Jail chaplains stress mercy

Father Tony Gargotta was preaching about salvation to a group of men holding onto hope.

“We all sin, but Jesus died for our sins,” he said. “We want to imitate Him, to die to our own wants and needs.”

The men listened, sang hymns, received Holy Communion, then returned to their cells at the Allegheny County Jail. For a year, they have been in isolation 23 hours a day due to the pandemic.

“When they arrive here, they suddenly have a lot of time on their hands,” said Father Gargotta, Catholic chaplain and interim director of chaplaincy services. “Many start to read the Bible or Koran and want to learn more. We try to answer their questions and walk this journey with them.”

Dedicated teams of chaplains and support staff serve many of the 1,700 inmates at the Allegheny County Jail, hundreds more other county jails, and at the state correctional facility in Greene County.

“In the final judgment, Jesus will ask did you visit me in prison,” said Deacon Keith Kondrich, quoting Matthew 25. “He forgave the penitent thief on the cross next to him. Our job is to constantly offer God’s forgiveness.”

Before the pandemic, Masses were celebrated in the jail’s chapel, and inmates could take part in faith formation classes and Scripture study. Now, Mass is recorded and visits are limited. Communion services began recently.

“I need this,” said one inmate, who is from Pittsburgh’s North Side but has been in jail since last September. “When I was younger I used to go to church. It was important to my grandmother.”

Jean Marie Farina, Catholic coordinator, said that simply being present to the men and women can be healing.

“We recognize that we’re always more than our mistakes,” she said. “It’s important to see Christ in them, and to be Christ for them.”

The team is part of Foundation of HOPE, an interfaith non-profit that works to empower incarcerated and released individuals to restore their relationship with their God, rebuild their lives, and reconcile to their communities.

When COVID hit, volunteers could no longer bring communion or mentor inmates in-person, so they started writing letters, Deacon Kondrich said.

“It really took off, writing back and forth, two to three times a month,” he said. “Powerful letters, deep sharing. It’s been a great solution to the physical and social isolation that inmates have felt.”

Foundation of HOPE helps former inmates look for jobs and housing, and offers support groups.

“Most of us aren’t called to jail ministry, but we can say a daily prayer for men and women who are incarcerated,” Deacon Kondrich said. “Also, we always have a need for clothing and toiletries, simple things.”

“The Gospel message is about life and forgiveness,” Farina said. “People here can experience freedom by being reminded that they are loved.”

“Working with the inmates has been great,” Father Gargotta said. “We’ve shared some of the deepest conversations I’ve ever had. We need to think about them and pray for them.”