March 16, 2018

A new life in Christ: Women embrace fresh start of joy, peace as archbishop shares sacraments at prison

As part of administering the sacrament of confirmation, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson prepares to make the sign of the cross with sacred chrism oil on the forehead of Marguerite Engle during a Mass at the Indiana Women’s Prison chapel in Indianapolis on the evening of March 4. Engle and Opal Williams, third from left, received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist during the Mass. In the background, Andrea Wolsifer of St. Anthony Parish in Indianapolis watches the two women whom she guided through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults to be received into the full communion of the Church. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

As part of administering the sacrament of confirmation, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson prepares to make the sign of the cross with sacred chrism oil on the forehead of Marguerite Engle during a Mass at the Indiana Women’s Prison chapel in Indianapolis on the evening of March 4. Engle and Opal Williams, third from left, received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist during the Mass. In the background, Andrea Wolsifer of St. Anthony Parish in Indianapolis watches the two women whom she guided through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults to be received into the full communion of the Church. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

There are times for nearly all of us when we need to seek redemption for a mistake or a moment of darkness in our lives—times when we need to find our way back to the grace of God.

For Opal Williams and Marguerite Engle, a significant step in that journey occurred on the evening of March 4 in the chapel of the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis.

There, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson baptized and confirmed the two inmates—and later gave them their first Communion—as he celebrated Mass and their new life in Christ.

Archbishop Thompson focused on that theme of “a new life in Christ” during his homily—at one point sharing with the two women and their fellow inmates the message that Pope Francis once delivered during a visit with prisoners in Bolivia:

“When Jesus becomes part of our lives, we can no longer remain imprisoned by our past. Instead, we begin to look to the present, and we see it differently, with a different kind of hope. We begin to see ourselves and our lives in a different light. We are no longer stuck in the past, but capable of shedding tears and finding in them the strength to make a new start.”

Turning to Williams and Engle directly, Archbishop Thompson soothingly told them, “So that’s what Lent is all about—the strength to make a new start. It’s a new beginning, celebrating our identity in Christ as God’s children, as God’s family.

“And we celebrate that today in a special way as you are received into the family of the Catholic Church, walking in this new light, this new hope, this new joy of putting on Christ and knowing Christ.”

For both Engle and Williams, this new beginning was marked with emotion, from flashing glowing smiles to wiping away tears of joy—all with the belief that they had finally found a home in the Church that God had always intended for them.

‘I have forgiveness for my sins’

“This means a lot to me,” Williams said before Mass. “I was adopted, but my biological grandmother was Catholic, and I remember going to church with her. I feel in my heart that I’ve been meant to be Catholic, and I’m following in her footsteps. I feel like this is what God and her really wanted me to do.”

Engle shared a similar conviction of being at home in the Church.

“I’ve always turned to the Catholic Church when there was trouble in my life and I needed answers,” she said. “I’ve fasted and prayed. I wanted to learn as much as I could before I made a decision to become part of the Church.

“Believing in God and Jesus Christ brings me closer to heaven. It’s my salvation. It means I’ll be saved. It means I’ll be released from everything I’ve experienced so far. I have forgiveness for my sins. I will have a future.”

That continuing journey toward a future comes with the help of Indianapolis-area Catholics who volunteer in prison ministry weekly at the women’s facility.

During the Mass, Ann Tully of St. Matthew the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis served as the sponsor for Engle, while Andrea Wolsifer was the sponsor for Williams.

“When they learned they were able to come into the Church, they were overjoyed,” Tully said. “They’ve been working hard and studying hard. It’s an amazing journey for them. Everything is new and beautiful to them. They really have embraced the Catholic tradition and faith.

“I think it helps give them strength to face the day to day here with a stronger heart, with grace.”

At times during the evening, the smiles of Engle and Williams were matched by Wolsifer, who led the two women through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) to enter the Church.

“This means everything to them,” said Wolsifer, a member of St. Anthony Parish in Indianapolis. “They’ve been wanting to come into the Church since they started RCIA. And they’re interested in ongoing learning about the Catholic faith.

“I appreciate the archbishop coming tonight and bringing them into the Church with the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and their first Communion.”

‘Christ is present here’

Archbishop Thompson smiled and made some light comments to the two women before he baptized them, hoping to put them at ease as he poured water on their heads.

Moments later, he made the sign of the cross on their foreheads with sacred chrism oil. Williams glowed as she watched Engle receive the sacrament of confirmation from the archbishop.

The faces of both women were touched by a radiant combination of peace and joy as they received their first Communion from him.

After the Mass, Archbishop Thompson reflected on the joy and the faith of Engle and Williams during Mass and through the three sacraments.

“The fact that these two ladies want to be received into the Church tonight shows the faith is alive here,” he said. “Their own journey, their own challenges—whatever things in their life have caused them to be here—they have not lost faith, they have not lost their sense of being created in the image of God and being loved by God.”

The archbishop spent considerable time after Mass answering questions the other inmates had. He also spoke with them informally in groups and individually, consoling and blessing one woman who shared a painful reality with him.

“These are the ones that Pope Francis reminds us are on the margins, on the peripheries, that society tends to want to brush aside or forget,” said the archbishop, who has made personal visits and prison ministry a priority of his leadership of the Church in central and southern Indiana. “We have to remember that Christ is present here, and remember the goodness and dignity of every person.”

‘It’s been a long time coming’

The archbishop also praised the Catholic volunteers who meet with the women in a Bible study group, the volunteers who play music at the weekly Mass at the women’s prison, and Deacon Daniel Collier, a truck driver who has served in ministry at the Indiana Women’s Prison for 10 years.

“Each one of these volunteers that are here are clearly intentional about seeking out Christ and being Christ to others in this particular ministry, which is not an easy one,” Archbishop Thompson said. “It takes a great deal of resolve and a great deal of compassion, a great deal of courage and humility and generosity to be a volunteer in this way. The Church couldn’t do it without them.”

The joy of being part of the Church and in union with Christ flowed through Williams and Engle as they lingered for a long time in the chapel after Mass, savoring an evening that they consider a turning point in their lives.

“I feel really happy,” Williams said, wiping away tears. “I feel like I want to hug everyone.”

The joy overflowed for Engle, too.

“I feel born again, I feel alive,” she said. “I’ve been struggling a long time, and now I feel free and saved. I have a long journey, but I’m not afraid to face it now because I know I have my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Engle smiled and added, “It’s nice to be free. It’s been a long time coming.” †

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!