Until just a few weeks ago, I knew precious little about my mother’s side of the family. She passed away young, when she was 39 and I was 10; that was in the late 1970s. Other than her sister, who moved out to California not long after my mother’s death, I don’t remember ever meeting any of my mother’s relatives during my childhood. The only family gatherings I recall while growing up involved my father’s side.
My younger brother recently began doing genealogy research into Mom’s side of the family. We already knew that she was born in Massachusetts in 1937 and that she had two siblings — her aforementioned sister and an older sibling whom I don’t recall. Her parents died either before I was born or soon afterward, when I would have been too young to remember them.
A couple weeks ago, my brother unearthed a copy of a document that filled in a lot of blank spaces — and also raised lots of new questions — about our family history.
That document was my maternal grandfather’s prison intake form.
In 1931, six years before my mother’s birth, her father was sentenced to five years in New York’s Sing Sing Prison. His crime: second-degree larceny. He and an accomplice had stolen a Packard Roadster, a pretty high-end car at the time.
The document, which had been filled in by hand, revealed that my grandfather was born in 1901 in Lowell, Massachusetts. It gave his parents’ names and places of birth: my great-grandmother and great-grandfather were originally from Massachusetts and Québec, respectively. (That makes my brothers and me one eighth Canadian, which was news to me.)
The form goes deeper: the grandfather I never knew had left school at 14 after having reached only the fifth grade. He served in the U.S. Navy for only one year — his discharge status wasn’t indicated. His most recent employment at the time of his crime was as a crossing watchman for the Long Island Railroad, where he’d worked until only a few weeks before his arrest.
Finally, the prison form listed his religion as Catholic but specified that he had not attended Mass in ten years.
Not very long after my brother emailed me a PDF copy of our granddad’s Sing Sing form, I coincidentally (or maybe not) came across a blog post by Fr. Dwight Longenecker describing his prison visits to celebrate Mass for the inmates. In contrast with the outside world — where we are all too prone to rationalizing our sins and failings, blaming others for them, or flat-out denying them — Fr. Longenecker describes prison as a place where people face themselves and their crimes every day. The incarcerated may play the same denial or rationalization games that we do, but as Fr. Longenecker notes, “it must be tougher to do so.”
Fr. Longenecker writes that the men who attend his Masses “are free, although they are prisoners” — even more free than others, in fact, because they’re in a place where excuses and denials are tougher to pull off than on the outside. The men to whom Fr. Longenecker ministers have repented, have faced up to their crimes, and therefore have liberated themselves.
I pray that my grandfather took a similar path. I pray that he made good use of his time in Sing Sing. The warden at the time, Lewis Lawes, was well known as a reformer; he turned the prison from a pre-1920s hellhole into a model institution featuring sports clubs, work programs, and educational opportunities. I hope my grandfather took advantage of that.
I hope and pray that during his incarceration, my grandfather improved himself not only from a temporal standpoint — by learning a trade or getting an education, for instance — but also spiritually. I have fanciful images of my grandfather reverting to the faith, meeting regularly with a prison chaplain, confessing his sins, attending prison Masses, and so on.
Perhaps none of that happened, but then again, perhaps it did. Wouldn’t that have been a beautiful thing? Upon retiring in 1941, Warden Lawes told the New York Times that he found many of the Sing Sing inmates to be “very fine men.” I hope that my grandfather was one of them.
It’s said that many men and women in prison aren’t bad people — they’re just people who made bad choices. It’s all too easy to write them off as “losers” who deserve to be where they are. But it’s not just the “good” people we are called to love and whose dignity we are called to see — because, as Christ clearly said, anyone can do that. Being a Christian demands much more — we must see the dignity and humanity in everyone, including the “bad ones.” Fr. Longenecker’s blog post is a poignant reminder of that aspect of our Christian call — and reflecting on the life of the grandfather I never knew only drives that message further home.
Did my grandfather deserve to be sent to prison? Assuming that he was not wrongfully convicted, yes, he absolutely did. He committed a serious crime and owed a debt to society for it. I pray that he accepted responsibility and was truly remorseful. I pray that he deeply regretted a horrible choice that not only landed him behind bars, but also left his wife and child without a husband and father for several years.
I also pray that, in addition to accepting the temporal guilt and punishment for his breaking of the secular law, he also sought and received God’s mercy and forgiveness for his serious transgression against the Seventh Commandment. I pray that he embraced the truly liberating power of the Catholic faith and its doctrines and moral teachings. When we stick to that, after all, we can never go wrong — in this life or the next.
Most of all, I pray that the soul of my maternal grandfather, William Aitchison, has found eternal rest and peace in the care of God. Whatever his crimes and misdeeds may have been, I thank him for having done at least one good thing during his life: helping to bring into the world my mother Louise, a loving, strong, and fun-loving woman whose time on this earth was far too short and whom our family will never forget. Along with my father, she cooperated with God in bringing into the world three sons who are doing well in life and living the Catholic faith in which we were raised as children. That is my grandfather’s legacy.
Let us pray for the strength to recognize the humanity in all prisoners, regardless of the severity of their offenses, remembering that Christ does not want us to merely take the easy path of loving only those who are easy to love. Let us pray for incarcerated persons, even (or perhaps especially) for those whose crimes are particularly heinous, that they may seek and find mercy and forgiveness from the Ultimate Judge.
Let us pray for priests who, like Fr. Longenecker, minister to prisoners who seek the Lord. It takes a special sort of shepherd to feed and care for sheep who most of society would rather pretend aren’t there. May Fr. Longenecker and all priests who bring Christ inside prison walls always be blessed and strengthened in their work.
And finally, let us pray for the presence of mind and heart to always remember that we are all criminals — that is, we are all sinners, and that none of us deserves the gifts of redemption and salvation for which the Lamb of God sacrificed Himself for our sake. As we approach the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, it is fitting to recall that we are all in a sense prisoners, in need of pardon and release won for us on the Cross.
Ken Foye is an American Catholic living abroad, teaching English writing, reading, presentation, discussion, and conversation classes at a four-year university in northern Japan. He is an Oblate of St. Benedict and is married to a Japanese convert to Catholicism. Among his academic research interests is the inclusion of faith and religion discussions in the English language classroom.