By JOSHUA BISHOP, Special to the Bulletin | Published February 6, 2014
I actually cannot remember the first time we met, but the years have been long since his arrival to Death Row.
Our deacon was Mr. Tom Silvestri, and at the time we had no priest to say Mass. Instead the bishop would come in a couple of times a year and at times we’d be visited by other priests to say Mass throughout the year. I remember two that came down. One was a priest from Pinecrest Academy. The other was from St. Catherine’s. I apologize for not remembering their names. But we surely appreciated our time with them both. At other times Msgr. Gracz would visit and give Mass.
Then ultimately we were blessed by Father Austin’s presence. We finally had a priest to call our own. I’m smiling as I write.
He was just a man, but we fell in love with his homilies and the way in which he would explain life’s troubles and the support he’d show us guys on the Row.
I missed Mass for a couple months because I felt distant from God, but one day Father Austin came up to my cellblock and he held my hand at the gate. He told me that the church—the church—missed me. At the time we only had four or five guys going out. I guess it was the way he looked at me. Sorta like you’re forgiven. God loves you. …
And that next Thursday, I went out for Mass and it was but two guys, me and my friend, Lenny Drane. The other fellas had attorney call-outs or were on the yard.
I remember thinking that this man comes down here from way up the road, and here sit two guys to say Mass to.
He gave his words, we’d always stand up and he made us, or rather told us to hold hands, to say God’s prayer. I remember looking at those hands, callused up from something or other, and I asked him. Father Austin, I said, what’s up with the rough hands? He told me he worked in a small garden and did other things. He said that God gave Jesus to us and he worked with his hands as a carpenter.
He talked about how we have a place in God’s hands, too, and we are those rough spots or calluses on God’s hands. But with time our roughness can be smoothed by prayer and meditation on God’s messages.
I especially like the way he went about explaining how to share the message from God. He says, do not push your way upon people. Instead, invite them to listen, invite them to a Mass, let them make the choice.
But he was a stern man too at times. He was open to things, but the traditions he held in high esteem. The Body and Blood of Christ—that, he said, was in essence our belief. God gave to us life so we take in his gift of Body and Blood.
I used to fear dying, but Father Austin told me to fear only the things left undone. Take care of your heart, love others, and have your spirit clean from any hate or anger for the laws of man.
Sometimes we would talk about how mad this place made us, and Father Austin would agree that the death penalty was wrong in his light Irish speech, nearly hidden behind his neat white mustache.
Father Austin was our father. Lots of us did not have a father to teach us things about treating our fellowman with love and respect.
Father Austin loved us. He would tell us each one. “I love you, Joshua.” “I love you, Lenny.” “I love you, Warren.” He’d tell each of us that man only has power over our bodies. But God has power over the men who prepare us for execution. So we should show love to them and let God speak to them through our actions. I never felt a negative thing or word from him.
I myself had problems with depression, as I would guess many of us do. But Father Austin spoke to me one day outside so no one would hear my thoughts.
Father Austin listened to me “whine” as that is how I felt inside. So he told me to speak and tell him my thoughts. I guess I talked to him for 20, 30 minutes. Afterwards, he prayed for me and he held me to his chest like a father holding his son. I felt my eyes tear up, and to my surprise when Father Austin let me up he was weeping as well.
He felt my sadness. He was like this big heart that took in all our pain. He was full of love for us. And I just can’t say anything to describe him but love the man. He was just love sent to us on Death Row by God, and now Father Austin is with his father. I pray to meet him again. If I see him in three months or 30 years, when I do I will embrace Father Austin as he did me that day outside our little church/barbershop.
I miss Father, but I will never forget how his love touched me. We all love you, Father Austin.