Father Aldrich was a tough cookie. His towering Teutonic frame dominates my memories of Franciscan minor seminary in the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio in the late 1960s. In addition to serving as rector of the seminary, he teaches us geometry, trigonometry and to be passionate about Truth. The three-story building of St. Francis Seraphic Seminary at 10290 Mill Road in Mt. Healthy, Ohio housed two wings of dormitory space for 300 high school seminarians, a third floor of classrooms and a first floor of recreational and dining areas. This was my home from age 13 to 18.
The second floor, off limits to us students, is where the friars live in cloister. The center wing is the chapel. This is the special space where every day starts and finishes: morning prayers before breakfast and night prayers before bed.
Father Aldrich would love to challenge us and our preconceived notions on a regular basis.
“What is the most important job a friar can have in this monastery?” he asked one morning, as he paced at the front of our classroom.
“Guardian,” blurted one classmate.
“Disciplinarian,” offered the next.
“Cook,” guessed another.
“Wrong,” Fr. Aldrich shook off each offering like a catcher waiving off signs from a rookie pitcher. Finally, we could guess no more. It seemed we had exhausted the list.
“It is Brother Porter. Brother Porter sets the tone for the whole monastery every day. His smile and gentle manner can make the day a pleasant one for every person here. His is the most important task of them all. A holy Porter can make this a holy building.”
We were sure he was joking. None of us had even thought to include the gentle brown-clad Friar whose duty was to open the doors to chapel, to chow, to study hall, to guests. Truth eludes the undiscerning eye — especially truth hidden in plain sight.
As many doors as there were in the monastery, there were far fewer than the number of doors in a Florida prison. And, at every single locked prison door is stationed a corrections officer, a Brother or Sister Porter dressed in brown. They are the first ones to greet me at the entrance to each building, each yard, each wing.
The sergeant at the prison entrance is responsible for every single person or article that moves in or out of that prison all day long. The stories of weapons and escape paraphernalia ingeniously smuggled into prisons are legion. Yet he never fails to greet each of us warmly, even encouragingly. When asked how he maintains an upbeat attitude in the face of constant stress, he smiles: “I believe in the power of positive thinking. You all have a good day.”
The officer with the key for the fence tunnel to death row must make a few hundred trips per day on foot from the guard shack to the gate. Rain. Heat. It does not matter. Yet, he is always glad to be of help, always has a friendly word. At the other end of the tunnel is the building control officer. She never fails to smile and wish each of us a good morning.
The wing officers are inundated with routine tasks. Endless paperwork is the least of it. Nurses must be escorted, inmates pulled for showers, psychiatric or medical appointments. Food and cleaning articles must be distributed, laundry collected. In the middle of it all, I show up to distribute Communion.
“Good afternoon, chap,” smiles the wing sergeant. “Thank you for coming today.”
On entering another wing, I ask if this is a good time. “Anytime you come to bring God to these men is a good time,” responds the desk officer warmly.
The higher the level of wing security, the greater is the imposition of my presence on the workday of the officers. One wing requires an officer to be physically with me the entire time. If several men need to talk or pray, that can chew up valuable time from the officer’s day.
“I’m sorry this took so long,” I apologize to the officer who has patiently escorted me through a very high security wing. “It seemed like every single man was trying to connect with God today.”
“I’m not surprised,” the officer smiles back. “I am not just standing here observing, you know. I am praying for you and each man as you talk to him. It is incredible to watch my prayers being answered just a few feet away!”
Some days I wonder if gatekeepers like these could even turn a Florida prison into a holy place.
The most challenging part of this prison is confinement. Corridors of thirty cells, fifteen per side. These cells have solid steel doors instead of bars. The doors are mounted on a track so that they slide open sideways. A door that swings out on hinges to open could be used as a weapon by the inmate inside the cell, leveraging his body weight in an attack on the officer who has opened his cell door.
When the doors are locked shut, there are only two openings into the cell. One is the feeding hole, a rectangular opening at belt height in the middle of the door. It is large enough to allow a feeding tray or a toilet brush. Because a bottom-hinged steel flap is padlocked shut over the hole (except at mealtimes), the opening is called the “flap.”
The other opening is the unintentional slit, about a quarter-inch wide, that results from the imperfect marriage of the door and the wall. Called the “crack,” the slit runs from top to bottom. During my rounds, the flap is only opened for those receiving Sacraments. The crack is the medium of communication between us and the non-Catholic inmates in confinement.
Each door has a small, wire reinforced Plexiglas window. It’s too narrow and too short to fit a man’s entire face. When standing squarely in front of a man’s cell, I can either see his mouth and nose or his eyes and nose, but can never see his whole face.
Confinement is where a man goes when he breaks the rules in prison. The inmates call confinement “jail.” Some men spend thirty days in confinement. Some spend years.
I know a man who spent three years in one of these cells. He tells me he missed the electric chair by one jury vote, that he was an animal when he came to prison. After three years, he was moved from confinement to a regular maximum security cell with five other prisoners. One of them brought my friend to Jesus Christ.
That was decades ago. My friend was in prison for a long, long time. He and I prayed together every week for years. His efforts to live his faith in the most hostile of environments, refusing to return evil for evil, ministering to the new men, his constant walk with Jesus in the midst of so much darkness, humbles me and shames my easy faith. As the priest and I work from flap to flap, crack to crack, my friend and his years behind that steel door are on my mind.
One young man asks to go to confession. Father puts his ear by the feeding hole. I step two cells away to give them privacy. Then, I hear a man’s voice from behind me.
“Brother, if you’re a man of God, please talk to me.”
It is a tall black man in the cell behind me. His face is scrunched against the crack.
I move to the crack and ask him if he is a Christian. He nods “yes.”
I ask him if he would like me to lead him through a prayer. He chokes back a wobble in his voice and says, “Please.”
I tell him to put his hand on the window of his door, and I place my hand on the outside of the window, opposite his. He places his ear by the crack. I place my face by the crack. We pray.
We pray forgiveness. We pray healing. We pray deliverance. We pray protection. We pray hope and perseverance. We pray the name that is our Victory. We pray the Blood that is our Protection. We pray the Empty Tomb that is our Hope. We pray the Spirit that is our Strength.
After we finish, he whispers through the crack, “Thank you, brother. I needed to pray so bad, but I didn’t know how to get back. Thank you.”
Long-term solitary confinement in Florida does not strike one as a place for things to grow. Each of the wings is composed of three-story atriums that house almost one hundred men in individual six foot by nine foot cells behind a solid steel door. The noise is constant and unpleasant, the ambiance oppressive and despairing. It would be less of a miracle for a tree to take root in concrete than for a spirit to sprout in solitary confinement. Do miracles really happen still today?
From a cell in the middle of the corridor on the lowest level of a solitary wing, the man inside greets me with a mile of a smile.
“Man, I’ve been waiting for you. Why didn’t you tell me?”
I know this man well. We have been talking and praying together through his cell door for years. He is a big guy, and he is black. Unless you are a football player, those characteristics can get you a lot of negative attention at an early age in the Deep South. Some men handle that negativity better than others. This man responded in kind.
Four years ago, I told him he was the angriest person I had ever met. Not anymore. Our original discussions focused on the immorality of violence. Now, his relationship with God has blossomed; his toe is in the water of the deep personal issues.
“Why didn’t I tell you what?” I peer through the small Plexiglas window into his cell. He blocks my vision by fanning a holy card I have not seen before.
“Why didn’t you tell me about him?” he laughs, waiving the picture of a black man who is a canonized saint. “Why didn’t you tell me that there is a black saint in the Catholic Church?”
“I didn’t think of it as anything special. There are a lot of black saints in the Catholic Church.”
“You’re kidding! How many?”
“A whole bunch, especially from the early years of Christianity and from the mission years.”
“Man! And you don’t think that is anything special?” his words are punctuated with hand slaps against both knees. He is laughing so hard the words can barely come out.
“That is because you’re white, Brother Dale. If you wasn’t white, you’d know it’s really something.”
Two wings later I am standing on the mezzanine level at the cell of a young white man who is studying the Catholic faith through a course called rcia . rcia is a do-it-yourself course in solitary confinement. The materials are provided by the Knights of Columbus. I’m here to answer the questions that arise as a man from a fundamentalist background comes to grips with the teaching of the Catholic Church. After we have finished the questions, he shares why he wants to become Catholic.
“When I was living in central Florida, they built this beautiful Catholic Church near Disney World. It is named after Our Lady. I think it is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Catholics are not afraid of beauty. Catholics make beauty a part of their faith. I need a beautiful faith.
“Also, I like the intimacy. Catholics talk about the Father and the Holy Spirit like they are real, just like Jesus. And the angels and saints are real. And everybody is helping each other with prayers and love. It is like a big family. I want that intimacy in my faith.
“And I love the Rosary. The Rosary is one of the best things that ever happened to me. I never let mine away from me.”
“Most of all,” his voice softens, “I love that I’ll be able to give this faith to my kids. After all the mistakes I’ve made, this is something precious that I can do for them, something that will make their lives better. I want to give them a beautiful faith, a faith that matters.”
I am convinced. With God’s grace, a tree can grow in concrete.
By Dale S. Recinella