By Chris Kieffer
PEARL – On a Saturday afternoon in July, the 100 men gathered inside a chapel in this central Mississippi city rose and applauded as Father Lincoln Dall began his processional to commence Mass.
The congregants were inmates at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF). And the unscripted moment of enthusiastic appreciation that erupted at the start of Mass underscores the passion that has been at the heart of the growing Catholic ministry here inside the razor wire.
“I feel like it is almost ministry in its most raw form,” said Father Lincoln, the pastor at both Holy Savior Catholic Church in Clinton and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Raymond and the vicar general for the Diocese of Jackson. “A lot of them realize they have a lot to work on, and they’re hungry for this. You feel the energy for it. It’s palpable.”
Father Lincoln has a long history with prison ministry, but even he has been amazed by the burgeoning Catholic community here inside one of Mississippi’s three state prisons. As recently as last Christmas, about 15 or 20 inmates would regularly attend Mass, which was then held in a small room tucked inside one of the facility’s buildings. Now, some 120 or 130 men attend one of the two Masses Father Lincoln celebrates at CMCF’s chapel nearly every weekend.
“It is an accomplishment for us to see it growing, and it makes us feel we are doing something positive,” said Chris, an inmate at the facility and member of the Catholic community.
Their numbers have grown so much that the Catholic community has recently been recognized by CMCF as an official organization with its own bylaws and name – St. Michael the Archangel, chosen to honor the celestial being who led the angelic forces against Satan and his followers.
The community was also given use of the CMCF chapel, where it met for Mass on that Saturday in July. During the service, a banner hung from the ceiling above the altar declaring: “St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Community, Established 2023. Always fighting the forces of evil.”
The Catholic inmates have played a large role in the community’s rapid growth, said Father Lincoln, who has made the ministry the focus of a project he’s undertaking as part of the Mathis Liturgical Leadership Program, a selective two-year initiative run by the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute of Church Life.
The project is about creating a Eucharistic culture. In this case, it builds that culture by empowering the members of CMCF’s St. Michael the Archangel community to evangelize their fellow inmates.
“It has grown because that core group is working behind the scenes when we’re not there, and they’re going and talking to people and evangelizing them and trying to get them to come to Mass,” said Wes Stevens, who also volunteers with Father Lincoln in the ministry. Michael, an inmate who serves as St. Michael the Archangel’s leader, is also a Eucharistic minister. Recognized as the facility’s official Catholic field minister, he meets with other inmates throughout the week, prays with them and tells them about the growing Catholic ministry.
Father Lincoln brings consecrated hosts to a tabernacle they established within the chapel, and Michael distributes the Blessed Sacrament to Catholic inmates during the week. He also brings rosaries and Bibles that have been donated to the ministry.
“For me, it doesn’t matter where I am,” Michael said when asked why the ministry means so much to him. “I have the peace of God. I want others to have what I have. It’s an incredible gift, and I want other people to have it.
“That’s the last thing Jesus said in the Gospel, was for us to go forth and share it.”
Six inmates went through the RCIA program last year and joined the Catholic Church at Easter, and two more were confirmed by Bishop Joseph Kopacz during a spring visit to the facility. A new RCIA class will be held this fall.
The community has a pastoral council of Catholic inmates who meet regularly to plan activities. It recently launched a farmer’s market, which buys fresh fruits and vegetables and sells them to other inmates. They view the market as an outreach opportunity – a chance to highlight the growing Catholic community to others inside the facility – as well a means to provide healthy meals at affordable prices.
“The men who participate in the Catholic Community are a great bunch of men,” Gregg, another inmate, recently wrote in a letter to Father Lincoln expressing his appreciation for the CMCF Catholic ministry. “…. (They) strive behind bars and razor wire to do things that are only discussed and dreamed of from the outside – to evangelize CMCF and build the kingdom of God.”
Although Jesus explicitly instructs his followers to visit those who are in prison (Matthew 25:36), it’s an often-overlooked ministry. It’s an especially important one in a state like Mississippi, which has an incarceration rate of 1,031 people per 100,000 residents, according to 2021 statistics from PrisonPolicy.org. That’s the second highest among U.S. states, and 55 percent higher than the national average.
Father Lincoln was joined on that July Saturday by Bob Pavolini, a volunteer with the Mississippi Association for Returning Citizens (MARC), a group that focuses on the re-entry of incarcerated individuals into society and that holds meetings at St. Paul Catholic Church in Flowood. A handful of other volunteers also assist in this ministry.
Father Lincoln notes the need for more volunteers and donations. Last year, they spent about $16,000 on the ministry – covering such various expenses as rosaries, Catechisms, Bibles, missalettes and books, as well as a golf cart used to distribute produce from the farmer’s market to the inmates. Individuals can donate specifically to the prison ministry through the Jackson’ Diocese’s online giving portal. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact Father Lincoln at email@example.com.
“It’s uncomfortable at first and building relationships with the inmates is a slow-going process, but if you persist and you keep coming, eventually the guys bond with you and they open up and you realize they are just a normal human being who made a mistake at some point in their life,” Stevens said. “They’re not any different than you or I.”
Speaking about the growth of the Catholic community inside CMCF, the inmates rave about Father Lincoln and his sincerity and genuine passion for the ministry.
“I knew from the first time I met him that he really cared about the men here and his mission for God,” Michael said.
During his homily that Saturday afternoon, Father Lincoln referenced a quote he recently saw on the Internet, noting there are no perfect lives, jobs, marriages, parents, etc. We all have our struggles. But, Father Lincoln said, we have God who is perfect and will lead us through our imperfect lives with wisdom, strength and love.
“We all have our crosses,” Father Lincoln said. “I know you do. Our faith is here to help us through all of the struggles we have.”