God is a God of mercy and hope, and that the Church has not forgotten them.
The result of this ministry for these two priests, as well as every other minister I spoke with, is a deepening of their own relationship with God. The rewards they receive – the knowledge that they are leading men away from sin and to a loving relationship with God, as well as the gratitude shown them by those to whom they minister – far exceed the work they put in. They are deeply grateful to God for putting them in this place at this time, to work with the forgotten members of our world.
When I awoke the morning of my trip to Rawlins, I wanted to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. This was not a trip I was relishing, and the closer it got, the more I wanted to call Fr. Sam and just cancel it. I have never been to prison, and I don’t know anyone I can think of who has ever been imprisoned. I had a complete disassociation from prison and from crimes committed that would cause someone to go to jail. There was no personal relevance of prison to me, and I had no idea what to expect once I got there.
A few days prior to my trip, I had a dream that I was placed in a concrete room without any way to get out. I found it distressing enough that I awoke in a cold sweat, frightened at the prospect of such an existence. It is impossible for me to imagine that that would really be my life, much as it is for inmates in our prisons.
There is a reality to prisons that we must face: Inmates are invisible to us. If we are not family and/or friends of the inmates, we don’t see them, think about them, or care about them. Regardless of the crime committed, each inmate was created in God’s likeness and retains his or her humanity and dignity. Those involved in prison ministry help remind all of us, but especially the inmates, of those facts.
A few weeks after my visit to the penitentiary, I received a phone call from Tom Rivera’s father. He was excited to talk to me and asked for copies of this story. Tom had talked to his Dad and was so enthusiastic about the fact that I had come to visit and would be writing about prison ministry for the Wyoming Catholic Register. In our conversation, Tom’s Dad told me that the crime committed by Tom was something they had to deal with and could not deny. He needed to pay his debt to society, and there was no denial of Tom’s guilt. However, he went on to say how Tom’s family had bonded together and were praying daily for Tom. He said how he was so appreciative of the support of Fr. Carl and the spiritual support he had shown. Finally, he told me how my visit had brought a sense of hope to Tom, a ray of sunshine in a gray, gloomy world. It doesn’t take much to bring joy into the lives of others. A visit, a kind word, a listening ear can all go a long way to erase the despair felt by our brothers and sisters. For those locked up in their own cells of depression, addiction or a life without God, someone showing he or she cares about that person can make all the difference. For those prisoners locked behind the concrete, steel and razor wire of our penitentiaries, the same is true.
Our challenge as Catholics is to never forget those who are locked up. When they return to society, it is our responsibility to embrace them and support them, to let them know that their Church, the Church established by Jesus Christ, who is still the head of the Church, loved them yesterday, loves them today and will continue to love them tomorrow. No one is saying their crimes should be forgotten or glossed over, but forgiveness of our brothers and sisters is a command given to us by Jesus himself:
“Peter approached Jesus and asked him,“Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Mt 18: 21-22
Our prison ministers are doing the work of the Lord, the work commanded by him, the work that has been our responsibility for thousands of years. Thank God for them, and thank God for the gifts they bring through their ministry to the captives.
At the gate to the Wyoming State Penitentiary
Exercise Yards in the Maximum Security Pod. Only one inmate at a time.
Maximum Security Pod. Inmates are in their cells 23 hours each day.
The Wyoming State Penitentiary. Minus the razor wire, it resembles many government buildings in Wyoming.
The entrance to the Penitentiary. The Penitentiary has a complete hospital, and inmates from other facilities are transferred here for medical care.
Freedom is just on the other side of the razor wire and chain link fence, but it may as well be a million miles away.