It was 1997. Having just retired, after working 30 years in the chemical industry, I asked myself, “What do I want to do now?” I should have asked, “What does God want me to do now?”, but I didn’t.
First, I joined the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. I heard it was challenging but I was a retired business executive, used to challenges. Maybe because I was born next to the NJ State Prison in Trenton, NJ, I chose prison volunteering. Within a few weeks, I was a Eucharistic minister assistant, taking communion to Catholics in the worst cells of the Philadelphia Prison system. We looked into each cell and asked, “Would you like a prayer”. I was shocked by what I saw there, just a few miles from my suburban Philadelphia home. The pain, suffering, even suicides and deaths were things unknown to me. Years later, I still don’t like to think about what I saw.
I persevered for 6 months. My wife and I were at a Christmas concert the evening after I visited the prisons. I was still shaky. The sad memories of what I saw there were still fresh in my mind. I looked at the musicians in their black & white tuxedos, lost in the joy of playing their instruments; the comparison to the despair the inmates was too much to take. I started to cry and just couldn’t stop. We left our seats in the middle of a song and left the theatre. My wife said, “That’s it, you can’t do this anymore, you are not cut out for it, you’re too sensitive.” I knew she was right. That day was the last time I have ever been in a prison. I felt like a real failure.
Some time later, after many artistic endeavors, I was painting Orthodox icons. My 12th icon was a 14th century Russian crucifixion. I woke up one morning and had the thought (inspiration) that I would deviate from tradition and make the background a cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. That was my first image alluding to imprisonment and it was published in the Catholic Worker newspaper.
When I was a prison ministry volunteer, I heard of a Philadelphia group called Mary Mother of Captives. They organized people to write to Philadelphia inmates, especially young men. They loved the image of the crucifix on the cyclone fence and used in in their literature and at their meetings. I was doing a little something for inmates, without going into prison.
After that, I regularly looked for opportunities to use my icon images to help people ministering to inmates. Along came the Thrive for Life Prison Project, a NY city based, Jesuit project founded by Fr. Zachariah Presutti. Together we made three prayer cards: the Face of Jesus, Mary Mother of Captives and the Crucifix on the Cyclone Fence.
The following year, I contacted Fr. Paul Morrissey, an Augustinian, after reading his article in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR). I was surprised to learn he was a local chaplain in the Philadelphia Prison system. He liked my icons and said he had always wanted an icon of Mary holding handcuffs. Would I paint that? It became my fourth prayer card, being distributed by Philadelphia based Augustinian Defenders of the Poor. That original icon is in a shrine in the Healing Garden of St. Augustine Church in Philadelphia.
In 2005, I sent some images to the Joan Chittister Fund for Prisoners, an organization that sends over $60,000 worth of free publications to prison chaplains and volunteers in 90 prisons across the United States. They ordered 10,000 Mary with Handcuff prayer cards, using them at conferences and fundraising mailings.
Last year, and many thousands of prayer cards later, I was reading an another article in NCR about prison ministry organizations and I contacted the four that were mentioned. Soon afterwards, Karen Clifton , the Executive Coordinator of the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition (CPMC) contacted me. She was very surprised by my email. A few days earlier they came across my image of Mary in Handcuffs and really wanted to use it but couldn’t find its creator. We agreed it was not a coincidence. My collaboration with CPMC has been fabulous.
First, Jarrod Kinkley, Manager for Special Projects, wrote a new prayer for the card and changed the border color from black to their colors ie royal blue. They published it in both English and Spanish.
Some months later, Karen Clifton emailed me to say that Deacon Ronnie Lastovica has been visiting women on death row in Mountain View Prison in Gatesville, TX, for over 8 years. Six of the women on death row have become Oblates of the Sisters of Mary Morning Star. He discovered that these women have been including CPMC’s Mary, Mother of Captives prayer card in their correspondence. I was very honored to know my art work was being used in that way. Karen relayed a message from one of the women Oblates, asking if I had ever painted an icon of Mary Magdalene (MM). I have painted 125 icons to date and did have one of her. I sent it along and the TX women loved it and wondered if I could put prison cell bars in the background, which I did.
In July, I sent the original icon of MM with prison bars to CPMC and it is now in the chapel in the Gatesville Prison. A wood mounted print of that MM icon was presented to Bishop Joe Vasquez at a recorded Mass in the prison chapel attended by the women oblates. That icon is hung in the Chancellery in Auston, TX to encourage others to consider chaplaincy. Jarrod Kinkley (CPMC) authored another prayer and ascribed Mary Magdalene, Tower of Faith to this icon in English and Spanish.
In August, Karen told me that CPMC was expanding their outreach to include ministering to detained immigrants and wondered if I had an icon of Our Lady Of Guadalupe. I had painted one at my wife Joan’s request in 2015. Once again, I honored their request and added rows of barbed wire in the background and at Mary’s feet. The concept was similar to Jesus on the cyclone fence, but done 25 years later. A prayer card of that image is being created in time for Restored by Compassion: Given & Received, this year’s CPMC conference on December 1st.
What’s the lesson here? What have I learned? Well, it’s exactly what so many spiritual teachings tell us, “If you forget your ego’s desires and just look to use your talents to serve others, you will be amazed what the Holy Spirit can do”.
Join CPMC on December 1st for Restored by Compassion: Given & Received, a virtual conference to gather ministers, volunteers, and supporters of prison, jail, reentry, and detention ministries. Come listen to others’ stories of transformational ministry, rooted in compassion and the Gosepl call to accompany others. Featuring Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, Bp. Bill Wack, CSC, and other leaders, participants will find inspiration and meaningful opportunities to grow in their ministry and support others doing this important work.
A devout Roman Catholic, Pachuta wanted to do volunteer work after he retired from the chemical business in 1998 and spent six months with the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, offering Eucharist to inmates in the worst cell blocks of the Philadelphia Prison System. It was a horrific, life-changing experience for him. Pachuta always had an interest in art but no formal training. He had been raised in a Byzantine-rite Catholic Church, where icons are venerated, and took a course in icon-making at an Antiochian Orthodox monastery. He found his true calling, creating holy images for cards printed with prayers and messages of encouragement for prison inmates, altered in ways that would speak to the kind of people he had encountered in his volunteer work.