After decades ‘behind bars,’ Texas priest retires from prison ministry

After decades ‘behind bars,’ Texas priest retires from prison ministry

Father Ron Cloutier gives Communion through a slot to an inmate in solitary confinement at a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison in this undated photo. "It's time for me to be paroled," joked Cloutier as he retired Dec. 31, 2019, as director of Correctional Ministries for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston after more than 40 years providing for the spiritual needs of people in prison. (Credit: CNS photo/courtesy Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston Correctional Ministries.)

"It's time for me to be paroled," joked Father Ron Cloutier as he retired from directing Correctional Ministries for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston after more than 40 years providing for the spiritual needs of people in prison.

HOUSTON, Texas — “It’s time for me to be paroled,” joked Father Ron Cloutier as he retired from directing Correctional Ministries for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston after more than 40 years providing for the spiritual needs of people in prison.

At 76, the veteran priest said he will remain active by celebrating Masses and consulting with dioceses across the country that are establishing their own prison ministries.

“Texas is such a role model for ministering to those in prison. We are far ahead of the rest of the nation. So after I rest up a bit, I’m going to Maine and also Charleston, South Carolina, to consult with those dioceses about prototypes,” he said.

The archdiocesan office serves 10 county jails, 23 state jails and prisons, one federal prison and an immigration detention center.

“In one year, we celebrated 700 Masses with volunteer priests and 900 Communion services at the units,” he told the Texas Catholic Herald, the archdiocesan newspaper.

“Catholics only make up 26 percent of the prison population,” Cloutier added. “But we want to offer the sacraments to them just as Protestants come into the prisons with revivals and crusades.”

Catholics also began weekend Kolbe Ministries retreats for inmates in 2009 in a program named after St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who died in the Nazis’ Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. The weekend retreats offer incarcerated men and women the chance to experience God’s redemptive grace and mercy through the sacraments, small group sharing and prayer.

With the archdiocese’s support, Cloutier expanded his ministry beyond the prison walls and helped create four halfway houses for inmates being released.

“The general recidivism rate of those being released back to their old environment is 55 percent going back to prison. For those who go to halfway houses as a stable place to live, the recidivism rate is now about 7 percent,” he said. “If we expect them to be contributing members of society, we need to help with education and jobs.”

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston has long been a supporter of the ministry.

“The cardinal would always say yes to the Correctional Ministries, whether it was him coming to confirm a group of men at a unit or for the archdiocese to create transitional housing after incarceration,” said Cloutier, who has been a priest for 47 years.

At a Jan. 26 dinner marking Cloutier’s retirement, DiNardo told the gathering, “Father Ron’s ministry to the incarcerated is a needed reminder that the word of God is not chained.” He recalled St. Paul writing about his imprisonment in 2 Timothy 2:9, which states, “I suffer to the extent of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God cannot be chained.”

Cloutier said he has seen numerous success stories from his ministry of people who have turned their lives around. One of his most recent involves an 83-year-old man who served 30 years as a onetime sex offender.

“He’s now in a halfway house. We connected him with a local parish and he’s going to Bible study. He kept his Catholic faith in prison and is still going to Mass regularly,” Cloutier said.

Whenever the former inmate gets teased by younger halfway house residents, he drops down and “does 30 pushups” and challenges them to do the same, the priest said, laughing.

The priest recalled being an inner-city parish pastor in St. Louis in 1979 when he first received a call from Bishop John L. Morkovsky, who headed what was then the Diocese of Galveston-Houston asking him to begin a jail ministry in the diocese. (It was made an archdiocese in 2004.)

At the time, the Texas prison system was under a class-action lawsuit by inmates for inhumane conditions, brutal treatment and lack of medical care. After months of testimony, the federal trial concluded in 1979 with the judge ruling for inmates and ordering extensive changes in prison operation.

“My relationship with God is one full of surprises. So when I came and took a tour of the jail, a deputy and I were stuck in an elevator for 45 minutes. After that, I knew how much work needed to be done,” Cloutier said.

By 1996, then-Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza approved formalizing the Office of Correctional Ministries. The office’s newly named director, Deacon Alvin Lovelady, who worked as associate director under Cloutier for four years, said that working with the priest was an honor.

“I do see us going forward with more housing for ex-offenders and more quality jobs to support them in their efforts to become model citizens again,” he said of continuing Cloutier’s legacy.

Zuniga writes for the Texas Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.


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