Jesus 'didn't write off' anybody, says Xaverian Brother prison chaplain

DANVERS -- "You've started something on death row."

Xaverian Brother Jim Connolly heard those words from the warden of the maximum-security South Carolina prison where he served as chaplain. Most death row inmates were not Catholic, but when the Protestant chaplain could not hold Sunday service, Brother Jim had to fill in. For that day's service, Brother Jim recounted the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and listened to the inmates as they responded to it.

"I don't have the corner of the market on the Holy Spirit," said Brother Jim, who is now a volunteer chaplain at the Middleton House of Correction, in a Nov. 9 interview. "They can make comments if they wish."

After his service, the inmates wanted to discuss Scripture every week.

"I found the group on death row probably the most alive group of men that I've worked with in a prison or a jail," Brother Jim said. "Even though they were facing death, they were very much alive and full of spirit and helping one another out, helping me out."

Brother Jim has ministered at Middleton Jail since 2019. He is not a priest, so he cannot hear confession, but many inmates have confessed things to him. He ministers to men who are awaiting trial for everything from murder and rape to refusing to pay parking tickets. He treats them all the same.

"I respect them as human beings, and they respect me for that," he said. "They tell me that, the fact that they've screwed up and made bad mistakes, but I am still approaching them as a human being."

Jesus "didn't write off" anybody, Brother Jim explained, and neither will he.

"I become Jesus's presence to them," he said, "and they become Jesus's presence to me. Everything's taken away from them. Literally. The only thing they have is a name, a number, a bed, and clothes that the system gives them."

He leads prayer Communion services and provides spiritual and moral support to men in the jail. He also works with the Prison Fellowship to organize the annual Angel Tree program, which provides Christmas gifts to children of inmates. For the first time since before the pandemic, the inmates will be able to send letters to their loved ones along with the gifts.

Brother Jim said that the holiday season is the worst time of year for inmates, because of the pain of being separated from family.

"There's all kinds of feelings that bubble up and rise to the surface," he said. "Fights tend to increase, and tension among the inmates tends to increase."

When he started at Middleton Jail, there were 1,600 inmates. Now, there are only 800, as low-level offenders are put on probation to prevent overcrowding. Due to COVID-19 backing up the legal system, some inmates have been in jail for four or five years, still awaiting trial.

"COVID has really messed things up" in the jail, Brother Jim said, as has the rise of gangs. Before the pandemic, 60-70 people could attend services and RCIA classes in the jail's chapel. Now, in order to prevent the spread of disease and violence, only 20 people can be in the chapel.

Several people have warned Brother Jim that gangs might take him hostage, but he isn't scared.

"I've never had a problem in all my years in prison and jail ministry," he said.

Brother Jim grew up in Dorchester and Quincy and became a Xaverian Brother in 1964. In the 1990s, he ministered on a college campus in South Carolina, where he met the warden of a maximum-security prison looking for a Catholic chaplain. The prisoners, she said, needed a strong male role model. He asked his fellow brothers whether he should take the job.

"You've been working with college students," they told him. "If you can work with college students, you can work with anybody."

They also pointed out that Theodore Ryken, founder of the Xaverian Brothers, wanted the order to "work with those on the margins."

"You can't get more marginalized than being in jail or prison," the Xaverians told Brother Jim.

From his time within the prison system, Brother Jim has learned that "if you have money, you can get away with anything."

"If you don't have money," he said, "if you're a foreigner, an immigrant, it's hard, very hard. I think it's one of the reasons I continue doing this. To be the presence of another human being, but also a Christian presence, a Catholic presence, and to let them know that people do care about them."

Brother Jim is close with his superiors in the jail and often tells them about what he sees as flaws in the criminal justice system.

"It's better than Russia or China," he said, "but it's not perfect. I see so many things messed up at times."

He tries to form long-term relationships with the men he ministers to. Recently, a former inmate recognized him at the grocery store and gave him a hug.

One of the most memorable people Brother Jim met was a 21-year-old man born in Iraq. When he was in fifth grade, a bomb went off outside of his school, launching shrapnel into his head and body. He fled to Turkey and then to the U.S., living in a group home and attending school in Fitchburg. After graduation, he went to college and lived in a tenement with his girlfriend, where a neighbor called the police on them seven times.

"She was very prejudiced against Blacks," Brother Jim said about the neighbor. "His girlfriend was Black, and (the neighbor) didn't like foreigners."

In 2021, the young man was charged with threatening his girlfriend and jailed. He lost his job, and his path to citizenship was put on hold. He spent a year and a half in jail before the charges were dropped.

The young man was Muslim, but since there was no Muslim chaplain at the jail, Brother Jim assisted him spiritually and emotionally. They discussed religion at length together. The young man learned much about Christianity, and Brother Jim learned much about Islam.

"He was very open," Brother Jim said. "We share a belief in the one God, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

Many of the men Brother Jim ministers to were not raised in a religious environment, but now that they're in jail, they "have a lot of time on their hands" to learn about religion. Some of the inmates will even volunteer to read Scripture during prayer services.

"A lot of them are very much hungry and exploring the spiritual side," he said. "I really enjoy working with the guys that are very open to that."

Brother Jim educates inmates about Catholicism using books from the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative, founded by Jesuit Father Michael Kennedy. The initiative has a series of books written for -- and sometimes by -- inmates.

"It gets them in touch with things from the Scriptures from a different perspective," Brother Jim said.

He also contacts nonprofits in hopes of getting free religious literature sent to inmates. In order to "dress up" his spirituality classes, he includes music and DVD slideshows of natural scenery.

"All you see at the jail is barbed wire and cement," he said. "There's no green around, no nature at all."

After each long day at the jail, Brother Jim comes home to the Xaverian House in Danvers, makes himself a bowl of ice cream, reads the newspaper, and falls asleep.

"The brothers here are very supportive, and I can talk to them in terms of what I'm feeling after the day," he said. "Sometimes I get discouraged in terms of people's situations or the system, but one of the things that enlivens me is that most of the men who are coming over to the jail are very much alive. Their spiritual dimension is very much alive."