August 2, 2019

Clergy, religious in central and southern Indiana feel called to minister on death row in Terre Haute

A chaplain distributes Communion to a death-row inmate at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Ind. The U.S. Department of Justice on July 25 announced that it is reinstating the federal death penalty, with five executions scheduled to take place at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute in December and January. (CNS file photo/Karen Callaway, Northwest Indiana Catholic)

A chaplain distributes Communion to a death-row inmate at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Ind. The U.S. Department of Justice on July 25 announced that it is reinstating the federal death penalty, with five executions scheduled to take place at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute in December and January. (CNS file photo/Karen Callaway, Northwest Indiana Catholic)

By Sean Gallagher

Deacon Steven Gretencord has ministered among men on death row in the “special confinement unit” (SCU) at the Federal Corrections Complex (FCC) in Terre Haute for eight years.

However, the announcement of the U.S. Department of Justice on July 25 that executions will resume for those given the death sentence in federal courts will not change his approach to serving the men there.

“I want to be there for them completely as is,” said Deacon Gretencord. “I can’t do more than [that].”

He isn’t the only Catholic who ministers at the prison complex. Father Varghese Maliakkal celebrates Mass, with Deacon Gretencord assisting, for men in the SCU twice a month.

Benedictine Father Mark O’Keefe, chaplain for the Carmelite Monastery of St. Joseph in Terre Haute, celebrates Mass weekly for inmates at another facility. Members of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods meet regularly with some inmates in the SCU and minister elsewhere at the complex. And members of St. Benedict and St. Joseph University parishes, both in Terre Haute, also take part in ministry at the federal corrections facility. (Related: Sisters of Providence respond to federal death penalty decision)

At present, Deacon Gretencord only ministers to men on death row. While the crimes for which they have been convicted were often grisly, Deacon Gretencord doesn’t allow their dark past to color his approach to them.

“I’m not concerned with what was, only with what is and their lives in relation to God into the future,” he said.

Those who receive Communion at the Mass at which he assists do so kneeling on the concrete floor of the room where the liturgy is celebrated.

“They seem to take their faith in God very seriously, and they are prayerful,” Deacon Gretencord said. “I feel that they’re men who have faith in God who made some terrible choices. But they’re still God’s children. It strengthens my faith whenever I see someone receiving the Eucharist with such reverence and respect.”

‘They don’t hide their faith’

Father Maliakkal says that it has been “very satisfying” to see some of the men on death row who attend the Masses he celebrates express their faith.

“They have expressed their desire to return and be part of the sacramental life of the Church,” he said. “They’ve recognized some of the crimes they have committed.”

Father Maliakkal is dedicated to this ministry, sometimes driving close to an hour from one of his parishes to the prison facility.

“It is important for the people confined to those places to see that we still care for them,” he said. “Our going into their confined places makes them feel a part of the community of the Church. We make sure that we are praying for them.”

Deacon Gretencord is impressed by the way in which the death-row inmates, who live behind prison walls, put up no walls around their faith.

“I see men who are very up front with their faith,” Deacon Gretencord said. “They don’t hide their faith. They’re forthright in expressing it.”

That, in turn, has helped him be freer in sharing his faith in his ministry beyond the prison walls.

“I think that I am able to minister more effectively after having witnessed for so many years the strong faith that I see in many of the men that come to the Catholic services at FCC Terre Haute,” he said.

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson had several brief one-on-one visits with death‑row inmates in Terre Haute in December 2018.

“It was both humbling and profound to pray with each inmate and offer a blessing,” he said. “I asked them to pray for me as well. These men spend a great deal of time in isolation, where they have much time to think and reflect as well as consider the realities of life and death. It is not surprising that they tend to be more willing to discuss spiritual matters and trust in divine grace.”

‘God alone knows the heart and sees the soul’

Archbishop Thompson expressed hope that the time the inmates have will lead to reconciliation—with themselves, with others, including the families of the victims of their crimes, and with God.

“Hopefully, time spent in prison—even lifelong—allows for a conversion of heart, a transformation of being, that leads an inmate to embrace this reality about oneself and others, especially any victims of crimes as well as their families,” he said. “Our faith calls us to pray for both victims and perpetrators of crimes, as well as the families of both victims and perpetrators.

“Ultimately, we must have the humility and resolve to trust God rather than ourselves with the ultimate judgment of any and every human being. God alone knows the heart and sees the soul.”

Deacon Gretencord’s regular encounters with the men on death row in Terre Haute, as well as his ministry at the Vigo County Jail, keep him aware of the inmates in prisons and jails across the country. But he knows such consciousness may not be the case in society in general.

“We don’t think about them,” he said. “They’re not human beings. They’re numbers. They’ve gotten what they deserve and are where they need to be. But they’re still human beings.”

Praying for inmates, said Deacon Gretencord, can remind us of their humanity.

“By bringing that out in prayer, we put a human face on those that we otherwise view as non-entities,” he said. “When we do that, we can begin to make changes.”

Compassion for families of the victims

At the same time, Deacon Gretencord is mindful of the families of the victims of the crimes committed by the SCU inmates.

“I have developed almost a kind of affinity for these people,” he said. “It’s as if I know them vicariously through the men at the SCU. I seem to feel close to them.”

But he said that these families can often become as forgotten by society as the inmates.

“We forget the victims just as quickly,” Deacon Gretencord said. “As soon as they’re no longer in the headlines, they’re out of our thoughts. We need to hold them in prayer.”

He has fostered prayer for death-row inmates among others he serves who are facing their own mortality—patients in a hospice facility in Terre Haute.

He asks them to pray for the inmates, just as he asks the inmates to pray for the hospice patients.

“These folks pray for the men that live in the SCU continually and those men are touched that these people, who are coming to the end of their mortal lives, think of them and pray for them,” Deacon Gretencord said. “And the men at SCU, conversely, pray for these people whose mortal lives are coming to an end.

“When I go to visit the hospice patients, they don’t ask how I am. They ask about the men, the people in SCU.”

‘I was in prison and you visited me’

Providence Sister Mary Rita Griffin has visited with a death-row inmate in Terre Haute on a regular basis for 14 years. While she described how her dedicated ministry has been a blessing to this man, she also noted how it has helped her.

“Every time I go, I come back with a renewed faith in my own religious vocation,” Sister Mary Rita said.

As a member of a religious community that has a special focus on God’s providence, she believes it is part of God’s plan that she and her fellow sisters are so close to the only federal prison in the country where executions take place.

“Basically, everybody [on federal death row] is here in Terre Haute,” Sister Mary Rita said. “That is why it is extremely important that we as Sisters of Providence are there for them.”

Prior to returning to her order’s motherhouse, Sister Mary Rita had ministered among the homeless in Washington. It was this ministry of reaching out to those on the margins of society that led her to minister on death row.

“Jesus said, ‘I was in prison and you visited me’ ” (Mt 25:36), she said. “Jesus Christ is my guide in all I do. I have fed the hungry. I have clothed the naked. But here I have an opportunity to visit those in prison, as Jesus said for us to do. It’s my fundamental reason for going there.”

Deacon Marc Kellams, corrections ministry coordinator for the archdiocese, was troubled by the decision to resume executions in the federal prison system, calling it “a shame.”

“The death penalty is not a deterrent, is unequally applied to racial and economic classes, and is more expensive than a lifetime of incarceration,” said Deacon Kellams, who previously worked for decades as a criminal court judge in Bloomington. “The many cases of individuals on death row who have been exonerated by DNA evidence should be sufficient reason not to reimplement the death penalty on the federal or state level.”

He also spoke about how the Church in central and southern Indiana is committed to ministering among those in prisons and jails and to support the families of the victims of crimes.

“My job is to assist in the provision of spiritual services to those incarcerated, regardless of the crime for which they are serving a sentence,” Deacon Kellams said. “We are mandated by the Gospel to visit those in prison.

“The Church’s position on the death penalty does not in any way diminish its concern for justice for the victims of horrific crimes. We keep them in prayer and provide them with support when we can.”

(Criterion reporter Natalie Hoefer contributed to this story.)

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