Catholic Sentinel photo by Jon DeBellis
Archbishop Alexander Sample celebrates Mass with inmates at Oregon State Penitentiary.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Jon DeBellis
Archbishop Alexander Sample celebrates Mass with inmates at Oregon State Penitentiary.

SALEM — Fifty-five inmates at the walled maximum security prison here Tuesday night were told by their new archbishop that they “are loved."

You have nothing to fear because God loves all of us,  Archbishop Alexander Sample told the picture ID card- wearing, prison blue-clad inmates at Oregon State Penitentiary out State Street from the state Capitol.

"You guys are great," the boyish-looking archbishop told the men. “Just about every congregation on the outside should be ashamed by your enthusiastic responses and singing."

The deeply impressed inmates uttered a thank you in response to their spiritual leader's comments on their Mass attendance.

This marked the first time the men were visited by their new archbishop who is nearing completion of his first 12 months as spiritual leader of Western Oregon Catholics.

The archbishop's infectious enthusiasm at celebrating Mass with the inmates reverberated among the inmates.

"I spent 64 years on the outside," said Carl Sundberg a former teacher and Eugene area  public radio station manager," and never received Communion from a bishop. It was worth the wait."

Sundberg's response echoed among the other men in the prison Catholic congregation: young and old, short and tall, bearded and clean shaven, pony tail wearing, shaved heads, enormous mustaches, dreadlocks, white, black and brown faces.

After the hour-long Mass, they lined up to have their rosaries blessed, receive the archbishop's personal blessing, have their sins forgiven and pose for photos with the 6'2 inch archbishop that they can send to their mothers.

The 53-year old archbishop, among the youngest in the church, had to go through a stiff airport-like security screening and metal detector Xray before being escorted to the chapel on one of the top floors of the prison. The prison houses 2,200 inmates, half of whom are white, 30 percent Latino and the remainder African-American and Asian. Thirty-four men are on death row and dozens of other hard core cases are confined to special housing, restricted one person cells; most cells house two men. The last execution occurred in 1996.

Inmate Hal Elkins , 61 in June,  acted as prison sacristan, preparing the altar and and handing out missals. In fact, someone at the prison printed special Mass booklets that contained the readings and the songs.

Elkins was convicted in 1972  of murder. He is scheduled to be released in October, 2019.

Superintendent Jeff Premo stopped by before the Mass got under way to check things out.  At five minutes after six, inmates began filing in the overheated chapel after a dinner of hamburgers and fries (the food seems pretty good, one prison official said).

The archbishop greeted each of them with a warm smile and handshake. “Hi, there. How you doing?" he asked.

While preparations were being made by a dozen volunteers for the special liturgy, it was not lost on some that thousands of Mardi Gras revelers in New Orleans and elsewhere were in the medium stages of drinking themselves into stupors to mark the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday.

In his homily, the archbishop said he is “sincerely happy to be with you tonight.

“I can't think of anywhere I"d rather be than to be with you guys on the eve of Lent."

He repeated over and over that God has great love and great heart for guys who find themselves in this situation.

He talked about his early involvement in prison ministry as a young priest in Marquette, in the Upper Michigan Peninsula bordering Lake Superior.

He described himself as a young, blond-haired, privileged young man and wondered what he could offer inmates there?

All he could offer, he concluded, was to give the men ‘the great love of Jesus," which he is bringing tonight inside OSP, as the prison is called. “This is the best treasure one can have," the archbishop told the men.

“Your archbishop comes to you tonight to tell you that the love and mercy of God through Jesus is available to  all of you tonight in this room.

“God is here, in your midst, loving you and extending his mercy to you," the archbishop said.

He said he, too, needs healing and “God comes to us where we are, even in a place like this."

“Not one of you is unworthy of that love. God's love for us is pure grace."