For many Catholics, Advent means the glow of candles, a penance service at the parish and celebrations centered on the Blessed Virgin Mary. Family gatherings with loved ones, decorating the Christmas tree and wrapping gifts make it a festive season that spreads warmth and joy.
For inmates at Kingman Correctional Facility, the dark days of December are a different story.
Marianne Meyer and Ray Martin of St. Mary’s Parish in Kingman have been visiting inmates housed at the prison during the last six months, praying with inmates, bringing them the Eucharist and encouraging them.
Neither one of them can hear confessions though, and reconciliation with the Lord is what many of the Catholic inmates keenly desire.
Last week, Kevin Starrs, director of prison ministry for the Diocese of Phoenix, brought an early Christmas gift to those incarcerated at the privately run prison: Three priests to hear confessions.
Meyer wept when Fr. Estevan Wetzel, Fr. Anthony Dang, and Fr. Chris Fraser, JCL, strode into the prison last week. It had been a few years since a priest was available to offer confession and celebrate Mass for the inmates.
The three priests are no strangers to prison ministry. All three served during their seminary training and Fr. Wetzel remembers his mother visiting his brother in prison. The three concelebrated Mass inside the prison’s chapel, with Fr. Wetzel preaching the homily. He said he encouraged the men by drawing a comparison between Bethlehem and prison.
“Do you know or realize what it was like for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem? It was cold, it was dark, it was noisy,” Fr. Wetzel said. “And the Lord of the universe entered into this cold, dirty, loud, dark, lonely place” to become incarnate and live among us.
“The Lord just as easily can incarnate and be present, can be born, in a place that is so isolating, cold, lonely, noisy, terrible, a place of steel bars.”
Fr. Dang said the three hours spent inside the prison were a time of brotherhood in the midst of a “gray place that’s very institutionalized, with guards everywhere.” Into that somewhat intimidating atmosphere, the grace of God broke through.
“It was very emotional too to see people seeking that healing and forgiveness. It touched my heart seeing how the prisoners wanted God and it felt good to help them on that journey,” Fr. Dang said.
Fr. Fraser, who has been visiting the federal prison south of Anthem every two weeks, had never been to the Kingman facility before. Knowing that the men had not had the opportunity to confess their sins during the last few years heightened the emotion.
“You kind of sensed right when you got there, as they were gathering in the chapel area, this eagerness and anticipation. They’d been waiting and waiting and waiting. They wanted the sacraments,” Fr. Fraser said.
“I was just overwhelmed by their sense of gratitude.”
Starrs told the priests that one thing he’s learned over the 30 years he’s been in prison ministry is that people never forget that when they were in prison, their Church was there for them.
“It’s incredibly impactful. I’ve seen that and I’ve heard that as feedback from people in the parish who’ve been in prison,” Fr. Fraser said. “They’ve told me ‘I’ll never forget that that priest came.’ That just blew me away.”