Meeting the spiritual need at the state women's prison

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CRANSTON — Bishop Thomas J. Tobin visited the Rhode Island Department of Corrections Women’s Facilities on Thursday, May 11, celebrating Mass for the inmates and officers served by the diocesan Catholic chaplaincy team.

The Mass took place in the visiting room of the facility, where sunlight coming through the tall windows and the quiet surroundings provided a calm atmosphere for the 15 women gathered for Mass. Homemade paper flower arrangements, created by women at the facility, decorated the altar and the tables, adding to the feeling of a bright spring day.

“As we celebrate Mass today, we find ourselves reaching the end of the Easter season,” Bishop Tobin told the women. “The question is, how has the resurrection of Jesus changed our lives and how do we give witness to the resurrection every day?”

According to Joy Johnson, an institutional chaplain who oversees the spiritual needs of the inmates, the facility houses approximately 150 women. Many of these women actively seek out religious services, with between 12 and 20 attending Catholic services and between 20 and 30 attending Protestant services on a regular basis. According to Johnson, the weekly services, as well as the guidance of the chaplains, provide opportunities for reflection and respite.

“They’re in a crisis and there’s comfort in there. There’s also an opportunity to see the reality of some of their choices and see that God cares about them,” she said. “Some of the women have had such horrific backgrounds that they can’t even fathom a God that loves them.”

As a chaplain for the Women’s Facilities, Johnson works closely with Martha Paone, Catholic chaplaincy coordinator for the Diocese of Providence, who oversees Catholic chaplaincy services at all state institutions, including hospitals and correctional facilities. While Johnson administers the weekly Protestant services, Father John Buckley, a Columban father living in Bristol, presides at the Sunday Catholic Mass.

“The women love him. He has a very fatherly figure and he’s very gentle,” said Paone.

With the approach of Mother’s Day, Bishop Tobin focused his homily during the pastoral visit on our spiritual mother in heaven and the lessons to be learned from Mary’s acceptance of God’s plan for her life.

“Mary trusted in God even though she didn’t know the future, she couldn’t predict the future,” he said. “Her faith was so important. God was the center of her life. Because she had faith, she was able to have trust.”

Bishop Tobin asked the women to consider Mary’s example of faith, trust and prayer in their own lives. He also assured them of his prayers for them and their families and asked for their prayers in return.

“In the end, God is still in charge. In the end, in his hands, everything will be okay,” he said.

The visit was also a special occasion for the officers and employees of the Department of Corrections who were in the midst of celebrating National Correctional Officers Week. Several officers, including Warden Carole Dwyer, entered the visiting room to greet Bishop Tobin following the Mass, offering him a warm welcome. Paone noted that chaplains at the Department of Corrections serve not only the inmates but also the employees of the correctional facilities.

“It’s not always about just the inmates,” she said. “We are here for the inmates but we are here for them, too, and when you’ve gained their respect, you will find them coming to your door.”

Paone, who has served as chaplaincy coordinator since 2007, also works closely with the families of inmates, offering comfort and guidance in times of need. Some of the inmates, she said, attend the services of various faiths every week, an indication that they are earnestly seeking out a spiritual home.

“They’re searching for spirituality. They really are,” she said. “You never know when the day will come when the seeds we sprinkle will receive the nutrition they’re looking for. And that’s very important.”