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Prison Chaplain Begins New Challenge in Greenwich

The Rev. James McDevitt was in his first full day at his new job as administrator at St. Agnes Church in Greenwich on Friday, and the phone was ringing off the hook. "That was Tom Macken, his son just died and he wanted to know if there was a specific time for the funeral Mass. And he wants to come by and meet me," said McDevitt. "It will take a long time, but hopefully we'll be able to start the healing."

McDevitt, who served as a prison chaplain at several federal institutions for the past 15 years, has dealt with many difficult situations in his time in the priesthood. His approachable nature worked well with different types of prisoners, including women at the institution in Danbury and the white-collar criminals, murderers and mafia bosses imprisoned at complexes in Allenwood, Pa., and Brooklyn, N.Y.

McDevitt, one of six children, was born and raised in Brooklyn. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1990 and worked in two parishes in the Diocese of Bridgeport . But after a summer internship at a federal prison, McDevitt said he knew he was needed in the prison system. Bishop Edward Egan, who was then the leader of the diocese, released McDevitt from his duties to go into prison work.

"My calling at the time was to visit the imprisoned," said McDevitt. "None of us can do it all, but we all do what we can in our little part of the world. ... I ended up not only doing the gospel of Jesus Christ, but I've done Ramadan, Passover, supervised native American sweat lodge ceremonies. All of it."

He said he saw the impact he had on prisoners in small ways. One day at Allenwood, McDevitt said more men came to the chapel after a funeral Mass had been celebrated. "When I asked what was up, I found out these guys were coming just to see and smell the fresh flowers that had been laid out, because some of these guys hadn't seen real flowers in 20 or 30 years. ... I arranged to have bouquets set up there more frequently."

At the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, N.Y., where McDevitt continues to work part time, one of his imperatives was to bring music to the imprisoned. He reached out to churches to collect donated instruments such as keyboards, drums and guitars. "It's another outlet. Guys would practice in their worship services, because there was nothing," he said.

Bishop William Lori asked him to return to the Bridgeport Diocese because of a shortage of priests. McDevitt wanted to continue his prison work but said he was ready to re-enter a parish. When the Rev. William Carey retired from St. Agnes, McDevitt came on board. He said he hopes to revitalize St. Agnes by beginning outreach programs and attracting more young families. "I'm not here with an agenda," he said. "I'm here to listen and see what the needs of the parish are, while keeping my hand in my work in prisons."

Have you met the new priest at St. Agnes? What kind of changes, if any, would you like to see at the parish?

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