Among the many freedoms that imprisonment takes away, one is sharing in holiday cheer despite a strong desire to do so.
That’s the trend Deacon Paul Clement said he’s observed over many years of prison chaplaincy. He noted that "at Christmastime, as it is with us, an inmate’s heart fills with Christmas love and he longs to express it to his loved ones."
However, "Many inmates never get a visit. Many inmates never get to talk with their families by phone," Deacon Clement said. "Christmas can be a depressing time for inmates, because they feel especially out of touch with loved ones. They reflect on past good moments with loved ones, moments that are now out of reach and may remain that way for quite a while."
He further observed that prisoners cannot easily send Christmas greetings through the mail: "Because they earn so little money for the work they do in prison, it’s difficult for them to purchase cards or even to buy stamps."
That’s where St. Luke Parish in Livingston County comes in. Once again this Christmas season, parishioners have taken part in a card-collecting project for Groveland Correctional Facility, a medium-security men’s prison located near the county center where Deacon Clement is a longtime chaplain. A similar effort is conducted at Livingston County Jail in Geneseo, with parishioner Paula McClure serving as liaison.
At Groveland, the effort involves the donation of blank Christmas cards by parishioners so that inmates can fill them out and mail them to family and friends. Packets of cards are left in the St. Luke central office and at the entrances of its member churches. Deacon Clement and his wife Barbara, also a chaplain at Groveland, then bring them to the prison and issue them to inmates. The distribution began during the first week of Advent and was to continue until the cards run out.
"We make them available to any inmate who asks," said Deacon Clement, who serves as St. Luke’s parish deacon as well.
Deacon Clement noted that the parish-initiated Christmas project has been going on for several years, typically producing 1,000 to 1,500 cards for the Groveland prisoners. He observed that it’s not just Catholics who are eager to get their hands on the cards.
"We have inmates from more than 30 different faith groups at Groveland, and we’ve discovered that Christmas love transcends most of them," he remarked.
Deacon Clement and his wife began in 1985 as volunteers at Groveland and eventually became a "chaplain team" in 1989, one year prior to his ordination as a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Rochester. He noted that members from the St. Luke churches, as well as the parish’s two priests, Father Bernard Dan and Father Ed Dillon, perform outreach to the prisoners not only at Christmas but all year long.
"They are very generous to the inmates with time, talent and treasure. They volunteer time; they visit; they provide Bibles and other materials; the priests come for Advent and Lenten penance services and to conduct Mass on occasion," Deacon Clement said. "These people are wonderful, and the inmates are very blessed by the actions and prayers of the people. Their hearts are so good."
That goodness has been manifested at holiday time this year by two parish efforts for people in need beyond the Christmas-card donations. St. Luke parishioners took part in a giving-tree project that provided Christmas gifts for the impoverished, as well a holiday greeting initiative during November and December to parishioners who are homebound or in nursing facilities.