What it’s like celebrating Easter behind bars

Erin Ratleff receives communion at DCI’s Easter mass, where she was confirmed (she had already been baptized and made her First Communion as a child). (Credit: Mark Bowen/Archdiocese Of Cincinnati)Erin Ratleff receives communion at DCI’s Easter mass, where she was confirmed (she had already been baptized and made her First Communion as a child). (Credit: Mark Bowen/Archdiocese Of Cincinnati)

On the day after Easter, five incarcerated women at the Dayton Correctional Institution in Dayton, Ohio, were initiated into the Catholic Church. They ranged in age from their 20s to 40s and had each committed different crimes, from robbery to selling drugs to murder. Some will be discharged next year; at least one will be in prison for life. On this day, though, they were starting over.

I had been invited by Cincinnati’s archdiocese as a member of the media to celebrate the occasion, the first of its kind in the prison. A group of reporters, women religious, archdiocesan employees, volunteers and Cincinnati’s Bishop JosephR. Binzer were admitted to the compound through a series of increasingly secure buildings. When we finally made it into the prison, I was surprised by the campus-like feel inside. Women in grey and faded-blue sweats, T-shirts and scrubs walked freely from building to building.

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The chapel, shared by inmates and volunteers of every faith who visit the prison, was a cinder-block room with a row of open transom windows and cheerful if institutional decor: pale yellow walls, posters tacked on the windows, rows of wooden pews flanked by folding chairs, an old drum kit stashed in the corner and a keyboard just beyond that.

On the day after Easter, five incarcerated women were initiated into the Catholic Church.

The five catechumens were gathered near the door, some seated, some standing, some looking a little overwhelmed at the thought of such a production on their behalf. But two young sisters, members of the Children of Mary, attended to their every need—smiling, hands gently resting on their backs. They, along with two lay volunteers, had guided the women throughout the nine-month Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process, known in the prison as Catholic 101. Now they were helping each woman into a plain white cotton vest and a lace head veil in preparation for Mass.

All five catechumens, a volunteer and a member of the Children of Mary stand during D.C.I.’s Catholic Easter Mass.
All five catechumens, a volunteer and a member of the Children of Mary stand during D.C.I.’s Catholic Easter Mass. (Credit: Mark Bowen/Archdiocese Of Cincinnati)
 

About two dozen other women from the prison filled the pews, some friends of the elect, some Catholics who had come to celebrate a belated Easter Mass, some just there for the cookies they knew would be served at the end.

Bishop Binzer began the Mass behind a makeshift altar with little decoration save for a small vase of pink and yellow tulips, placed on the floor in front of it. A month before, he confirmed my youngest son and some 60 other teens in Cincinnati’s cathedral; he seemed equally at home in the more austere chapel. The bishop’s homily was well received, especially when he told the story about a boy who once explained to him what the word Bible really stood for: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Several of the women in the room responded with an emphatic yes.

They had made mistakes. They had been forgiven. And they were moving forward.

Midway through the Mass, the co-presider, a priest and prison chaplain wearing pastel plaid pants, got a little too heavy-handed with the holy water during the blessing and managed to fairly soak several of the women who came to watch. At Communion time, an incarcerated woman who had been standing silently throughout the Mass played beautifully on the electric keyboard.

By the end of the afternoon, four women were baptized and had received first Communion, a fifth had been confirmed, and all were radiant. After nine months of study and discernment, it was clear they had achieved something many people, in prison or out, have not: peace. They had made mistakes. They had been forgiven. And they were moving forward.

They smiled in pictures with Bishop Binzer and nibbled cookies from a local bakery. They were each interviewed on camera by Ursuline Sister Eileen Connelly, the news editor for Cincinnati’s Catholic Telegraph. Each one took a tulip from the vase at the base of the altar as a keepsake.

“Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there.”

As the Mass supplies were packed back into their traveling trunk, a volunteer filled a white styrofoam cup with holy water from the baptismal font and gave it to one of the attendees. Another volunteer stealthily grabbed a reed from the Mass supplies, dipped it in that same holy water and playfully shook it in the direction of the plaid-pants priest in retaliation for the drenching he had bestowed during the Mass. For three hours, we had all been transported beyond the walls of D.C.I. into a church community filled with support, spirit and love.

D.C.I. houses roughly 900 incarcerated women—almost one-in-three of the female prisoners in Ohio. The numbers grow every year, says Christine Marallen, the director of prison ministries for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, thanks to the seemingly unstoppable national rise in heroin use and the crimes that go hand-in-hand with it.

On our way out, one of the volunteers said in passing that she didn’t know if she would make it as far as these women have if she had been given the same kind of lives they had—riddled with addiction and abuse, often at the hands of family members and partners. But the fact is, in over 20 years as a journalist, I have seen it happen both ways: people who had been handed lousy lots in life who perpetuated the cycle until it killed them, and people who faced nearly identical challenges who somehow managed to escape despite everything going against them.

A week after the prison Mass, Pope Francis published his latest apostolic exhortation, “Rejoice and Be Glad.” There he wrote, “Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there.”

Thinking back to those five women, now among the newest members of the Catholic Church, I realized that this Mass in prison embodied the essential truth of Easter. Rebirth after death, of course. But also not giving up, even when it seems your last hope is gone. Believing in something that few others around you do. Second chances, third chances, 53rd chances, ad infinitum. And seeing the hope, light and presence of God in every moment of every life in every place.

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Nora Bolcon
3 months 1 week ago

Why are these women being made to wear veils. We don't make catechumens wear head veils. Do we make men wear these veils when they are given first communion or confirmation in prison now too to make up for their extra sinfulness? Hmm sounds like someone's hot to push sexism here and during sacraments - how very sad.

Stan Zorin
3 months 1 week ago

Stop your hateful sexist comments.

Dolores Pap
3 months 1 week ago

Agreed- it's an outdated, patronizing, gender based gesture: " In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) said that "the man existing under God should not have a covering over his to show he is immediately subject to God; but the woman should wear a covering to show that besides God she is naturally subject to another." [18](Wikipedia)
Or Paul:1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul wrote, “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman." He immediately continues with a gender-based teaching on the use of headcoverings: "Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head."

Mike Theman
3 months 1 week ago

Maybe they wanted to wear the veils. I've known plenty of women who spent a lot of time and money on a wedding veil. Not one guy I know ever considered one, although I'm sure there are plenty of homosexual men who have considered it for their civil "weddings."

Dolores Pap
3 months 1 week ago

Soo snarky..

Mike Schafer
3 months 1 week ago

Relax. The women weren't made to wear the veils, they wanted to. Is it so surprising, given their life experiences, that they actually enjoyed feeling both feminine and holy?

Mike Theman
3 months 1 week ago

I was surprised that being incarcerated would lead a person to what is perceived to be a rather restrictive religion. I would expect more Protestants, as those sects would allow convicts the opportunity to pick a religion that excuses their misdeeds as someone or something else's fault.

But Catholicism is real: it recognizes that evil acts are evil acts and does not provide excuses, only forgiveness. These women have been blessed.

Kenneth Wolfe
3 months 1 week ago

The irony is the female prisoners chose to wear mantillas as a sign of humility and respect for Mass, while the priest/prison chaplain is described as wearing “pastel plaid pants” instead of a cassock. It really does illustrate who takes things seriously, and, sadly, who does not, in the Church.

Mike Schafer
3 months 1 week ago

The priest in question is a very hard-working, dedicated chaplain who is much-loved by the incarcerated women for bringing light into their darkness. He was appropriately vested for Mass.

William Prince
3 months 1 week ago

Very nice piece about the RCIA. I think there were four catechumens and one candidate; not five catechumens.

Tim Donovan
3 months 1 week ago

God bless the five women who were incarcerated for serious crimes, after often having had difficult life circumstances, for being received into our faith. A very imperfect Catholic myself, I've been a pen pal with a man,Hubert, who's serving life imprisonment in Philadelphia, PA. From our correspondence, I believe that as a devout Jehovah's Witness, that he's reformed his life. We don't always agree of course. For instance, I oppose capital punishment while he believes it has scriptural support. We both in a respectful manner, discuss in our letters our varying beliefs. I read the Witness magazines that he sends me, and I send him information about the Catholic faith, and occasionally letters I've written to newspapers about political matters with a moral dimension. Because of the hardship of prison life which he details in his letters, on occasion I mail him modest contributions to improve his personal situation a bit. I also have several times contributed to Dismas Ministry, which provides free Bibles and prayer material to Catholic and other prisoners of faith. As an imperfect Catholic, I agree with the author that "the essential truth of Easter (is) rebirth after death). " I chomp at the bit for "second chances, third chances, 53rd chances, ad infintinum." I live in a quality nursing home/rehabilitation center (I'm56) and am fortunate that my kind pastor visits me each month to receive forgiveness and consolation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As a retired Special Education teacher of children with brain damage, I think in a sense I'm continuing my vocation as a single but content gay Catholic to do what I can to assist with the personal needs of other residents, both friends and strangers who are very elderly or severely disabled, many of whom rarely if ever get any visitors. In a real sense, many of the residents where I live experience the "prison of loneliness." Please forgive such a long comment. I admire the volunteers who prepared the catechumens with compassion and patience during the nine month RICA process. As observed by Ms. Murtha, I'm glad that the four women who were baptized and received their first Holy Communion, and the fifth who was confirmed, "all were radiant and ...were moving forward." When I received Jesus in the Eucharist for the first time at age 8, I well remember the words to the hymn we sung: "I received the living God, and my heart is full of joy!" Although I didn't understand how the priest consecrating the Bread and wine changed those elements into the Real Presence of Jesus ' Body and Blood, and as an adult still admit not to fully understand the Eucharist, I believe in the miracle, just as I believe these five women who experienced the pain of life in prison received the miracle of new life in Christ and His peace.

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