Prison ministry volunteers hope to raise funds for a chapel

ANDERSON — Twice every week, a Catholic man goes into a small room to face 15 or so hardened criminals, sometimes he is alone, sometimes he is accompanied by a  retired priest.

He doesn’t like it.

“It’s really cramped in there,” Robert S. Dowd said. “There’s a desk that we pull out. We bring in our own crucifix and wine, hosts, vestments and everything. There’s not much privacy.”

Dowd was talking about the facilities available to him and Father Eugene Leonard for religion classes and Mass at the Perry Correctional Institution, a Level 3 prison with about 1,000 male inmates.

At least three of the worshippers at the weekly Catholic liturgy are murderers.

“One guy was on Death Row for seven years. He told me all about it. I didn’t want to hear it, but he told me anyway,” Dowd said. “But these guys are really sincere and our work has a positive effect on them. Especially once they get out.”

So, it’s not as if Dowd and Father Leonard don’t like their prison ministry. It is, after all, completely voluntary and unpaid, and each has been doing it for longer than twelve years.

What they don’t like are the close quarters and the lack of storage space. Those issues could be solved if the prison chaplain’s plan comes to fruition.

“We are working to create a community of living Christians here and we just need space,” said the chaplain, the Rev. Nathan “Andy” Cooper, a state Department of Corrections employee and a Baptist minister.

The chaplain formed a non-profit organization headed by a board of directors.

The corporation will build a separate, non-denominational prison chapel on the grounds of Perry with an office and storage facilities for the Catholic ministry. The board will then gift it to the state.

“This process has been successful at the Broad River Institution and at others in the state. It works,” Rev. Cooper said. “I come at this from a pastor’s heart. A chapel will enhance the work of God inside the fence.”

The only thing missing from the plan is money. The state will not fund the chapel, and building a freestanding, furnished facility with inner perimeter security, audio/visual equipment and closed circuit system will cost about $400,000.

On April 16, as he walked out of the prison hauling behind him a rolling suitcase that holds the Mass equipment he uses, Father Leonard spoke about the prison ministry he has come to love.

“I had a sad experience here at Easter,” Father Leonard said. “There’s no music in the room they give us, so I recruited some people from the parish to do music for the men. When we got here, there was some kind of security problem and they wouldn’t let us in. We had to go home, with no Easter Mass for the men.”

The facade at Perry is a forbidding presence. Miles of tall cyclone fencing covered in rolled razor wire stretches across the open land to raised guardhouses at the corners. Armed guards in pick-up trucks patrol the perimeter.

To get inside the fence, even the priest has to be searched, manually and with a metal detector wand.

When asked by The Miscellany if serving killers and other convicted felons in a small room in such a severe environment was frightening, neither Dowd nor Father Leonard would admit to feeling fear.

“When I first started, I said to myself ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?’ And my wife was worried,” Dowd said. “But now I see that these guys are human beings and that this is a much-needed mission. There’s so much to do.”

Father Leonard, a veteran, said that he thinks of his work as similar to going on a military base with all the attendant security precautions.

The pastor emeritus at Jesus, Our Risen Savior in Spartanburg, hears confessions in the prison, celebrates Mass and has even confirmed inmates.

His civilian partner, a retired engineer from St. Joseph Church in Anderson, teaches religion classes and helps the chaplain with programs on hygiene and other topics. He has two inmates preparing for their reception into the church. They are assisted by two new volunteers.

The men love their ministry. They are willing to donate their time and even the gasoline for their cars to get to and from the outlying Perry.

All they want is adequate space to do God’s work.