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Death row inmate confirmed
Catholic Sentinel photo by Jon DeBellis
Archbishop Alexander Sample prepares to enter Oregon State Penitentiary to confirm death row inmate Gary Haugen.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Jon DeBellis
Archbishop Alexander Sample prepares to enter Oregon State Penitentiary to confirm death row inmate Gary Haugen.
Gary Haugen
Gary Haugen
Robert Pfohman

SALEM— One of Oregon's most infamous prisoners Tuesday received the Sacrament of Confirmation from Archbishop Alexander Sample in a heavily-guarded private ceremony in the maximum security prison here.

Gary Haugen was convicted in November, 2011 of murdering a fellow inmate while serving a life sentence for the murder of his former girlfriend's mother. Haugen has gained notoriety for dropping his appeals and asking to be executed. A second death row prisoner, Jason Van Brumwell, who was an accomplice with Haugen in the prison killing, wants to die too, arguing that pursuing appeals is pointless.

Haugen was sentenced to die for his second murder on December, 2011, but his execution was put on hold by Gov. John Kitzhaber, despite Haugen's pleas to end his life.

The Democratic governor has halted all executions for the duration of his time in office.

Oregon State Penitentiary, or OSP, as the the high-walled, Belgian razor wire-topped prison fortress on the outskirts of the capital is known, houses 2,100 inmates, including nearly 300 behind bars for sex offender convictions.

Thirty-five men are confined to special housing-single occupancy cells on Death Row. The last execution here occurred in May, 1997.

On Tuesday afternoon, a shackled Haugen entered the small room followed by three other Catholic death row inmates plus guards. Haugen, who said his heart was pounding, went to the floor and lay face down before his chief shepherd, saying, “I am not worthy to be here.”

The prisoners — Haugen, Ricardo Serrano, Conan Hale and Jeff Tiner — were then closed in individual cages that included only a small opening. There were no chairs or pews, so Haugen stood through the entire Mass with a peaceful, gentle expression on his face.  

Though only a few feet from the archbishop, a sturdy crosshatch of iron kept them apart. Death row inmates are forbidden to touch anyone, so it was unusual when the archbishop reached in to anoint the inmate’s head gently.

Haugen was baptized earlier this year. Tiner, who has written letters to the editor to support Catholic causes, is Haugen’s sponsor.

During his homily, Archbishop Sample told Haugen and the other men that Jesus experienced being a criminal. He reminded the men they are not alone.

“God died on that cross because he loves you,” the archbishop said.

Archbishop Sample explained the holy oil used for confirmation. It is infused with sweet-smelling balsam. He told Haugen that now, he is to be “the fragrance of Christ in this place.”
The inmates received Communion kneeling as the archbishop reached through the small opening.

“I have seen confirmations all spring and there was nothing like this one,” says Deacon Tom Gornick, who directs prison ministry in the archdiocese.

The Sacrament of Confirmation is one of the seven sacraments that Catholics receive during their religious upbringing. Catholic doctrine says this sacrament seals the faithful with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and who are strengthened in their Christian life.

The Catholic woman who heads the entire state Department of Corrections, Colette Peters, hopes that Haugen may be on the cusp of saving his soul.

Peters has transformed life in prison for Oregon inmates through her reforms, introducing many innovative programs to guide prisoners for eventual re-entry into civilian life.

For his part, the archbishop is partnering with Peters so he can have better access to his parishioners who live behind bars and cannot get to Mass on weekends.

His next series of prison ministry visits will be to women's prisons.

He is transformed himself as he passes through tight security screening and is escorted to the chapel by correctional officers, no longer called guards. The 6 foot, 2 inch-tall, 53-year-old  youthful looking churchman has been actively involved in prison ministry since his days as a young cleric in the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, along Lake Superior in the Upper Michigan Peninsula.

Deacon Tom Gornick contributed to this story.

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, May 30, 2014
Article comment by: Brian Barry

Ask and thou shall receive.
We are all entitled to forgiveness, all we need to do is repent.

Posted: Friday, May 30, 2014
Article comment by: Paul H

What a beautiful story! Thank you for writing about this.

Just one nitpick: The following statement is a bit misleading:

"The Sacrament of Confirmation is one of the seven sacraments that Catholics receive during their religious upbringing."

Most Catholics don't receive all seven sacraments, especially not all "during their religious upbringing." Most people receive no more than six sacraments in their lifetimes, since few receive both Matrimony and Holy Orders.

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