Working with prisoners, and amusing God, for 31 years

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Sam Pace holds the award he received at the New Jersey Department of Corrections’ Volunteer Appreciation Day in September. Pace has worked for decades with prisoners, both as an educator and as a prison ministry volunteer.

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

It’s a quote that Sam Pace says with a chuckle as he reflects on the past 31 years of his life that he spent both working and volunteering at Southern State Correctional Facility in the Camden Diocese.

Pace explained that he never experienced the “calling” that many people describe when they are drawn to certain vocations. “I’d say it was more of a push,” he laughed. “God does work in mysterious ways.”

Time did little to dim Pace’s memory, as he recounted highlights of his long and unanticipated career.

In the early 1980s, Pace was helping out at his father’s auto body shop in Vineland when he met a teacher who worked at Bayside State Prison, who after some conversation, asked Pace if he’d consider teaching at a prison. “I didn’t even know that there were schools in prisons!” he said.

But Pace took the suggestion to heart. He applied for the job that summer, but the supervisor of education was blunt with Pace when they spoke outside of the prison following his interview.

“I’ll be honest,” the supervisor said, “We like you. But you’re our second choice.” Pointing to a cornfield in the distance, he said, “See that field? There will be a new prison there next year. Come back then.”

And Pace did, even though he had accepted a temporary position at Holy Spirit High School, Absecon, as a teacher.

But once again, he did not get the permanent job. Eighteen months and four interviews later, Pace was given the news that he was hired and was to teach Adult Basic Education (ABE), particularly reading and math, to the inmates who fell below the fifth grade reading levels.

Pace didn’t miss a beat in getting to work. He helped open a school in one of the compounds, set up a classroom, built the bookshelves which are still there to this day, and brought an educational program to the prisons. Not only did he teach, but he engaged inmates in other ways, such as starting and maintaining a horticulture program and helping run the prison newspaper.

“Most of the inmates were very low academic readers,” he explained. “Some of them couldn’t read at all. Some of them genuinely wanted to be there. Others were only there because it was part of a requirement — but that was fine with me. They were present in the room, which meant that words might get through to them. And it was up to me to teach them.”

But his efforts came to a halt when he was called to respond to the September 11th terrorist attacks, as Pace was a member of the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard, serving for 21 years total.

After 20 months, he returned to Southern State Correctional Facility — but his classroom was gone. Starting over, he physically made the space into a classroom again, gathered resources, recruited another teacher who became his partner, and brought education back to the prison.

He remained there until 2011 when, once again, “God must have been laughing at my plans,” he said.

Pace was involved in a devastating auto-accident, which paralyzed 95 percent of his body.

“The doctors told my wife that if I were to ever regain consciousness, I’d never be able to walk again. I wouldn’t be able to talk because a vocal chord was paralyzed. But God had other plans.”

Pace did regain consciousness. Day by day, step by step, he made a recovery. Through intensive rehabilitation, he learned to move again. He learned to talk again. He went from using a wheelchair to walking with a cane. Over the course of five years, he regained a fair amount of functionality.

In 2015, he saw in his church bulletin at the Parish of the Holy Cross in Bridgeton that prison ministry volunteers were needed. “I kept telling myself that I should join, but I never got around to it. Until Father Vincent Guest — who ministered to me after the accident — asked if I would join the ministry.”

And once again, Pace found himself back at Southern State. This time — in the capacity of prison ministry volunteer. With his team, he led Catholic Bible studies with the inmates, prayed the rosary with them, held reflections, and worked with other volunteers and priests to provide Communion to them.

Reflecting on his encounters with the inmates, he explained, “As both a Catholic and an educator, I give the guys a lot of credit, and I was really impressed with their knowledge of the faith. Sometimes, people who weren’t even Catholic would show up after they heard about our ministry.”

Pace pointed to the many studies that show that educational and vocational programs in prisons significantly reduce the chances of recidivism.

“If I kept even one or two people from returning to jail, or I brought the word of God to a few souls, it’s all worthwhile. I have seen inmates return to jail, often because of issues with drugs and addiction. But I’ve seen others succeed. I remember getting a call that one of the inmates, who actually became my teaching aide, had worked his way toward becoming a police officer at a school and was doing really well,” he said.

Pace credited much of his own personal and spiritual development over the decades to the many individuals who contributed to his growth — through clergy such as Father Vincent Guest, Father Matthew Weber, Father Peter Idler, Deacon Charlie Tobin, and Rev. Bruce Crossland; through his fellow prison ministry volunteers, Bob Dooley, Bill Lyman and George Prichett; and through the hundreds of inmates with whom he’s worked.

He still volunteers in the prison ministry and works closely with Catholic Charities’ Prison Ministry coordinator, Sister Mary Cronin, who was proud to see Pace honored at the New Jersey Department of Corrections’ Volunteer Appreciation Day in September.

When Sister Mary Cronin spoke of Pace’s dedication, she noted, “He truly practices what he preaches and puts his prayer into practice. He is so serene and unassuming, but very thoughtful and caring.”

Pace continues to volunteer at Southern State Correctional Facility, in addition serving as an active parishioner of Holy Cross Parish in Bridgeton, a Knight of Columbus in the 1778 Council, a member of the Catholic War Veterans Council, a member of the Men of Malvern, a participant in the Cumberland County Code Blue Program for the homeless, and a volunteer at Marianist House in Cape May Point. In his free time, he works as a certified master gardner in Cumberland County.

He said, “Of course, as Catholics, we must pray, but we must put prayer into practice. And that’s what our team does.” Laughing once again, he said, “I still sometimes wonder how I ended up where I am today. But … I think it was God pushing me to where I was needed.”

For those interested in Catholic Charities’ Prison Ministry, visit: www.catholiccharitiescamden.org/prison-ministry/