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Finding Faith in Prison

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February 1, 2017

When Stockton Bishop Stephen E. Blaire went out of the ominous steel gates of Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy late last Christmas eve, he was given a small but powerful painting of the cross being raised by three prisoners.

The compelling image was a gift from the prisoners to their own priest. Bishop Blaire has spent each of the last 19 Christmas Eves celebrating Mass with the men inside the prison in its small Our Lady of Hope Chapel. The chapel serves as a small place of sanctuary in the tough prison environment and has a traditional crucifix depicting Christ in His final suffering.

But this year prison authorities placed a wooden panel over the chapel’s cross due to a lawsuit which required a reassessment of available chapel space.

Bishop Blaire explains “The painting gives expression to the pain the men feel in having the image of the Christ who suffers with them encapsulated in a nailed wooden covering. 

“The painting preoccupied my thoughts throughout Christmas eve and Christmas day.  Christ had come but is being hidden by the authorities.

“They want to raise the cross of Christ in the only place in prison where they find peace,” explains Bishop Blaire.

Deacon Edwin Santiago, who ministers to the needs of the men in Deuel emphasizes “Prison is a very dark place. In prison the presence of God is not taken for granted.”

But the chapel is the one place where the inmates have had a visible presence for their belief. The Christmas celebration means a lot to the men, who are unable to celebrate Christmas outside with their families and friends.

On the evening the painting was given to the bishop, 72 inmates attended the Christmas vigil Mass. Many of the inmates attending the Mass are Catholics, but others who attended are Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and even Jews and Muslims.

Blaire began visiting the prison before his 1999 installation as ordinary of the Stockton diocese, where Deuel is located.

“He has never missed,” says Deacon Santiago. “There are many stories about how he affected them positively.”

The artwork was painted by one of the inmates, using the only art tools available in the prison, permanent markers and sponges.  And the inmate who painted it taught himself the craft.

Nevertheless, the work is compelling.

At first it seems to be a straightforward image of three men raising the cross, but the hill where it is being raised is the walls of their prison confine. The work suggests that the men are seeking strength in their faith in spite of their prison environment.

Bishop Blaire adds a hopeful note, saying:  “I hear the wooden enclosure might be replaced by a curtain that could cover the crucifix when others use the chapel but be visible when Mass is celebrated there.”

Learn more about Chaplains in California Jails and Prisons.