Women prisoners find hope in their new faith

The barbed fence surrounding the Camille Graham Women’s Correctional Institution will only be a physical barrier between Julie and Gail and their new faith community at Our Lady of the Hills Church in Columbia. On May 2 at the correctional facility, the two women were welcomed into the church during the Rite of Initiation joined by their cellmates and fellow parishioners.

“The whole service was beautiful. It has been a gift for me to be a part of something that only God could have put together,” said Maria Bernhagan, participant from Our Lady of the Hills.

Fernanda, one of the 11 residents that came to the rite, said she was happy to be a part of the celebration.

“It refreshed my soul,” she remarked.

Celebrant Father Anthony Droze, pastor of Our Lady of the Hills, performed the rite assisted by Deacon Jack Crocker from Corpus Christi Church in Lexington and Deacon Roland Thomas from St. Martin de Porres in Columbia.

“Not locked doors or even steel doors can withhold the Lord where two or more are gathered in his name,” said Father Droze during his homily based on the Gospel where the resurrected Jesus appeared to the apostles and St. Thomas probed his wounds.

“Just as Thomas entered the heart of Jesus through his wounds, Christ enters our hearts through our wounds,” he said. “We can’t dismiss our wounds because, like the glorified body of Christ, we will bare the marks of the crosses we carried and one day the glory of God will shine through our crucifixions.”

The special event was made possible through the efforts of many people, starting with Deacon Thomas who has been ministering in the Columbia prisons for more than 25 years. This day was a culmination of the years he spent sowing the seeds of the faith.

“I chose prison ministry because I heard no one was going to the prisons on a regular basis. I got stuck because I saw the need, and the need continues today,” said Thomas, who with his wife, Vicky, has been visiting two women inmates for five years.

“Deacon Thomas helped me in one way by speaking with me and answering my questions. The ladies were an added blessing because they were able to help in other ways, both leading me here today,” said Julie, one of the neophytes.

The simultaneous call to service that linked together the efforts of Deacon Thomas, members of the Legion of Mary and several parishioners at Our Lady of the Hills was essential for the success of this unique RCIA program.

“So many people contributed in so many ways without prior collaboration. It was obviously the work the Holy Spirit,” said Sharon Crocker, president of the Legion of Mary’s Columbia Curia.

Our Lady of the Hills Church provided prayer books and the director of religious education, Donna Tomasini, provided resources for the RCIA program.

In addition Corpus Christi Church gave bibles to the women and a small candle was lit from its Easter candle and carefully transported to the prison for the rite.

The Legion of Mary became involved with the women’s correctional institution about a year ago when Crocker had a training session for legionnaires interested in working in the prisons as part of their active duty service.

After the session, Lilliane Georges, from Our Lady of the Hills praesidium, told Crocker she would help in any way she could. Together they consulted with Deacon Thomas and accompanied him to the prison for several weeks to see where God would lead them.

Thomas, Crocker and Georges saw the women’s increasing desire to learn more about the faith, so they decided to add an additional day for religious education. After a number of weeks, they asked if anyone was interested in an inquiry class and the response was overwhelming. Gail, who had been a Southern Baptist, and Julie, a Presbyterian, asked to be received into the Catholic Church.

Crocker approached Father Droze about initiating a RCIA program in the prison, and he said that an authentic RCIA process needed a faith community to welcome its new members.

Shortly after that encounter, the

pastor was approached by three of his parishioners who said they were

interested in prison ministry. Father Droze sent the women to speak with Crocker.

“All of the sudden, we had a faith community to welcome our ladies,” said Crocker who was thankful that Sue Darlington, Debby Heizer and Maria Bernhagan agreed to be the parish representatives.

Darlington has been coming to the prison for about three month and was “blown away” by the spirituality of the women she has met.

“God is working out there in a powerful way that I can’t explain,” she said.

“The whole process has been awesome especially the way these ladies absorbed all this information about the faith and continued to hunger for more,” said Georges who is inspired by their “openness to the spirit.”

Georges was impressed how the group continues to grow through the witness of women like Wanda who share their testimony of transformation to others.

“When I first came to the prison, I was depressed and spoke to no one. I missed my family, and I hated being away from home. I decided I would try to get my spiritual life in order while in prison. I read my Bible, and I attended the nondenominational services, but I still felt empty. After two months, I was able to attend the Catholic services, and I remembered saying, ‘This is it. This is what I have been missing. Thank you God, I knew you would deliver me,'” recalled Wanda who said that her whole life in prison has changed.

“These women brought me out of my shell and made my time here bearable,” she exclaimed.

For resident Michelle, another inquirer who was recently transferred to a correctional institution in Greenwood, distance did not hinder her desire to be Catholic. After much red tape, Sharon can now visit the Greenwood facility, 90 miles away to conduct weekly RCIA classes there for Michelle and three additional inquirers.

The women who were apart of the Rite of Initiation have their own powerful story to share, beginning with the sponsor, Theresa, who opted to stay on at Camille when given the opportunity to transfer to a very low security facility before her release. She refused the offer because she wanted to remain for the duration of the RCIA program. Theresa, a cradle Catholic, was happy to share her faith with Gail and Julie.

“I love the church, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything different,” she said with her contagious enthusiasm.

Gail said that joining the Catholic Church was ” the completion of everything I believe.” She was first introduced to the faith by a Catholic woman who lived down the hall.

“She told me to go to the Catholic service because it is there that I would find peace,”said Gail.

The other new member of the church, Julie, first found herself gravitating to the Catholic communion services because the nondenominational counterpart just did not make her feel comfortable.

“I love the unity and reverence I have found in the Catholic Church,” she said.

Julie and Gail have come a long way from their first day in prison and continue to grow spiritually.

“Going through the RCIA program has helped me with healing and forgiving others and myself,” said Julie.

She plans to continue meeting on Tuesday and Friday as long as it is available.

“The Rite of Christian Initiation is about transformation, and as I worked with these women and watched their transformation, I saw that my own concept of God’s mercy was transformed,” said Crocker adding that she has received much more from these women than she could ever give to them.