Autobiography of my Prison Chaplaincy Journey: 1983-2020.
While doing graduate work at McGill University, I together with members of the Montreal Mennonite Fellowship began offering Bible studies at a local federal prison in Laval, P.Q., Leclerc Institution. Tilman Martin, former Mennonite pastor, worked there as a chaplain from 1975-1985, at Archambault from 1985-1989, and at Port Cartier on a part-time basis from 1989-1991.
I started work as a part-time Protestant chaplain at Leclerc Institution in Laval, P. Quebec, in 1987, replacing Rev. Tom Kurdyla, Presbyterian minister, during the summer months while he was on vacation.
In 1989, I moved to Archambault Prison north of Laval in Saint-Anne-des-Plaines, a maximum security institution, when Rev. Tilman Martin, Mennonite chaplain, retired. I was employed as a Correctional Service Canada government employee during this year (I remember Human Personnel phoning me once, worried that I had not received my pay). Rev. Martin was my mentor for many years, together with Father Edouard Otis, French Roman Catholic priest at Archambault. I did my chaplaincy accompaniment for a year with Father Otis (tout en francis, I do not think that he could say a word in English). I also worked at the Special Handling Unit at that time, which was connected to Archambault via an underground tunnel.
In 1991, Father Gabriel Savignac, who was the Regional Chaplain for Quebec during all of the years that I was there, transferred me back to Leclerc Institution and asked me to provide services at Centre Federal de Formation (Federal Training Centre), It was located across from Leclerc Institution and situated on the Saint Lawrence River. It had recently been changed from a medium to a “high” minimum-security institution (high fences from its medium-security days). I was also on-call at a minimum-security prison just north of Leclerc, Montee Saint-Francois. It had been a super-maximum security prison, transformed into a minimum.
Father Ronald George Labonte, Roman Catholic priest and chaplain at Leclerc, became a close friend during these years. We kept in touch for a number of years. He donated a number of paintings to me that I cherish. I received a Certificate of Accreditation in Chaplaincy in 1993, after a week-long CSC chaplaincy orientation in a little town called Gananoque, Ontario. Norman Barton and Chris Carr, regional Ontario and national chaplains, were our facilitators. I remember Joan Palardy being part of that orientation as well as a Quebec region Jewish Rabbi that I worked closely with for 10 years.
From 1995-1998, I filled in two days a week at Cowansville Institution, located in the Quebec Townships 150 km south of Montreal. This was in addition to my work at Leclerc and Federal Training Centre. Pierre Heon was a new lay Catholic chaplain and Rev. John Lee was a part-time Protestant chaplain/volunteer at Cowansville.
In 1998, I and my family (Naomi, Matthew, Kevin, Justin, Sonya) transferred to Bowden Institution in Alberta. I worked together with Catholic chaplain Joan Palardy and Protestant chaplain Hardy Engler for the next 12 years. It was the first time that I had worked in English as part of a chaplaincy team. It was great. In the fall of 2009, I took a three month sabbatical at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Indiana, my alma mater. Rev. Ray Landis, Mennonite conference minister, filled in for me at Bowden during this time.
In January of 2010, I began work at the Bowden annex. I needed a change of ministry, and the annex needed more direct involvement from chaplaincy. I was able to establish a chapel there. It was dedicated in 2015 by Rev. Dan Graber, conference minister with Mennonite Church Alberta. Debbie Tanasiecuk, Prairie regional chaplain, and Delvin Albright, annex manager, were able to locate a variety of funds during this time for the chapel. Debbie provided me with funds over the years to attend Theological Society meetings at a variety of places, to visit various Prairie Annexes (Units 6) during a three month period, as well as to facilitate my sabbatical in 2009. Thank you for that!!! Chaplains Bud Sargent, Thelma Pelletier, and Brent Walker were the chaplains in the main institution during this time.
In the spring of 2019, I was asked by Brian Harder, Prairie Regional Manager with Bridges of Canada, to be more involved in the main institution. I worked together with Muslim chaplains Irfan Gulsu and Malik Muradov, Wiccan chaplain Ross Harty, Protestant chaplain James Hathaway, and site-based chaplains David Meir, Clint Heigh, Tony Hilling, and Nick Andrushko during this time. On April 1, 2020, I retired, having worked with Mennonite Church Alberta and Mennonite Church of Eastern Canada for 28 years, Kairos Pneuma Chaplaincy for 2 years, and Bridges of Canada for 4 years.
I have spent the last 10 years writing three books, Glimpses of Grace: Reflections of a Prison Chaplain (2010), Magic of Fiction in Illuminating Transformation (2019), and A Prison Chaplaincy Manual: The Canadian Context, with Hank Dixon (2020). I taught a prison chaplaincy course at Ambrose University in Calgary in the spring of 2019 and developed an on-line course for Ambrose University that I am hoping to teach in the fall of 2020.
In conclusion, I have been tremendously fulfilled in my work as a chaplain. I believe it is largely due to the fact that it was something that I never dreamed of doing. I would like to thank all of my supervisors over the many years. The Warden at Archambault (whose name I forget), Jean-Yves Blais and Yves Fafard, Deputy Wardens at Leclerc, Mitch Kassam, Warden at Bowden, and Glen Westbury, Assistant Warden of Correctional Programs at Bowden, especially come to mind. I would also like to thank the regional chaplains, Gabriel Savignac, Terry Richardson, Rick Burk, Ted Hughes, Debbie Tanasiecuk, and Hans Eibich, as well as the National Chaplains, Pierre Allard, Chris Carr, Norm Barton, Terry Richardson, Rick Burk, Debbie Tanasiecuk, as well as the Reintegration Director, Bill Rasmus.
God works in mysterious ways.
God’s richest blessings,
P.S. Frances Gratton was a parole officer/unit manager at Leclerc when I was there. She signed a note in a going-away journal/present for me in 1998, together with many other staff. She is now the National Assistant to the Correctional Service Canada Commissioner in Ottawa.