Hiland Mountain Correctional Center resident receives sacraments

EAGLE RIVER, Alaska —  A resident of Eagle River’s mid-level female prison, Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and communion in the presence of Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz, OMI, on Jan. 19 this year.

Deacon Mark Merrill of St. Andrew Parish said he, archbishop emeritus, and St. Andrew lay volunteers Mireya Lee and Marie Lozano were the only visitors who attended the Mass at the correctional center. The North Star Catholic interviewed the deacon and archbishop emeritus leading up to and after the Mass, which happens to be the first time Mass took place there since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

Hiland Mountain is one of the many correctional centers across the state that is part of an archdiocesan parish’s prison ministry. St. Andrew Parish in Eagle River manages the prison ministry for Hiland Mountain.

Lee, who coordinates the prison ministry at Hiland Mountain for St. Andrew, asked Deacon Merrill to join the parish’s volunteer group soon after his ordination in 2015, according to the deacon. He has continued to support the ministry throughout the years, leading a communion service most Friday afternoons with support from Lee and three or four other lay volunteers from the parish.

Both Deacon Merrill and Archbishop Emeritus Schwietz have been affiliated with St. Andrew Parish for years. Archbishop Emeritus Schwietz said he had no interaction with the resident before Jan. 19. Deacon Merrill, however, noted that he had guided her along her faith journey for about six months.

He first met the resident during one of his weekly services last summer, about a year after the Alaska Department of Corrections allowed outside churches to resume religious services at Hiland Mountain. Upon meeting her, Deacon Merrill said she was adamant about her desire to join the Catholic faith.

“She had done a lot of research herself before she came to me,” he said. “It was clear that she had been reading a lot about Christianity, and she had found references on Catholicism … From the get-go, she said, ‘This is what I want to be. I’m called to join the Catholic faith.’”

Deacon Merrill said that over the past few years, he has instructed three residents in the Catholic faith following the same catechetical program used at St. Andrew for adults who want to become Catholic.

“Prior to her, there were two other residents at Hiland who were ready to receive the sacraments of initiation in the spring of 2020, but COVID shut everything down during that Lent,” he said. “Fortunately, over the next couple of years, Archbishop Emeritus Schwietz was able to confer the sacraments on them.”

Since joining the prison ministry, the residents of Hiland Mountain have made an impression on Deacon Merrill.

“The women we encounter at Hiland who attend our services are very well-spoken. For instance, they will read the scripture passages and Psalms during the Liturgy of the Word without missing a beat,” Deacon Merrill said. “Being the lector coordinator at St. Andrew, I know how challenging it can be to read a passage cold, without practice. These women are amazing in their proclamation and understanding of Sacred Scripture.”

On the day the resident received her sacraments, they were allowed to celebrate Mass in Hiland Mountain’s gymnasium. Chairs were up for another religious event to be held that evening, Deacon Merrill said, and the facility chaplain gave the “OK” to use the gym.

“This was great since the chapel we normally use for our weekly service would have been tight for seating the 22 residents who attended the Mass,” said Deacon Merrill.

The altar, which was just a little table, was set in front of rows of plastic folding chairs, Deacon Merrill said. He mentioned that a portable lectern was there too, which was used as an ambo during the Mass.

“Fellow residents read the two readings and Psalm from the ambo, I proclaimed Gospel from there, and the archbishop gave the homily,” Deacon Merrill said.

To celebrate the Mass, Deacon Merrill said he brought a “Mass kit” with unconsecrated hosts and about two ounces of wine for consecration. The kit includes other materials commonly seen on the altar during Mass, such as the paten, chalice, a small ciborium, the Roman Missal, the corporal, water, battery candles, and an altar cloth. Archbishop Emeritus Schwietz brought the sacred Chrism for confirmation. They also brought worship aids so the people could follow the readings during the Mass.

“During the Mass, the only people that consumed the precious blood, the consecrated wine, are the clergy,” he said, “Archbishop Schwietz, obviously because he’s celebrating the Mass, me also as the assisting deacon.”

For the Mass, Archbishop Emeritus Schwietz selected the readings for the third Sunday of Ordinary Time, which were for the coming Sunday. Deacon Merrill said the reading of Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and the gospel reading of Mark 1:14-20 point to “our higher calling from God.”

“Archbishop Schwietz explained that this woman had been called and she was answering her call much the same way that the apostles were and how Jonah ultimately did after his great struggles in the belly of a fish,” he said. “It was a beautiful homily, very much appropriate for not only the readings that we used, but also for the particular sacraments we were celebrating.”

After his homily, the archbishop emeritus called the resident forward and gave Deacon Merrill the honor of baptizing the resident. Following the baptism, the archbishop conferred the sacraments of confirmation followed by the Liturgy of the Eucharist and her first Holy Communion.

Deacon Merrill said that he has baptized many babies and young children in the past, typically using a scallop shell to scoop the water. He didn’t bring the shell, so he used his bare hands to hold the water and pour it over her head during the baptism.

“It was an amazing moment for both of us, the manner of the baptism, the witness by her sponsor who was with her, and everyone else who watched,” he said. “It was quite an experience.”

After the archbishop emeritus concluded the Mass, Deacon Merrill spent some time chatting with the resident before leaving Hiland Mountain.

“It was wonderful; you could tell how moving it was for her,” he said. “Like the story of Jonah, she spent her time in the belly of the whale, through the many challenges in her life, she came to realize that there was a God and she was being called to Him, which led her to discover Christianity.”

Deacon Merill added that the resident chose “Brigid Therese” for her confirmation name.

Both Deacon Merrill and Archbishop Emeritus Schwietz expressed great joy about the momentous occasion. Beforehand, Deacon Merrill said no one was certain if it would occur since the resident knew she was going to be transferred to another facility outside of Alaska, but no one knew just when that would happen.

“We all left it in the hands of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “As it turned out, her transfer from Alaska happened a couple of weeks after she received the sacraments, so the timing could not have been better.”

With this occasion also being the first Mass celebrated at Hiland Mountain since early 2020, Deacon Merrill expressed gratitude toward the Alaska Department of Corrections.

“It’s wonderful that they were so supportive of the celebration,” he said. “Their permission to celebrate the Holy Mass made it a beautiful day from so many perspectives.”

Deacon Merrill was also very grateful for the generosity of Archbishop Emeritus Schwietz.

“From the first moment I told him that we had another person at Hiland that we’d prepared for the sacraments, his only question was ‘When?’ so he could put it on his calendar,” he said. “We are so very fortunate to have such wonderful shepherds of the Church in Alaska, past and present.”


'Hiland Mountain Correctional Center resident receives sacraments'
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