Inmates complete prison’s new Catholic chapel in 38 days

The inmates affectionately call it “The Alamo.” The bishop calls it a blessing. And nearly everyone who visits Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel declares it amazing and beautiful.

The chapel, located inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary’s Main Camp, was built by volunteer inmates, who worked in 12-hour shifts around the clock and completed it in 38 days.

Designed in the Colonial Spanish Mission style to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, the chapel’s stucco front façade resembles the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, and many other Catholic edifices from the American Southwest to South America.

At a Mass of Dedication on Dec. 12, Bishop Robert W. Muench, of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Patroness of the Americas. Hundreds of inmates, visitors, officials and even a mariachi band packed into the 6,000 square-foot, steel-framed building that features paintings, stained-glass windows and furniture, all crafted by inmates.

“The new Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel at Angola is a special blessing to Catholic residents and others who are able and wish to pray and worship there,” Bishop Muench said for this story. “It stands as a testament of faith to civil authorities, generous donors, talented artisans and dedicated workers who made it possible.”

The chapel is part of the Louisiana Prison Chapel Foundation system, and is the 14th chapel built in state prisons with inmate labor and donated funds, according to Cindy Mann, the foundation’s executive director.

Latin American businessmen Jorge Valdez and the late Fernando Garcia, who unexpectedly died right before the project started, were the primary donors.

“These men had a passion and a burning in their hearts for the prison chapel, and that passion was also shown by the inmates who poured their hearts and souls into the 24/7 construction,” Mann said. “Every detail is absolutely amazing, from the craftsmanship of the handmade chandeliers to the pews to the beautiful artwork. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Tim Byrd, Angola’s maintenance director and chapel construction project manager, estimated the cost for materials and some of the furniture at $451,000.

About half of Angola’s 6,400 inmates are registered as Catholics, according to Warden Burl Cain.

The prison’s Catholic chaplain, the Rev. Bernard Papania, called “Father Bernie” by his congregation, has been at Angola for about a year and a half, and travels among the prison’s six camps on a regular basis.

Papania said about 50 Main Camp inmates did everything from framing up the steel, to laying the block and tile, to painting, wiring and plumbing, with much of that work going on simultaneously.

Before the chapel was built, the 60 or so Main Camp Catholics worshipped in a small, 1970s-era interfaith chapel shared with other groups, Papania said. Now they have their own space and pew seating for more than 200 worshippers.

“It’s been very good,” Papania said. “A lot of the guys who built this aren’t Catholics, but they all put their heart and soul into it.”

Much of the furniture and several statues — some of which survived Hurricane Katrina — were donated by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Papania said. The marble altar is from Hope Haven, a West Bank boys’ home where several of the inmates told him they lived as youths.

A life-sized Lady of Guadalupe icon, custom made in the Netherlands of three-dimensional glass, dominates the front right side of the sanctuary. Wrought-iron chandeliers, made by inmate blacksmiths, hang from the vaulted ceiling.

Inmate: ‘It’s a miracle!’

The sanctuary’s front is dominated by a colorful, floor-to-ceiling, larger-than-life mural of Christ’s crucifixion painted by Miguel Velez. Now in his 27th year of a life sentence for murder, the 65 year-old Colombian native and architect, said he experienced a miracle.

When the work began, Velez said he suffered from several large cancerous tumors on his back and neck and couldn’t even help build the scaffolding. But as he painted the mural the tumors went away, he said.

“I still have cancer, but the tumors are gone,” Velez said. “It’s a miracle!”

Papania, standing nearby, nodded in agreement.

A place of refuge

“This is a place where you can come and forget about your life and your life sentence,” Velez said of the chapel. “It is a place of fellowship and peace.”

Derrick Sonnier, a 35-year-old Jefferson Parish native in his 16th year of a life sentence for principal to murder as a juvenile, assisted Velez and also painted the corner columns and cross emblems around the room. An artist, but not a Catholic, he paints Louisiana scenes he sells at the prison’s rodeos.

“You can see the difference in the men now that they have a place they can call their own,” Sonnier said.

Each of the 14 Stations of the Cross were painted by different inmate artists. Jorge Rodriguez, 63, a native Cuban now in his 33rd year of a life sentence for a second degree murder conviction, painted the third station.

“My inspiration was, I fell for the first time and I see Jesus and the cross fall for the first time,” Rodriguez said. “It’s part of my life.”

Rodriguez, a chapel minister who became a Catholic in 2005, said, “we have a place of our own to worship. It elevates our spirits.”

Sonnier added that he’s seen a positive change in the prison since Warden Burl Cain instituted faith-based and educational programs after his arrival in 1995.

“Sixteen years ago this was a bad place — especially for a young white guy,” Sonnier said. “The demeanor of guys has changed over the years. Now they have more things to focus their energy on versus the chaos that was rampant during those times.”

Rodriguez added: “God’s hand is on this chapel, and on Warden Burl Cain for building this. This was a bloody prison before but God is using Burl Cain to show the world that this place changed and people can be changed. I thank God for that.”

Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot said the chapel is a symbol of how faith in God and innovative programs can change the inmates and even society at large.

“This is a solemn and holy place that is a reflection of who they are now,” Fontenot said. “It is the best of who they are reflected in something that is going to reassure them that their life has purpose and there is a greater goal beyond what we normally see and that is through our faith.”

“This place gives them hope,” Fontenot added. “In a prison setting, where usually men are not allowed to be creative, and to follow in the image of their creator, to be able to be in a facility that allows them to get to that point, that’s good for victims, that’s good for the public’s safety, it’s good to break the cycle of violence in the family — it’s all good.”