By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
As the principal of a high school run by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, Brother Martin’s Ryan Gallagher had to take one for the team: A summer retreat in Rome.
The focus of the retreat, which brought together administrators from Sacred Heart schools across the world, was the charism of the order founded in 1821 by Father Andre Coindre, a priest born in Lyon, France.
“One of the things that the Brothers basically reminded us in Rome was that the Brothers of the Sacred Heart essentially began in the prisons,” Gallagher said. “Father Andre started his work with the young and the imprisoned children. He started by visiting the prisons and taking boys who were orphaned and subsequently imprisoned and starting a school for them.”
Already that summer, Gallagher had begun reading “Reading With Patrick,” a nonfiction account of a young woman who abandoned her job as an attorney to become a teacher, only to see one of her students, who was struggling in school, end up in jail.
“As the story goes, she basically starts to teach the student in jail,” Gallagher said.
Then, as a parishioner at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Metairie, Gallagher received another connected prompting. The parish bulletin had a small item searching for anyone who might be interested in prison ministry.
“That kind of struck a chord with me, reading this book and then going on retreat,” Gallagher said. “So when I was sitting in that room in Rome, I was thinking, ‘OK, I have to act.’”
Since the Brothers of the Sacred Heart this year are celebrating 200 years of opening their first school in France, Gallagher thought this might be a chance to widen the perspective of Brother Martin’s students both about prison ministry and the roots of the Sacred Heart Brothers.
Gallagher relayed his excitement to Jerry Ursin, moderator of student ministry, and Tom Baier, director of campus ministry.
Ursin and Baier invited students to a brainstorming session to see what they might want to do. In the meantime, Gallagher’s St. Catherine group had made connections with Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, Louisiana, which was holding a Kairos Christian retreat at the prison.
One of the features of the Kairos retreat, which is attended by many prisoners who are preparing to return to society, are letters sent from family members, friends and even strangers to offer them spiritual encouragement.
That’s where the Brother Martin students came in. Members of the newly formed Prison Ministry Team wrote 45 letters, each containing some passage from Scripture and a message of hope.
Senior John Miltenberger, who wrote one of the letters, said what he knew of prison life before the team formed last fall could be relegated to a few movies and television shows.
“They are in there for a reason, but they’re not in there forever,” Miltenberger said.
While Miltenberger did not know to whom he was writing, he gave a reflection on a Scripture passage with the knowledge that “they were getting ready to be released back into society.”
“The transition is not going to be the easiest thing,” he said.
Miltenberger also joined about 25 other students who traveled by school bus to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola on Jan. 2 to meet with trustees there who are part of a program run by the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Ryan O’Connor, president of the Student Ministry Team, said his visit to Angola was “heartwarming” because it was “amazing to see how (the inmates) have so much hope even though they are there for life.”
One of the oft-forgotten corporal works of mercy is visiting the imprisoned, he said. “Even though the men and women in prison have made mistakes, we can learn to forgive them,” O’Connor said.
Ursin said Brother Martin hopes to spread word to other schools, encouraging them to join the effort.
“This is definitely the working of the Holy Spirit because the kids have seen the need for this and they have seen how much impact their letters have made,” Ursin said. “They’re just giving them hope and love.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.