by Joe Bollig
LEAVENWORTH — Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher hadn’t slept much the night before Dec. 9.
“I felt just terrible,” he said. “I had something in my throat.”
Finally, at about 5:30 a.m., he went to Menorah Medical Center in Overland Park to get himself checked out.
Nobody would have blamed the 86-year-old prelate if he just went home and took it easy the rest of the day.
But Archbishop Keleher had to be on his game that day. He was scheduled to celebrate Mass for the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the federal prison camp at Leavenworth.
The diagnosis was pulmonary infiltrate.
“I said, ‘Doctor, do you think I can do it?’ And he said, ‘Yep, you can do it,’” said Archbishop Keleher.
“So I did . . . mostly.
“I almost collapsed, but I did do it.”
Couldn’t he have just called in sick?
“Of all days, not on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe!” he exclaimed. “Who could I have gotten at the last minute to take over?”
Nobody gets into “the Hot House” fast.
They really need Jesus
As a bishop of a diocese and then an archdiocese, Archbishop Keleher has always been involved in prison ministry. But after he retired in 2005, he has had more time to devote to the inmates.
“I find [prison ministry] to be very attractive,” said the archbishop. “I tell the guys (inmates) that these are my best Masses I ever do. They’re really the ones who need Jesus, and Jesus wants us to take care of them.”
Three popes have inspired him in this ministry: Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. St. John Paul II is especially inspiring because of the way he visited and forgave his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, said the archbishop.
In addition to the federal prison camp in Leavenworth, Archbishop Keleher has been to the adjoining “Hot House,” or the U.S. Penitentiary affiliated with the camp, the Topeka Correctional Facility for women and the state’s Lansing Correctional Facility.
In the past, he’s also been to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks (“the Castle”) at Fort Leavenworth and a privately operated prison in Lansing.
Of these prisons, Archbishop Keleher visits the federal prison camp most often, usually once a month.
There are about 400 inmates at the minimum-security camp, and about 1,800 medium-security inmates in the “Big House,” said Supervisory Chaplain Dale Sutton, who is in charge of the religious program for the entire complex.
Inmates profess 19 different religions, and about half of the entire camp and penitentiary population participate in the religious program.
Gathering the flock
When he arrived at the camp on Dec. 9, among the items Archbishop Keleher brought with him were 80 red roses (for the inmates to lay before statues of Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe) and a wooden crosier made for him by inmates at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks.
The feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe is on Dec. 12, but this was as near to the date as could be arranged.
Archbishop Keleher was accompanied by Deacon John Stanley and St. Francis de Sales, Lansing, parishioner Chris Jensen, who is involved in prison ministry.
They entered the front door and were cordially greeted by Chaplain Sutton and Brian Wilson, the acting camp administrator. After fulfilling a few requirements, the archbishop and his party were escorted across a courtyard — where inmates can meet with their visitors and family during good weather — and into the six-sided cinderblock building.
The facility has a small chapel that is usually sufficient for the 20 to 25 men who regularly show up for Mass every Sunday, said Deacon Stanley. This day, because a much larger number had signed up, the Mass would be in the dining hall.
The inmates provide the music, serve as acolytes and lectors, and set up the altar and other liturgical furnishings. A man Chaplain Sutton calls “John the Catholic” acts as a sort of sacristan, leading the inmates who are in charge of setup. John was also in charge of organizing a special Christmas event for the inmates’ visiting children.
This was a special day not only because they were celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but also because two inmates were being confirmed. One made his first confession and first Communion as well.
“A lot of [the inmates] have rediscovered their faith in prison,” said Deacon Stanley. “They’re very much drawn to [the archbishop’s] sacrifice.”
Archbishop Keleher’s prison visits last about two hours. He hears confessions before Mass. After Mass, he sits in a little circle of inmates — who he calls “lads” — and chats with them.
He never asks them about their crimes and doesn’t even want to know. He wants to treat them like “regular guys.”
“That’s what I intend to do,” said the archbishop. “They live with guilt. They live with knowing they have deeply offended their own families.”
“Probably, in many cases, their families can hardly go on,” he explained. “They don’t need any more poured on them.”
The Catholic inmates have organized themselves into an unofficial “parish” under the patronage of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who died in a German prison camp during World War II.
“We have the daily rosary at about 3 p.m., daily prayer at about 9 p.m., multiple laypeople who lead Bible studies, Mass every Sunday, and a prisoner who leads a Bible study,” said an inmate named Brian. “There are many opportunities to renew your faith.”
It can be hard for some inmates to keep their faith while in prison, but others experience just the opposite.
“No, it’s actually easer,” said an inmate named Dane. “Every challenge is an opportunity to grow closer to God.”
A feast for the feast day
About 50 to 60 inmates were at the Mass. Attendance was boosted, no doubt, by a special lunch prepared by the inmate kitchen staff, led by camp food supervisor Ken Murawski.
Usually, inmates eat meals according to a “national menu,” but each group is allowed to have a special meal once a year.
One of the inmates at the “parish” lunch was Corbin, a lifelong Catholic. He played with the band during Mass and is a very active member of “St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish.”
His faith has been renewed in prison, he said, and he wants to give back. Giving back includes helping others in the Catholic religious activities and participating in the prison’s gardening program.
Last year, inmates donated more than 160,000 pounds of free food to Leavenworth and Lansing charities.
Knowing that he is a member of the church — and thus spiritually connected to God, the angels, the saints and all Catholics worldwide — is tremendously consoling to Corbin.
“In prison, you can feel disconnected from society, family and friends,” said Corbin, who leads the daily rosary.
But not from God — if the archbishop can help it.
“He loves every human soul he encounters, genuinely,” said Corbin.
In his homily that day, Archbishop Keleher spoke of Our Lady of Guadalupe and her appearance to Juan Diego. He apologized for his hoarseness and having to sit while giving his homily.
And he comforted the inmates with the church’s age-old teaching.
“We are all sinners,” he told them.