Catholic Sentinel photo by Jon DeBellis
Archbishop Alexander Sample prepares to enter Oregon State Penitentiary.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Jon DeBellis
Archbishop Alexander Sample prepares to enter Oregon State Penitentiary.

To the Catholic Sentinel:

The images, sounds and actions surrounding the Archbishop Alexander Sample’s confirmation of Gary Haugen are some of the most profound of my Catholic life. The Oregon State Penitentiary is probably the last place we would think of as holy. However, at 3 p.m., Wednesday, May 28 OSP became a sacred place.

The confirmation was special, but there was no way to expect the afternoon liturgy to turn a small room in the maximum-security section of OSP into the Upper Room filled with the Holy Spirit.

Those who regularly minister to our inmates know that the simple journey from the front door to the chapel or, in this case a meeting room deep inside, is marked not by signs but the opening — and closing — clang of steel gates; one opens in front while another slams behind.

There are six openings and closings to reach the men on Death Row.

Gary Haugen and I met outside the room I thanked him for participating and he said his “heart was pounding.”

He entered the room handcuffed and heavily guarded. Then, on his own, he prostrated himself before Archbishop Sample and said in a clear voice, “I am not worthy.”

After a moment of silence, the guards helped him to his feet and placed him in a blue cage, with steel meshed walls and bolted door.

During Mass, Gary stood humbly, hands folded; just like the school Sisters taught us. Tears often ran down his face during the liturgy.

Though the steel cage, one of four, separated this sheep from his shepherd, the men’s souls and prayers were united in love and mercy with our entire local Church. That’s because Jesus first loved us and then sent us.

Standing there, I believe the Holy Spirit guided Gov. John Kitzhaber and the courts to spare Gary’s life so we, the Church, could reach out and make Gary a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Life on death row limits any physical contact, so our initial handshake became one of the first signs of Gary’s humanity in a place designed to give other messages.

The Sacrament of Confirmation and Eucharist too were moments human and divine.

Gary knelt in the cell and turned his head to allow the Archbishop to minister to him through a small twelve by six inch opening about waist high.

Gary’s Confirmation sponsor, Jeffery Tiner, a fellow death row inmate, stood with his hand on his steel cell praying as Gary was anointed.

The first reading was taken from Acts 17 where Paul greets the Greeks in the Aeropagus and says.” I see that in every respect you are very religious.” Indeed the community at OSP was religious, but more. Gathered together with the Archbishop, Gary, his fellow inmates, guards and prison staff, they were a holy church.

In our faith journey, God and the Holy Spirit give us those unique and powerful moments that proclaim the Gospel of love and mercy so profoundly that words are inadequate to describe.

That was my experience that afternoon: Gary Haugen’s confirmation on death row was the Gospel fully alive; OSP was one of our holy churches in Western Oregon

We need to pray for Gary and ourselves that we meet the challenge Archbishop Sample gave Gary to be like the Sacred Chrism, the fragrance of Christ to others.

For Gary, may he be Christ to death row and may all of us be Christ to our world.

Deacon Tom Gornick