"When I was in prison you visited me . . . "
A number of parishioners travel to the prison in Cowansville where they pray and reflect on Scripture with a group of inmates.
After parishioner Robert Morell first visited the men's prison in Cowansville, he wrote:
"We do not know what crimes have landed them in prison, maybe it’s better like that, but several thoughts filled my head in the following days. That in these men, as in all men, there is good, if allowed to express itself. That God is a forgiving God and we are the instruments of his forgiveness. That even after years of incarceration, men can still grow and improve, physically and spiritually, given the opportunity. That there is hope. That the Hollywood perception of prison life does not reflect reality. There was none of the distrust and suspicious nature I had expected. They were a friendly, cohesive group expressing camaraderie with each other and with us. I know that I have much to learn from them."
Circles of support for released inmates
Bob Morell describes Communitas, a key support organization for recently incarcerated men in the 2019 summer edition of the church newsletter, on pgs 7 & 8.
Former inmates face a multitude of challenges upon release, particularly if they are anglophone. Often isolated and stigmatized, they face an uphill battle finding housing and getting jobs in a society that shuns them. Communitas provides a place for them to go for support and advice where they will not be judged (again), where they can feel they belong and are accepted as they are.
Formerly known as Montreal Southwest Community Ministries (MSCM), Communitas was created in 1999 by Peter Huish, a prison chaplain who noticed how little support existed for ex-inmates in the Montreal area, where most were released. A group of citizens in the southwest borough of Montreal were equally concerned. Thus MSCM was born. The reintegration process begins in prison with activities like Bible study. As they interact with volunteers, inmates start to feel part of society again and know that upon release Communitas will be there for them. Simple, everyday things like using the metro, obtaining medical services and getting their driver’s licence again can present huge obstacles for an ex-offender, but a Communitas volunteer can help. If an anglophone inmate from elsewhere in Canada is released in Montreal with a parole condition stipulating that he cannot go outside of a 50-kilometre radius, life can be daunting without anyone to turn to.
Open Door at Fulford Hall
The main activity of Communitas is Open Door, held every Tuesday at 7 pm in Fulford Hall at Christ Church Cathedral. It consists of volunteers, former inmates and some current inmates who qualify for escorted leaves and are brought in by a volunteer driver for the evening. It is a structured event that begins with each person saying his name followed by a spiritual moment. Then there is a presentation by a guest speaker, followed by a Q & A. Topics are wide-ranging, from oil sands research to birdwatching. Coffee is available throughout the evening. There are snacks afterwards and a chance for casual conversation until the evening ends at 9. Open Door is free and open to anyone who wishes to attend. It is always a special joy to meet an inmate whom I have known for years “inside” the first time he is permitted an outing to Open Door.
The hub of all other activities is at the Communitas office on Notre Dame Street in St Henri. These include Table Talk on Friday, a casual meeting with lunch served, Movie Night on the first Monday of the month, and games day on Sunday afternoon.
Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) are also held at the office. This is by far the most important function of Communitas. CoSAs operate across Canada and for anglophones in Montreal Communitas conducts 12 to 18 at any given time. A Circle consists of four or five volunteers and one ex-offender (client) who has requested to be in a Circle. Volunteers pledge support and the client pledges accountability. They usually meet once a week at first to discuss any challenges the client is facing and possible solutions, all in complete confidentiality. The main thing is that the client does not feel alone to cope and at any time a volunteer is only a phone call away. Statistics show that for men in a circle the success rate is 70 to 80 per cent not to re-offend. Without a circle the reverse is true.
Financial support for circles was cut by the Conservative government, resulting in many Circles across Canada being discontinued. However, all Circles at Communitas were maintained, since the office is maintained by donations. The current government reinstituted funding.
Expenses at Communitas consist mainly of the office rental and two paid staff who coordinate and run the day-to-day activities. Everything else is done by volunteers, some of whom spent time in prison themselves. Donations, large and small, are always gratefully accepted.
For more information please visit the Communitas website at www.communitasmontreal.org. The latest copy of the Communitas newsletter, The Sou’wester, can be found in the church foyer and I am always happy to answer any questions.
Church website editor’s note: You may read the latest edition of the The Sou’wester here.