St. Cyr brings female touch to Angola

Advocate photo by MARK H. HUNTER -- Angola Chaplain Bernadine St. Cyr, right, gets a big hug from a daughter of an inmate at the AWANA program's Returning Hearts event held on May 18 when hundreds of children got to spend the day with their fathers and restore those relationships. Sitting on the bench is Chaplain Robert Toney, who helps organize the popular event.
Advocate photo by MARK H. HUNTER -- Angola Chaplain Bernadine St. Cyr, right, gets a big hug from a daughter of an inmate at the AWANA program's Returning Hearts event held on May 18 when hundreds of children got to spend the day with their fathers and restore those relationships. Sitting on the bench is Chaplain Robert Toney, who helps organize the popular event.

“I know this is where God wants me to be,” said the only female chaplain at Louisiana State Penitentiary, with a big smile. “I thank God that he found a place where he can use me — I really do.”

A committed Christian since the age of 22, she’d raised two children by herself, had a diverse career helping people and was serving her hometown of New Roads on the City Council. But things just weren’t quite right and she couldn’t find a job for a year.

“I was in a desperate situation where there was nobody I could turn to but God,” said St. Cyr, 66. “I wanted to go into the ministry but I was also afraid and doubtful to be totally sold out for the Lord — so I did nothing.”

During a 2004 trip to Washington, D.C., on City Council business, she read the “Purpose Driven Life,” by Rick Warren. The book reinforced what she already felt — God was calling her to something beyond herself. A few days later, she applied for a job in Angola’s education department.

She accompanied Warden Burl Cain to Camp D’s chapel where he was interviewed for a church television program. Cain explained his vision of faith-based moral rehabilitation that he instituted in the late 1990s, a vision that has changed Angola from being known as “America’s bloodiest prison” to a model of peace and civility that many other prisons are now copying.

“I began to hear about this place and I began to cry — and I said, ‘OK God — this is what you want for me — this is what you want!’” she said.

Corrections Program Manager and head Chaplain Robert Toney saw her crying, she said, and told her, “‘You are made for this.’ I said I’ve got to be a part of this — I know that this is where God wants me to be — and he says, ‘I’ve been watching you and I believe so.’”

Warden Cain hired her two weeks later. She was licensed as a chaplain and ordained in 2005. She fills a need the male chaplains can’t.

“She’s really like the mother to 6,000-plus men here at Angola,” Toney said. “They love her and she does a great job.”

“I serve the role of a mother — a lot,” St. Cyr said. “When something happens in these men’s life, like the death of a loved one — they need someone to come to and let them know everything is going to be all right. Nobody can do that better than a woman.”

One of the programs Cain introduced is “Malachi Dads,” a Bible-based organization that teaches inmates how to be godly fathers in spite of their circumstances. It also reconnects them with their children with the goal of breaking the generational cycle of criminal behavior.

“It’s not about the prison and it’s not about the inmates. It’s all about the kids,” Cain often says about the Malachi Dads program.

St. Cyr provides a female perspective to the program. She also facilitates communication between the men and their children, and each summer takes two dozen children to Word of Life Youth Camp in New York.

One of those Malachi Dads is Hayward Jones, 39, serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. St. Cyr helped Jones communicate with a social worker and family members after the boy’s mother didn’t live up to her responsibility, Jones said, and he eventually gained legal custody of his son and has restored their broken relationship.

“Without Chaplain St. Cyr, I wouldn’t even be able to communicate with him or with the courts with what was going on,” Jones said. “He graduated from high school and is going to college this fall.”

Children need a dad in their life, St. Cyr said, “but it is also important that the men know how to sow good seeds from the Word of God into the lives of their kids. That’s what we’re all about — breaking the cycle of crime. We don’t want to see the children of inmates up here.”

Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot said St. Cyr’s influence on the men inside and their families outside is helping to break that cycle.

“Moral rehabilitation is changing the inmate but it is also changing the culture and the environment of the prison to reflect more like what society is about,” Fontenot said. “Chaplain St. Cyr is able to make that connection in a safe, secure way to the public and really gets solutions to issues.”

St. Cyr counsels an average of 10 men a day, she said, and files a lot of paper work — including about 40 marriage applications each year.

There are more than 400 prison chapel services held each month by dozens of the inmate pastors and visiting church ministries, she said.

“I believe that over 50 percent of our men have been touched by the power of God,” she said.

Located about 140 miles “up the river” from New Orleans, the 18,000-acre maximum-security prison is enclosed on three sides by the Mississippi River and by razor-ribbed fences, watched by armed guards, and patrolled at night by hybrid wolf-dogs. Six “camps” house 6,200 offenders.

More than 3,200 are serving life sentences. Prison chaplains estimate 1,200 to 1,500 are born-again Christians.

“There is nothing in my life that I’ve ever done that compares to this work. It is of the utmost importance to me,” St. Cyr said. “It is what God designed for me to do and I love every minute of it.”