Six confirmed in South Woods State Prison

Six confirmed in South Woods State Prison
Bishop Dennis Sullivan confirms an inmate at South Woods State Prison in Cumberland County on March 23. Also pictured is Deacon Don Rogozenski. Photo by Mike Walsh

Bishop Dennis Sullivan confirms an inmate at South Woods State Prison in Cumberland County on March 23. Also pictured is Deacon Don Rogozenski.
Photo by Mike Walsh

The readings for the Wednesday before Easter took on a special meaning, read by the men in tan jumpsuits in the large gym-style auditorium.

“The Lord hears the poor, and his own who are in bondage he spurns not,” read an inmate, his voice ringing with conviction as he led those gathered in the responsorial psalm.

For the six men who were confirmed in the Catholic faith by Bishop Dennis Sullivan that day, the South Woods State Prison visitors’ auditorium became the site of the culmination of months of study and preparation.

Lilies adorned the front of an altar set on a raised platform in front of rows of chairs, where 80 of their fellow inmates witnessed their reception into the church, just days before Catholics around the world would witness similar ceremonies on Holy Saturday.

All six had been baptized, three in a ceremony held in the prison the week before, and would be receiving on this day both the sacrament of confirmation and their first Eucharist. It was the first time a bishop of the Camden Diocese confirmed inmates in one of the nine correctional institutions in South Jersey.

As each came forward, RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation) teacher Deacon Don Rogozenski placed a hand on his shoulder while Bishop Sullivan addressed him by the saint’s name he had chosen and anointed him with oil.

“Be sealed in the gift of the Holy Spirit,” the bishop said. And then, shaking his hand, “Peace be with you.”

Peace was a theme of Bishop Sullivan’s remarks to those being confirmed.

“I touch you on your skin, but the touch is not on your skin, it’s the fire of God touching your hearts,” he said. “Take that peace into this facility; spread it among the community and let it help you be God’s good child and a good Christian and member of the church.”

He asked all of the men who had gathered for the Mass to “please support your brothers who were confirmed today in bringing the light of Christ to this place.”

“This is a tough place to be a peaceful, loving person,” Deacon Rogozenski said. “I give them a lot of credit for what they’ve committed to. For them, living their faith is going back to their cells and interacting with the people they’re dealing with.”

The six men are now, along with all of the other Catholics in the facility, members of the Parish of the Holy Cross in Cumberland County. The county is home to five of the nine correctional institutions within the diocese, and all of them form part of the Parish of the Holy Cross.

“The parish prays for them; we remember them at Mass,” said Deacon Rogozenski, who is assigned to the parish. “We pray that their conversion continues and that they can stay strong in their faith in the difficult situation they’re living with.”

Kris Myers was baptized an Episcopalian, but had always felt drawn to the Catholic Church. He seized the opportunity to convert in prison, beginning his study last September with the rest of the facility’s first RCIA class. He will serve the remainder of a five-year sentence as a Catholic.

“I really liked the theology behind Catholicism,” he said. “[Faith] helps get you through the difficult times.”

Sister Mary Lou Lafferty, OSF, is the Prison Ministry coordinator for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden, and organizes the Masses Bishop Sullivan celebrates in the correctional facilities within the diocese.

“As I chatted with the fellows before the liturgy began, I was so grateful for the mercy and goodness of our God. Despite their present living environment, these six men were filled with peace and joy as they anticipated their full reception into the Catholic faith,” she said.

Under the leadership of Parish of the Holy Cross pastor, Father Vincent Guest, Catholic outreach to the prisons within the parish has expanded. In South Woods, Deacon Vincent Okoro is a prison chaplain and leads weekly services and rosaries, in addition to coordinating several Catholic volunteers within the prison. Both hope to expand the prison’s RCIA in the future and extend it to other facilities.

In the fall, Deacon Rogozenski will begin teaching a new class. A second class in Spanish will also open. Several inmates have already expressed interest.

“They’re searching for something — their need to reestablish their relationship with God, to find something better in their lives,” Deacon Rogozenski said.

In his seven years as a permanent deacon, he has often taught confirmation preparation classes, but never has he encountered a group so eager to learn.

“It was so appropriate in this year of mercy. I’ve learned so much about mercy from their search for it,” he said. “We talked about how no matter what situation you’re in, Jesus already died on the cross for you. That mercy is there for everyone, you just have to be willing to accept it and let it make you a better a person, the best person you can be. And they’re doing that.”

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