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.
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.
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.