In 1998, our new pastor, Fr. Joe Maniyangat, asks me to begin ministry cell to cell on Florida’s death row and solitary confinement at Florida State Prison (Starke) and Union Correctional Institution (Raiford). This improbable opportunity is occasioned by our family’s move from Rome, Italy back to the U.S.A.
My wife, Susan, has accepted a psychologist position at Northeast Florida State Hospital for the mentally ill in Macclenny, Florida, halfway between Jacksonville and Lake City. Susan will be working with the women who are civilly committed to this large facility.
There is only one Catholic Church in Macclenny. In fact, it is the only Catholic Church between Jacksonville and Lake City, a distance of almost 100 miles: St. Mary Mother of Mercy Catholic Church on U.S. Highway 90.
Fr. Joe smiles warmly, greeting us at his church. His left hand is warmly grasping mine at the same time that his right hand is taking Susan’s. “I am the pastor here. What can I do for you?”
“We are moving here from Rome, Italy.” I speak in a level, matter-of-fact tone, trying not to react to his raised eyebrows at the mention of our last home city. “This will be our new parish church. We wanted to meet you.”
“And why are you moving to Macclenny?” His voice has a litheness that should tip us off as to how unusual such a move is.
“I will be a Senior Psychologist on staff at the State mental hospital.” Susan explains.
“That’s wonderful.” Our new pastor is literally beaming. “I am the Catholic chaplain there. I am there every week.”
“I will be the Senior Psychologist of the women’s admissions ward.” Susan beams back.
“Marvelous. Marvelous.” He pats her shoulder with his free hand while still holding mine in the other. Then he looks directly at me. “And what will you do in Macclenny?”
“I have no idea.” My answer and shrug catch him off guard, causing him to release my hand and take a step back.
“Well.” He struggles to recover his grin. “What have you done before?”
“Before we moved to Rome I was in death and dying ministry for people with AIDS. And also prison ministry out of Tallahassee. I did that in the Panhandle for six years.”
For a split second he is frozen, eyes growing as big as saucers. Then suddenly, he moves close enough to grab both my shoulders.
“I have been praying for fifteen years for you to get here! What took you so long?”
Our stunned silence demands some explanation for his exclamation. He obliges us with a quick recovery of his warm grin.
“I am the Catholic priest for death row and solitary confinement. Those prisons are just a few miles from here. For fifteen years I have been going cell to cell in those prisons alone. And for fifteen years I have been praying for God to send you.” He pauses and then smiles again, but this time with a boyish grin and his arm around my shoulder in half of a hug. “What took you so long?”
Now Susan’s arm is around my waist from the other side. My mouth will not move even though I am trying to speak. Finally, I hear my words eek out.
“I guess we took the long way.”
Fr. Joe Maniyangat from Kerala, India is the pastor of St. Mary’s and is responsible for the parish. But with the parish come all the spiritual needs of the Catholic patients in the mental hospital and the Catholic inmates in the prisons nearby.
By the summer of 1998, Fr. Joe has been carrying this load by himself for 15 years. At that time Florida has the 3rd largest death row in the U.S.A. With 370 men under sentence of death, right behind California and Texas. And Florida has 2,000 men in long-term solitary confinement in these two prisons, as well.
I know that inmates on Florida death row or in solitary confinement cannot come to the chapel for religious services. Everything ministerial must be done individually at cell front. On death row that is through the food hole in the cell door. In solitary confinement that is through the crack between the door and the wall. In either case, that requires kneeling on the concrete floor in front of each cell in the raging heat and suffocating humidity.
Fr. Joe requests that I go cell to cell in ministry to the men inside those cells, on death row and in solitary confinement. He will shadow me for a year to teach me the ropes.
I begin on August 9, 1998. In June of 1999, Fr. Joe is replaced by his nephew, Fr. Jose Maniyangat, also from Kerala, India. As the months pass at cell front, it does not occur to me that I might be asked by one of the death row inmates to be spiritual advisor for their execution.
Then, the week before Thanksgiving of 2000, I receive an unexpected call from the chaplain at FSP. A death warrant has been signed for two weeks before Christmas. The condemned man has asked for me as his spiritual advisor. Am I willing to do it?
“Good. Here are the names and phone numbers of his family members. Ready to copy?”
Over time I will learn that there are tremendous similarities to these calls. It is one thing to make cold calls to people one has never met. It is a whole different thing to make these calls. The area codes are unfamiliar to me. But the phone is ringing somewhere, in another time zone. Someone answers.
“Hello.” I hear my own voice as though it is far away. “I’m Brother Dale, lay chaplain for Florida’s death row.”
There is always the moment of silence followed by a gasp, so clear that I can picture the hand starting reflexively for the chest or the cheek. I allow the unspoken meaning to penetrate. The subdued and apprehensive question is inevitable.
“Is everything all right?”
We both know everything is not all right. Things have not been all right for a long time. A brutal crime was committed. The loved ones of the murder victim died a thousand deaths trying to absorb that horror that hit them from out of the blue. Their son, their daughter, their mother, their father, or their wife had been wrenched away in a brutal murder.
A suspect was arrested and convicted. The man sits on death row. He also has loved ones. They also are in horror. They have been dreading my call for a decade or longer.
It is November 2000. It takes five calls to inform all of this man’s immediate family. My response to their questions feels like a script. It is the best I can do.
“The Governor has signed a death warrant. Your son . . . your brother . . . your father . . . is scheduled to be killed two weeks before Christmas.”
Even as they break down in sobs, I know that the echoes of their anguish will linger with me for a long time. Like the smoke after a bonfire, subtle yet pervasive whisps of wrenching agony.
The man to be executed is from a large and devout family. His mother, nearly eighty years old but still a dynamo of energy and faith, has raised all her children by hard work. Most of them have attended college. This son has severe mental illness from an industrial accident. In her younger days, she never dreamed she would receive a call like this one from me. The family pulls together quickly and makes arrangements to come to Florida to say goodbye to their loved one two weeks before Christmas.
Some men have no one to come to their last days before execution. This man is lucky. His family will be here. They will spend as much time with him as the state will allow.
The day of execution, they must leave the prison at 11:00 a.m. I will be with him in the afternoon until the technicians start the preparations to kill him at 6:00 p.m.
His family and friends are not allowed to be at the prison for his execution. He has asked me to be there for his execution. I will witness my first lethal injection.
I cannot be in two places at once. So, I meet with the FSP administration.
“Who will care for the family during the execution?”
“Sorry, Brother Dale, but that is not our job. We must ensure that they are off the property by 11:00 a.m. That’s it. The rest is not up to us.”
My wife Susan steps forward and makes it her task to take care of this family. While I am at the execution, she will be with them at our church. She joins me to meet them at the church the day after they arrive in town. After about twenty minutes of introductions and small talk, Father Jose joins us. These are strong people. They are determined to see this through with eyes of faith. We all pray together.
Finally, after a few weeks of emotional non-contact visits, it is the day. The family has drawn together the fragments of his life into a final walk up the front steps of the massive edifice called Florida State Prison.
On the day, the State allows them a one-hour contact visit. The elderly mother turns to the Lieutenant on the death squad and asks, “May we form a prayer circle?”
“Yes.” He nods.
The family forms a circle with me and the condemned man included. Arm in arm we pray the Lord’s Prayer. After the “Amen”, each of the family members says good-bye. The last to let go is his mother. She kisses his forehead, and he is gone, escorted by the death squad to the first phase of preparation.
The family and I exit quietly together into the cavernous corridor of FSP. The family turns to me with another request. Is it possible that before leaving we could form a circle and pray again? I turn to the control officers who have heard the question. They are resolute but visibly touched.
The family forms a prayer circle again. We pray for their loved one, and for the healing of all those affected by the crimes, especially the families of the crime victims. Then the mother prays for the members of the death squad who will kill her son at six o’clock. One of the supervising officers looks quickly toward the ceiling, blinking back a tear. Who could not be moved by such faith?
After the noon hour visit by Father Jose to administer the Last Rites, I am summoned from the prison chapel to the downstairs of Q Wing, the death house. Within a short period of time, a burly sergeant, who is known at FSP to be an honest and straight up guy, comes walking into the deathwatch area. I am sitting on a molded plastic chair in front of the bars of the condemned man’s death cell.
“What’s up sergeant?” The condemned man smiles warmly at this officer who has always treated him with respect and dignity.
“I just wanted to say something.” His jowls reveal a quiver as his hands move quickly to wipe both eyes. He steps right up to the bars and takes both hands of the man inside in his own. “I never knew you on the street. I don’t know what you were like out there. But I’ve been knowing you since you came here almost twenty years ago.”
The man in the cell bows his head to hide his eyes. I quickly hand him a tissue.
“And in all those times I been knowing you, I know that the man I’ve known inside these walls is more of a Christian than I am.”
There is not a sound on the floor. Even the peeling white brick walls seem to have faded from sight.
“I wanted you to know that I refused to work second shift today because I don’t want to be here when it happens.” His eyes and the lift in his voice cue us that more is coming. “I know that you will get in heaven long before me. And I just hope that God will be merciful on me and allow me to see you there someday.”
The two men, one in uniform brown and the other in condemned man white, one outside and one inside, one knowing the exact time when he will die and one having no certainty of the hour or the day, clasp hands and eyes firmly for the briefest moment. Then the sergeant wraps it. “Goodbye, good man.”
The rest of my time at cell front in the death house blurs into that instant when I am sitting in the witness room in the spiritual advisor seat and the curtain opens. I am barely aware of the press and the state witnesses seated to my right and rear. I am sitting front row left. He is stretched out on the gurney less than three feet away. His feet are to my right. His arms and legs are strapped down. All he can move is his head. When he looks toward the window, I am staring right into his eyes.
On behalf of his family, I sign the words, I love you.
He smiles, winks in acknowledgement, and speaks his last words on earth.
“I ask that the good Lord forgive me my sins. I would like to apologize to the families of my victims.”
Then, before thanking his family and friends who have shown him love and support, he pauses and looks at those who are there to carry out the execution, saying: “I ask the Lord to forgive them for they know not what they do.”
In thirteen minutes he is dead. Killed right before our eyes.
Next thing I know, I am exiting a van, listening to official witnesses chat and laugh casually about Christmas party schedules. Twenty minutes and fifteen miles later, I walk into the candlelit church where his mother and family have been kneeling in prayer with my wife, Susan, for two hours. Only a tear in the fabric of time and space can describe the chasm.
First to them and then by phone to family not present, I hear my own voice: “It’s finished. Your father . . . your son . . . your brother . . . is dead.”
His family joins us at our home for a shared meal. By the time we see them off, we are truly saying goodbye to a piece of our own heart. Their life journey and ours have crossed in a way that is welded for good with the solder of shared faith held in the seams of shared experience.
Finally, I am sitting alone in my living room with the lit Christmas tree. It is about 3:00 a.m. on December eighth, almost six hours since everyone left. Four hours since my wife and children went to sleep.
In the solitude of my living room, the blinking Christmas tree lights pulse with a solitary question: What have we done?
By Dale S. Recinella