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Ministers of Mercy


Christina Gray

Jesuit Father George Williams, a member of Mother of Good Counsel Council 1078 in Andover, Mass., celebrates Mass for Death Row inmates at San Quentin on Nov. 2, All Souls Day. (Photo by Lt. Sam Robinson)

Despite its medieval appearance and echo-filled interior, San Quentin State Prison’s “death row” is no cathedral. It’s a five-story human warehouse of lost hope squatting on the rocky shores of San Francisco Bay. The words “Condemned Row,” painted in black Gothic script over the front door, serve as a reminder of this reality.

Nonetheless, hope is something that Jesuit Father George Williams, the California prison’s Catholic chaplain, has to offer men currently condemned to death for their brutal crimes. Approximately 125 of the 750 maximum-security inmates wait for their turn to attend one of the two Masses offered here each week. Up to 18 at a time shuffle in restraints to the “chapel” — a windowless old shower room retrofitted with heavy metal caging and six rows of bolted down benches.

Dressed in both priestly vestments and a Kevlar vest, Father Williams, 56, looks out at his congregation from within a padlocked metal cage of his own, a little larger than a phone booth. The men, many scarred and pale, are silent as they gaze at the consecrated host lifted into the glare of the florescent bulb overhead.

Father Williams said it’s at this point in the Mass when he often imagines the light of Christ streaming forth from the host, illuminating the darkness of death row and the souls within.

“When I raise the host I don’t see heinous murderers standing in front of me, I see human beings,” he said. “If his body was not given up for them, too, then what difference would our faith make? What a gift I have been given to be able to bear witness to the mercy of Christ embodied in this sacrament in such a dark place.”

Whether priests, deacons or laymen, there are thousands of trained Catholic prison ministers and volunteers who share the privilege of bearing Christ’s light to incarcerated communities throughout the United States. And many of them, like Father Williams, are Knights of Columbus who manifest their commitment to charity and fraternity by heralding a message of hope to those who need it most.


Ministry to prisoners is recognized by the Catholic Church as one of the seven corporal works of mercy grounded in the Gospel mandate of charity. In preaching about the Last Judgment, Jesus identified himself with those who are imprisoned: “I was in prison and you visited to me” (Mt 25:36). During his crucifixion, Christ ministered to the repentant criminal on the cross (cf. Lk 23:43). And the Letter to the Hebrews reads, “Be mindful of prisoners as if sharing their imprisonment …” (Heb 13:3).

Knights of Columbus serving in prison ministry also have a special model in their founder, Venerable Michael McGivney. In the spring and summer of 1882, Father McGivney was immersed in both parish responsibilities and the work of the fledgling Order in New Haven, Conn. He also paid daily visits to James “Chip” Smith, a notorious young ruffian, in New Haven’s jail. Two years earlier, Smith had killed the chief of police during a drunken brawl and was sentenced to death for the crime.

For more than a year, Father McGivney was a faithful visitor and friend to Smith, counseling him back to the Church.

With Father McGivney’s permission, a reporter from the New Haven Evening Register visited Smith the week before his execution Sept. 1, 1882.

“The ministrations of Father McGivney and the Sisters of Mercy have given [Smith] the full consolation conveyed by strong and sincere religious faith,” the reporter wrote. “He has lately had an unwonted animation of countenance and cheerfulness of spirits which can be accounted for on no other ground.”

With gratitude to Father McGivney, who stood by his side, the repentant Smith assured his weeping mother that he was meeting a “happy death.”

Nearly a century later, Father Williams first felt the call to religious life while growing up in North Haven, Conn., just a few miles away from where these conversations took place.

In 1987, at age 30, he left a career in the Air Force to become a Jesuit brother and chose prison ministry as an “experiment” at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk. It was there, while peering through a narrow slot to talk to a man in solitary confinement, that Father Williams said he “realized that Jesus was showing me his face.”

Williams later chose to become ordained to the priesthood because of his experience with prison ministry. A Columbian Squire in his youth, he also joined the Knights, becoming a member of Mother of Good Counsel Council 1078 in Andover, Mass.

“As Knights, we are called to go where people are neglected and poor,” he said. “A lot of prisoners fall into that category.”

Father Williams noted that beginning in the 1970s, the U.S. prison system shifted its focus from rehabilitation to retribution. Convicted men and women began cycling in and out of prison — angry, violent, drug-addicted, mentally ill or spiritually empty — essentially coming out worse than they went in. Today, the United States holds the largest incarcerated population in the world, with more than 2.2 million prisoners in state and federal prisons.

“New studies confirm what our pastoral experience has demonstrated,” reads a statement titled “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective” that was published in 2000 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Physical, behavioral and emotional healing happens sooner and with more lasting results if accompanied by spiritual healing. Access to worship and religious formation is … a significant element in rebuilding lives and changing behavior.”

Critics are skeptical of the idea of rehabilitating murderers, rapists and gang members, and prison chaplains sometimes hear that they are “wasting their time.” But most chaplains don’t believe that. Nearly three-quarters of the chaplains surveyed in a 2011 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that they consider access to religious programs to be “absolutely critical” to the successful rehabilitation and re-entry of inmates leaving prison.

For his part, Father Williams said that his job isn’t to fix prisoners or undo the damage they have done. He doesn’t proselytize inmates, but rather meets them where they are. “I offer them a path for healing their souls and making peace with themselves and with God,” he explained.


As a modern Catholic prison chaplain, Father Williams represents a minority in the United States. Only 13 percent of the 1,474 state prison chaplains that responded to the Pew survey identified themselves as Catholic. Nearly three-quarters of them are evangelical Protestants aided by a legion of lay volunteers.

The fact that Catholic inmates are more likely to drift away from the faith without a Catholic presence underscores the need for more Catholic prison chaplains, as well as the need for more lay volunteers to assist and supplement their work.

“I have some terrific volunteers — wonderful, dedicated people — but we’re not getting all the help we need in prisons,” said Father Harold P. Paulsen, a veteran prison minister and retired priest of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas.

For more than 20 years, Father Paulsen has focused on healing prisoners by helping them overcome inclinations to evil and crime through Christ. A longtime member of Palestine (Texas) Council 1323, the 83-year-old Boston native “inherited” the prison ministries of five Texas prisons and now zigzags the roads of northeast Texas for weekly visits to each facility.

“You see miracles every time you come,” said Father Paulsen, whose ministry consists of celebrating Mass and the sacraments, counseling, and encouraging prisoners to educate themselves through spiritual and catechetical reading, using materials such as those published by the Knight of Columbus Catholic Information Service.

“I get as much K of C literature as I can for every prison I go to,” Father Paulsen explained. “I have them study as much as possible, and then they discover the goodness of the faith and of God. Some of the changes are really dramatic.”

Since the Catholic Information Service launched a 10-part Faith Formation Home Study Course in 1947, more than half of the students have been inmates — including 51 percent of the 1,550 students currently enrolled.

In addition to the resources that the Order provides, there are many examples of Knights who have found the courage to volunteer for prison ministry themselves.

Emmett “Spike” Hawkins, a retired utility worker and member of Whitehaven Council 5062 in Memphis, Tenn., has been volunteering in prisons for nearly 20 years. After completing a Cursillo weekend, a three-day “short course in Christianity,” he began serving as a team member of Kairos, a modified version of Cursillo for the prison community.

Hawkins, 66, also serves with a group of volunteers at West Tennessee State Penitentiary, located 60 miles north of Memphis.

“We talk about what we believe and go over the Catechism,” he said, “but one of the main things is just to listen. It means a lot to the prisoners to express themselves to someone who cares.”

Deacon Bill Davis, director of prison ministry for the Diocese of Memphis and a member of Timothy J. Coyne Council 9317 in Cordova, Tenn., encouraged Hawkins to get more involved.

“He helped me to see there is such a need,” Hawkins said.

An ocean away, Deacon Joaquin “Kin” Borja, a longtime prison minister at Halawa Correctional Facility in Aiea, Hawaii, similarly convinced his fellow council members to “adopt” the facility and its 300 medium-security inmates.

“This is more than just a Catholic issue; it’s a human issue,” said Deacon Kin, a member of nearby St. Elizabeth Parish and Father Damien de Veuster Council 6906. Speaking to brother Knights who are thinking about becoming prison ministry volunteers, he says, “Pray about it. The love of God will overcome your fear.”

Gary Stark, one of Deacon Kin’s fellow council members, agreed to volunteer to help coordinate Communion services at the prison, which currently has no Catholic chaplain.

“I wanted to do more than just attend council meetings and fundraisers,” said Stark, 60. By necessity, his prison training largely focused on the negative: what not to wear, what not to do, what not to say. At first, Stark asked himself, “Do I really want to do this? I’ll have to be on my toes all the time.”

Soon, however, Stark’s fears were relieved, and his wife, Linda, completed the training as well. The couple now visits the Halawa Correctional Facility on a weekly basis.

“The feeling we get when we leave there each week, you can’t put it into words,” said Linda.

The Starks’ experience is common among those working in prison ministry. Though surrounded by concrete and steel bars, they are able to clearly see light amid the darkness.

Recalling his first walk to death row after his arrival at San Quentin in 2010, Father Williams said that when he looked up through the razor wire to the rafters he spotted a dozen red-winged blackbirds.

“Their song is a reminder that even in all this oppression and darkness, God is here.”

CHRISTINA GRAY is a reporter for Catholic San Francisco, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.