Catholic Sentinel photo by Jon DeBellis
Archbishop Alexander Sample at the recessional during Mass at Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Jon DeBellis
Archbishop Alexander Sample at the recessional during Mass at Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem.

SALEM — Thirty-five Catholic prison inmates were urged Friday night by their new archbishop to open themselves to let the Holy Spirit work in their lives.

“We all think we know what we need:  To get out of here, but what is God doing for us while we are here?" Archbishop Alexander Sample said to the prison congregation gathered for an early evening Mass inside the minimum security prison south of the state capitol.

“Brothers, we need to learn the love and mercy of God," said the rail-thin, six foot, two inch, 53-year-old spiritual leader of Western Oregon Catholics, prison inmates especially included.

He admitted to the mostly Latino group, whose members are undergoing specialized training to prepare them to re-enter society after finishing their sentences, that he, too, has a lot of wounds and strives everyday to let God enter more into his life to release him from the things that blind him, that imprison him.

“That's what Jesus wants to heal and we all need someone to help us, to care for us, to love one another and be loving brothers."

He urged the respectful and polite young men, uniformly clad in dark blue prison sweatshirts and denim pants stenciled with bright orange INMATE, Mill Creek Correctional or Santiam Correctional, to ask the Lord to touch us all more deeply.

This special Mass marked the archbishop's first prison ministry visit since he became the new archbishop last spring. He used to devote hours to prison visits as a young priest in Marquette, Michigan, where 175 inches of snow falls every winter, on average.

Friday night's liturgy was attended by the Catholic director of the entire state Department of Corrections, Colette Peters, who is credited for sweeping reforms in the way Oregon deals with prison inmates, resulting in the state's lowest return-again-to-prison rate in the entire country. She began programs to foster enthusiastic community involvement with the prison population, started visits by inmates' families and children, drug and alcohol counseling, resume preparation and high school graduation equivalency. Everything is designed to help the men be successful as they pick up their lives after prison. Some are convicted murderers, burglars, sex offenders.

The Mass got under way 40 minutes late as the congregation waited for another group of Catholic inmates to arrive in a dense fog to Santiam from nearby Mill Creek Correctional Institution.

The inmates walked into the institutional green-painted recreation room in single file and were personally greeted by the archbishop with a vigorous handshake, asking of names and an enthusiastic welcome. 

“It is a joy for me to be here with you guys tonight," the archbishop told the assembly, “and I really mean that. I am excited to be here. " 

He has been archbishop for nine months and  “it has been far too long before I could come here," he told the group. He plans to visit maximum security Oregon State Prison in early March. There he will encounter much reduced gang activity and prisoner on prisoner abuse because of reforms made by the corrections department leadership. Now the Surenos, Nortenos, Piasas, Bloods and Crips and White Supremacists are referred to as “unauthorized organizations," in prison speak, and dealt with.

The “remarkable" gospel reading for the night concerned the paralytic man who was lowered through the roof of a house in the fishing village at Capernaum for Jesus to heal. Instead, Jesus told the man his sins were forgiven and to get up, pick up his mat and go home.

Jesus doesn't do what is obvious—to heal the man, the archbishop explained to the rapt group. Jesus is looking beyond the man's obvious need; He is looking into the man's soul.

“Jesus is more concerned with the man's spiritual side, the paralysis caused by his sins," the archbishop said.  “Jesus wants the man to know the love and forgiveness of God. That's how God looks at us."

Corrections Director, Peters, said she has been working to invite the community to the prisons and has been reaching out to volunteers. "People have to come to make prisons safe and the community safe." Santiam Correctional Institution is a 12-acre, 440 inmate minimum security prison along Aumsville Highway, in south Salem. The nearly 70-year-old building originally housed mentally ill patients from the state Hospital, Where the film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was filmed.

Many of the jobs that Inmates work while awaiting release involve supervised crews contracting with various state agencies and private industry in the area.

George Gerspacher, a member of St. Boniface in Sublimity, has been volunteering in prison ministry off and on for  several years now, and was inspired to enter the ministry by the late St. Mary of Oregon Sister Betty Bender. 

"It says in Matthew 25; 'For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ I guess I just felt called to do the latter," said Gerspacher.

The liturgy was followed by cookies and punch while the archbishop heard confessions and personally blessed dozens of congregants before everyone either returned to their cell blocks or hopped in their vehicles for the treacherous ride home in the creepy fog.