Norfolk inmates seek Christ in Lay Dominican chapter

NORFOLK -- They wake each morning to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and chant it again before they go to sleep. They pray the rosary, spend time in contemplative prayer and gather each Sunday to discuss the Gospel. In almost every way they are like the members of other chapters of the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic, except they are incarcerated.

The chapter, located at Norfolk State Prison, has about 35 members, 17 of whom have made their final profession in the Dominican order. It is the only Dominican chapter in a prison.

Ruth Raichle, the Catholic chaplain at Norfolk, said the men are, in many ways, quite similar to cloistered religious. Through their prayers, they are saving souls, and through their witness they are encouraging others in the prison to seek Christ, she said.

“I always call them the real missionaries because they bring other men to the Church,” she said.

Raichle, along with seven volunteers, runs the weekly Sunday meetings. The men gather in a circle of brown folding chairs on the stage in the auditorium of the prison’s Community Services Division Building. They begin each meeting by chanting the Liturgy of the Hours and singing hymns such as “This is the Day.”

“This is the day that the Lord has made, and I will rejoice and be glad in it. A new life is what we have been given by the Lord,” they sang on Feb. 4.

Their community was born out of the wider Catholic prison ministry at Norfolk State Prison, the largest state-run prison in Massachusetts. Opened in 1927, Norfolk is a medium security facility with an average daily population of 1,250 inmates. On the facility’s 35 acres there are 18 dormitory-style living units that give the appearance of a college campus, except for the surrounding 19-foot wall.

Raichle came to the prison in the late 1980s and watched as a Catholic community formed. She called it Bethany community, after the Dominican Sisters of Bethany. Raichle had been part of the order but left before making her final vows. The Sisters of Bethany was started by a Dominican priest, Father Jean Joseph Lataste in 1866. After giving several retreats at a women’s prison in France, he started the community in response to some of the women’s desire to live a consecrated life together after incarceration.

“He said that the greatest sinners can make the greatest saints,” Raichle said of Father Lataste, adding that she has witnessed the truth of that statement through her work in prison ministry.

The Bethany community at Norfolk began with cursillos, guest lectures on theology delivered by Boston College professors and faith sharing groups. Raichle soon realized that the four pillars of the Dominican order -- prayer, study, action, community -- were present and wanted to form a lay Dominican chapter at the prison.

The request was initially refused by the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic in 1998.

However, later that year a Texas inmate named Jonathan Nobles requested the Eucharist as his last meal before his execution. His conversion story, especially the fact that his spiritual advisor was a Dominican, prompted the order to reconsider a new chapter at Norfolk, she said.

The Dominican Provincial Council voted again in 1999, and the chapter was unanimously accepted. Raichle started forming the men in the Dominican way of life but paused after Cardinal Bernard Law raised concerns about the ability of such a community to function in a prison. However, after receiving a passionate letter of support for the chapter from the master general of the Dominican order, Cardinal Law allowed the chapter to continue. Raichle and several of the men made their final profession to the order a few years later, she said.

The chapter, called Our Lady of Mercy, was officially recognized by the Archdiocese of Boston with a letter from Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley on Feb. 22, 2005.

Like other lay Dominicans, members at Norfolk go through a one-year inquiry stage as postulants, another year as novices and three years of temporary profession before they can make their final profession. They are required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours twice daily, pray the rosary and study. Unlike Dominicans on the outside, they are not required to go to daily Mass since it is impossible.

Currently at Norfolk, there is a Mass in Spanish on Sundays, a Mass in English on Mondays and two communion services each week on Friday and Sunday nights. Once a month there is an Asian Mass, usually in Vietnamese. The lay Dominican chapter has a special Mass each month.

Raichle stresses that the lay Dominican order is a life-long commitment that not all are called to.

“This is really not for everybody. It’s a vocation,” she said.

For those who are involved, there is a strong sense that the invitation they received from Raichle or fellow inmates was a calling from God.

Three of the professed members of the order -- Nghia, Jesus and Philip -- spoke with The Pilot at Norfolk on Feb. 4. The inmates were only permitted to identify themselves by their first names.

All three said their involvement with the order deepens their relationship with God and with one another. That deepened relationship with God helps them to understand His forgiveness, and they see opportunities to do good going forward, they said.

“In the community I feel accepted and forgiven,” said Nghia. “It helped me to know who I am.”

“It’s a life-long commitment to God, and I believe it’s my way of giving back,” added Jesus.

Jesus recalled his ninth birthday, the day his mother gave him a statue of St. Martin de Porres, a Dominican. At the time he knew little of the saint and was more interested in his matchbox cars, but the gift has new meaning for him now.

“I’m sure there were many times God was calling, but I wasn’t listening,” he said of his life before becoming involved in the Dominican order.

Philip said that the idea of a personal relationship with God was foreign to him before he joined the order. He compares himself to the paralytic in the Gospel of Mark.

“I was paralyzed from my past, the choices I made. I was paralyzed from the shame and remorse,” he said.

Philip said he did not see hope for the future, especially after he was incarcerated. Now he believes his purpose is to spend the rest of his life helping others, he said.

“It changed the way I look at the way I live,” he said. “It’s helped me to become a better person.”