Bishop, prison residents worship “God of 10,000 chances”


CLICK HERE to see a gallery of photos from this event.

The Church outside the walls and the Church within are one and the same.

There are no distinctions.

“These are wonderful men,” Father Michael Penn told Bishop W. Shawn McKnight. “They are men of prayer. They’re certainly men of the Church. And we’re glad to come together to pray, and we’re glad to have you as our bishop.”

Bishop McKnight was visiting the chapel of the Algoa Correctional Center (ACC), a minimum-security prison in Jefferson City.

“I consider it a grace to be able to spend some time with you and celebrate Mass, and to remind you of your connection to the Church,” the bishop told 10 Catholic residents who were gathered before him.

Fr. Penn, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Taos and sacramental minister for the Catholics at ACC, concelebrated the Mass with the bishop.

Deacons Kenny Wildhaber and Larry Hildebrand assisted at the altar.

Bishop McKnight lauded Fr. Penn, the deacons, lay volunteers Barbara Groner, Lois Thomas and Diane Wildhaber and all who visit the prison regularly.

“They help extend the presence of the Church here with you,” the bishop told the residents. “But in a very real way, YOU are the presence of the Church here, as well.”

Many of ACC’s 1,600 residents are within sight of their release date, so the chapel is much like the Upper Room just before Pentecost.

“The men are growing in their faith and will continue doing so after they leave here,” Fr. Penn noted.

Crosier in hand, Bishop McKnight preached his homily on that Sunday’s readings (1 Kings 17:10-16 and Mark 12:41-44), which told of two seemingly powerless women who trusted God fully and gave Him everything they had.

“In order to have LIFE, you have to GIVE!” the bishop stated. “At the deepest level, that means giving not just from your surplus, not even just from your want, but from your need — from your very self.”

He spoke of how the poor widow in the Temple presented everything she possessed to God.

“Her generosity humbles us,” said Bishop McKnight. “She’s giving out of her NEEDS. She’s actually putting in something she NEEDS, because she believes. She’s a woman of God.”

He noted that God had perfected such giving in the person of Jesus Christ.

“God Himself, Who is perfect, Who is almighty, Who has everything He needs, found a way to suffer and give of Himself for others,” the bishop noted.

That is the central mystery of the Catholic faith.

“When we celebrate the Eucharist, we’re celebrating the very fact and we’re receiving the very gift of God’s self to us, in His willingness to offer us His only Son, so that we might have LIFE!” the bishop stated.

Prison residents proclaimed the readings, led the singing, served at the altar and worshipped attentively and energetically.

Bishop McKnight said he considered it a gift from God to be able to step away from his administrative duties and spend time with the men at ACC.

“It’s nice to get out and be among the people of God and to be a true shepherd,” he said.

He noted that God is “a God of second chances.”

“Or, in my case, a God of 10,000 chances!” he stated. “How many times I have fallen, and His grace is offered to lift me up, yet again.”

Bishop McKnight plans to offer Mass at the Moberly Correctional Center on Nov. 30 and at the Jefferson City Correctional Center on Saturday, Dec. 11.

“What makes you a man”

One of the men present the morning of the bishop’s visit to Algoa had not been to Mass in 29 years.

“I’m glad I came,” he told the men in the prayer circle after Mass.

Others referred to the visit as a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

Some spoke of the joy they experience each week as members of the Catholic community in the prison.

George Habermehl grew up in a Catholic family that focused its own life on the life of the Church.

“Church was the most important thing in my family’s life,” he said. “It was the most important thing in my life.

“Up until I went away to college!” he said. “To say I fell away at that time was an understatement.”

God finally succeeded in calling him back about three months ago.

“I woke up one morning and I’m not kidding you, it was a Saturday morning and I felt overcome with, ‘I’m supposed to come over here,’” he recalled.

Saturday mornings are when Mass is celebrated there.

At first, he felt uncomfortable in the assembly after being away for so long.

“But I just knew I was supposed to be here,” he said. “And once I got over here, all those old feelings and memories started coming back: grade school, being an altar boy, going to Mass every morning — it all just came back to me.”

He received the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and “it literally feels like the monkey’s off my back,” he said.

He’s pleased to have a solid community of fellow Catholic residents and the volunteers who come into the prison for Mass, Bible study and weekly Legion of Mary prayer meetings.

“There’s always roadblocks in life! In here. Out there. Everywhere,” he said. “But I’ve got somebody to turn to now. This community is unbelievable!”

He’s not sure yet what God wants him to do with the energy he’s no longer using to carry around the burdens that previously weighed him down.

“That’s why I keep coming and I keep praying,” he said. “I’m sure it will become clear what I’m supposed to do.”

He realized long ago that most people don’t want to hear someone talk about their relationship with God.

“So I just try to lead by example by how I treat people, how I treat the other inmates and the guards,” he said, “how I take personal responsibility for my actions and the choices I’ve made.”

If anyone does ask about what’s been making him different, “I’ll sit there and talk to them as long as they want to talk,” he said.

Mr. Habermehl asked for prayers for God to help him and his fellow prison residents “get past our egos, our immediate wants and needs, and for more guys in here to be able to let their guard down and realize that what’s important — it isn’t how tough you are, how much money you have, how many women you have.

“What makes you a man is honesty, integrity, character — all those things you don’t hear about very often in prison,” he said.

He’s looking forward to getting out and starting a new life.

In the meantime, he urges his fellow residents not to be afraid of looking weak because they’re turning to God for help.

“Who’s more important? God or what the other inmates think?” he asked. “It’s so much better just to say, ‘You know what, I’m gonna let go and I’m gonna let God lead me.’”

Finding peace

Dylan “Paco” Pacheco had a difficult upbringing, with parents who didn’t get along and were weighed down by addictions.

“But my dad showed me the Catholic Church when I was young, and that’s when I experienced peace,” Mr. Pacheco recalled. “And whenever they used to argue and fight when I was a kid, I’d run to the church, just to experience that peace and to ask God to take this away from me.”

His parents eventually split up, and he and his mother moved from Colorado to Columbia.

Upon winding up at Algoa, he looked for and found the peace he had experienced in church as a child.

“I came here to see if this would fulfill that need that I had within me, that relationship with God,” he said. “And I get it here.”

He’s noticing that through praying, studying and learning with his fellow Catholics at Algoa, he’s been able to be a better friend and exert a positive influence beyond the chapel walls.

He’s convinced that God is counting on him to make better use of his time when he gets released.

“I want to do more, like volunteer,” he said. “Visiting the elderly is one of my goals.”

He said he’s eager to become a member of a welcoming parish on the outside.

He asked for prayers for help avoiding drugs and other negative influences, and to be in the company of positive people who draw the best out of him.

“It seems like when you get out on the streets, it’s so easy for those old negative influences to come back to you,” he stated. “That’s why it’s good to be with people who have a solid relationship with God, who are doing good things want to make a difference, who want to extend that goodness to other people and give them a chance.”

He also requested prayers for the people who work in prisons and are frustrated because of it.

“And ... just that we all know love,” he added. “Real love. Genuine love. And not some sort of selfish desires that we learn how to have. Learning what Jesus’s love was like. That’s what I would want.”

“Being transformed”

Donald Gardner received Baptism in the cold water of a spring-fed creek when he was 18.

He remembers the preacher baptizing him “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

A lot of things happened between that creek and the gates of Algoa. But his desire for communion with God never left him.

“God is what brought me here,” he stated.

About a year ago, Mr. Pacheco, a friend and fellow ACC resident, invited him to Mass.

“I started going and I like it,” said Mr. Gardner. “On Monday nights, I also pray the Rosary with the Legion of Mary.”

He brings his Missal to Mass each week and follows along with every word.

“It was all very new to me,” he noted. “I had to learn it. Having it all there in front of me really helps.”

A few months ago, Mr. Pacheco, Deacon Wildhaber and lay volunteer Lois Thomas invited Mr. Gardner to consider preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.

“And I feel like it’s something God’s calling me to do that I should do, that I need to do, that I want to do, for God,” he stated.

He believes God’s desire for him is to “keep being transformed and keep spreading the Word.”

His prayer life has flourished.

“I’ve become a lot closer to God and am having a stronger relationship with Him,” he noted. “A lot more of my life is about prayer.”

He received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time a few weeks ago.

“It was good,” he said. “I liked it. It felt good.”

He’s looking forward to being confirmed when he’s ready, and eventually starting a new life on the outside and continuing down the road to eternal life.

All the while, he hopes the Catholic community at Algoa will continue to grow and flourish.

“I hope they can bring more people into the Church and that they keep getting closer and closer to God spiritually and continuing in their faith,” he said.

He asked for prayers for all people suffering from addictions, and “for all the lost souls and those who are in pain and all the people in the world who are hungry and sick.”

“And our families, too,” he said.

Likewise, he requested prayers of thanksgiving for all the people who come into the prison to help the Catholic community thrive.

“Thank God for all those blessings and the things He does for us!” he said.