This account of a young man’s conversion to the Catholic faith is the Parable of the Prodigal Son told in prose; a story of pain and loss, of grace and freedom.
My name is Alexander Page. I am 28 years old and I am prisoner number 96829 in the New Hampshire State Prison. One day a few weeks ago, I was standing in the doorway of Cell Number One having a conversation with two friends. I think you might know the ones I mean. Anyway, I go there a lot to talk about a very big decision I made that changed the course of my life. I didn’t know when I went to visit Cell One that I would end up telling all of you this story, but here I am.
I have become a Catholic. That might seem no big deal to the casual observer. Just about everywhere at this time of year, people are getting ready to enter the Catholic Church. If you knew me though, you might see that this decision was most unlikely, but, like I said, here I am.
It’s hard to pin down the point where I first thought of this. It isn’t something that I pursued. It’s more like it pursued me. Of all the places for a person to find faith for the first time in his life, prison seems the most unlikely. At least that’s what I always thought. Before I came here with a life in ruins, I had lots of misconceptions about prison and prisoners.
My memory of my life as a child is that it was fairly normal for today’s standards. I had loving parents and an older brother. Until I was 11 years old, everything was ordinary for me. Then came the fall. My father left. He didn’t just leave. He left my Mom alone to raise two sons. He moved to Kansas in search of himself and a new family. I was yesterday’s child, and I was angry about it.
These years were rough for my family. My Mom struggled to keep our home, but couldn’t. My older brother worked as much as he could to lift the burden from my Mom, but couldn’t. At 12 I started smoking dope and drinking, trying hard to escape feeling like a burden and discarded. My best friend was going through a similar breakdown in his family and we escaped together into drugs and alcohol. There was just no one there to stop us.
So in the eighth grade we began skipping school. First, a day here then it slowly became our way of life. Up to then I was an honor student, but by ninth grade I was drinking every day and all honor left me. It was a crushing source of shame that I stole money from my already struggling Mom and from my. friend’s Mom. I was feeding a growing addiction to oxycodone. Today I see its grip on my 14-year-old self as demonic.
I was barely living, fighting every day with my Mom who fought hard to save my life and my soul from self-destruction. It was a losing battle, but still, as with everything else, she struggled. Then another life-changing event happened. My Mom and ‘I were in a terrible accident in the fall of my ninth grade. She was hospitalized for a year. My brother had to leave school and work full time to support us.
By the tenth grade I told my Mom that I wanted to drop out of school and work full time as a roofer. She reluctantly agreed, but got me to at least agree to work on obtaining my G.E.D. high school equivalency. I signed the papers and went to work, but I hated my life and the powers that had stolen my will. I was yearning for something, though then I thought it was just drugs.
Some of my “friends” would offer me drugs for free when I had no money just to keep me in my habit. That’s when I learned that I had no real friends. My older brother even told me that there was nothing wrong with doing drugs, or as he put it, “living life.” I didn’t see it then, but I see it today. He had no more guidance than I did, and neither of us knew what “living life” meant.
I was 17 years old when I had enough of the way I was living and sought a geographical cure. I talked with a friend in California who told me I would have a place to sleep if I came out there. So off I went. I wasn’t counting on the fact that my Mom was still struggling to save me, so in her eyes I was now a 17-year-old runaway. Eventually, she came to tolerate my latest bad decision, but reminded me of my promise to at least complete a G.E.D.
In California, I landed a job within five days. My glorious new life of freedom from myself and the past lasted all the way up to my first paycheck which, true to form, was handed over to alcohol and drugs. In California, nothing changed but the direction of the tides. The tides of my life, meanwhile, still flooded over me.
I think it’s important to note that up until this point in my life I had no real exposure to religion or faith. I did not believe in anything, least of all myself. I remember as a small child asking my Dad what religion we were. He said, “Well, if you had to put a label on it, I’d say we are Protestant.” I had no idea what a Protestant was. As I grew older, I learned that my Mom was a Methodist as a child, and I discovered that I had been baptized whatever that meant.
But here in California I was more lost than ever before. I stayed until I was almost 20 until the next geographical cure brought me home to New Hampshire where my downward spiral with drugs and alcohol continued until I was 24.
On July 6, 2010, my first and only son was born. When I saw him open his eyes for the first time and stare into mine, I cried. It was as though someone had turned a light on for the first time in my life, and I saw how very limited I was. I knew things had to change, for my son and for myself. I was determined not to bestow, upon my son the legacy of absent fatherhood, the abyss I spent so much of my life trying to fill.
Over the next six months, I stopped drinking and using drugs. I began to think more about the miracle of life before me and less about all the searching I left behind. There had to be something more to life. I had seen it in my son’s eyes.
So I began to read about religion. I read about Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism. Then one day I was parked on a street waiting for a friend when I began to pray for the first time in my life. I asked God to show me the way. When I opened my eyes I saw two young men cross the road carrying a Bible and I started to laugh. I watched as the young men left, and thought I had missed my chance.
So I prayed again. I told God that if those young men ever again cross my path, I will get up the courage to talk with them. When I finished and looked up, they were standing, still holding their Bible, looking around and puzzled. They turned 180 degrees and started walking back toward my car. I jumped from the car, and I think I scared them. That day I received my first Bible and started reading.
THE DEBTS OF THE PAST
Then my life of wandering caught up with me. In 2014, I was sent to prison. I had never before been in jail or prison, and I was preparing for the worst. It’s not at all like what you see in the movies or on T.V. It was devastating and frightening. At the point at which I was just beginning to discover Alexander Page, I became prisoner 96829.
After three months of being classified, I was terrified. In the whole time I was there, all I heard were prisoner horror stories about this one unit called Hancock, or “H-Building” as it was called Prisoners called it the “gladiator unit,” and I prayed to God that I wouldn’t be sent there. So when I was told to pack my things and move to H-Building, I was terrified.
When I arrived in Hancock, I was sent to Echo or “E-Pod” where there were eight prisoners per cell. I quickly began to learn the difference between T.V. prison and real prison. Day to day life was very difficult with fights breaking out all around me. It was always loud and dirty, and the arguments and fights were a daily occurrence. I tried to keep to myself, but the overcrowding made that impossible. I knew that sooner or later I would have to defend myself. It was filled with aimless young men all trying to prove themselves and not appear vulnerable.
I knew this place could destroy me so I started going to classes in the prison and to the prison chapel whenever I could. After all, I thought, it could be worse. I could be on Bravo or “B-Pod.” The rumor on the upper pods was that B-Pod had “lifers who will take what they want and kill you in a heartbeat.” I prayed to God not to let me be sent to B-Pod. Within days of that prayer, just after my birthday, I was told to pack my things because I was being moved. When I asked where, the dreaded words terrified me all over again. “You’re going to B-Pod.”
I was put on a top bunk on B-Pod out in the day room where the lights are kept on 24/7. I was at least glad to have a top bunk because I thought it would be harder for someone to jump me. I was terrified and knew everyone could see it. I also knew that prisoners would be true to form, and most would look to exploit my fear.
I unpacked my few things, most of which I expected to be stolen by morning, and climbed into my bunk to hide behind a book. It felt as though everyone was avoiding me, “the new guy,” like the plague. I was afraid to leave my bunk to go to the prison chow hail so I just stayed there behind my book. As the day moved on, prisoners started returning from work. This one bald guy with glasses walked past me and stopped. “Where did you come from?” he asked.
I recognized him as the guy who works behind the desk in the prison library. He saw instantly that I was very intimidated by this place so he told me not to worry, that everything would be okay and no one would harm me. I only later learned that this man was Fr Gordon MacRae.
Then the next guy to come over to me was Donald Spinner. He asked me why I did not go to dinner, and I had no answer for him. So Donald came back and left some bread and peanut butter and jelly on my bunk and said “you’ll be hungry before the day is over.” I was starving!
Then the next guy to stop was an Asian man everyone called “Ponch.” He joked around and made me laugh, and then said he is G’s roommate, and to just come over if I need anything. Yeah right! I thought. I’m not going anywhere near these guys!
Later, a lot later, I would have the privilege of reading a post by Father G called “The Conversion of Saint Paul and the Cost of Discipleship.” In it he wrote about himself and Pornchai Moontri and Donald Spinner, and how they have learned to cope with prison. When I read it I thought back to that first day on that bunk out on the pod, and I realized that the cost of discipleship that G wrote about was very real. These guys didn’t just believe it. They lived it.
One day I ventured over to the weight machine on the pod to look at it . Donald Spinner came over and asked me if I was interested in getting into shape. I thought it was a lost cause, but he encouraged me. For the next several months, Donald worked with me every day, teaching me weightlifting and how to get enough exercise to change the way I think and feel about myself.
Then he began to talk about faith and what I believe. I knew he and Pornchai Moontri had become Catholic. I read Pornchai’s post, “I Come to the Catholic Church for Healing and Hope” and it profoundly changed the way I see my past, my present, and my future. I could see these guys, and Michael Ciresi heading off to Mass every Sunday, but more importantly I could see the way they conducted themselves in a very difficult environment from Monday through Saturday. These guys were the real deal.
One day I was sitting on a bench near Donald Spinner’s cell. He asked if I was okay, and I asked him, “What do Catholics believe about Baptism?” I told him that I thought I needed to be baptized again, and he said that if I already am, it is for life. This led to many conversations about faith and about the Catholic Church’s place in history I wasn’t being “won over” so much as “called home.” I began to see that I was changing not just physically, but spiritually.
When I began to go to Mass offered by Father Bernard Campbell – Father Bernie – I approached him and said that I needed to be forgiven. I asked if I could go to Confession, and Father Bernie didn’t even ask if I was Catholic. He smiled and said, “Of course,” and said he would meet me at the Chapel on the following Friday. I will never forget that day – the day of my first Confession when I walked away a new man.
That new man now has a new faith, and is on fire with it. I am clean, and sober, and free of the life long burdens of the past. I remember something Pornchai wrote in “I Come to the Catholic Faith for Healing and Hope.” He wrote,
“One day I woke up with a future when up to then all I ever had was a past.”
Today, miraculously in the most unlikely place, I have an identity. I no longer wake up wondering who I am. I am a man! I am a father! I am strong! I am a Catholic! I am hopeful! I am free!
A FEW NOTES FROM FATHER GORDON:
(1) A decision about our March 17 U.S. District Court hearing has not yet been published. This week in the National Catholic Register, journalist Brian Fraga published an analysis of the hearing and both its hopes and its obstacles. This important article will help TSW readers to understand the legal challenges involved. Please, share this link to Brian Fraga’s article, “New Hampshire Priest Continues the Long Road to Clear His Name.”
(2) Last Sunday morning, Pornchai Maximilian Moontri went to the prison medical unit to attempt to bring Anthony Begin to the prison chapel for Sunday Mass. Medical staff said that Anthony was too weak to go. He is currently held in an isolation room in medical services and we are unable to see him. I am told, however, that Anthony is likely in the final weeks of his earthly life. Please, join us in prayerful support of Anthony Begin.
(3) This is not an April Fool’s Joke. New Hampshire State Prison officials have announced that effective April 1, greeting cards of any type will no longer be allowed in prisoner mail entering the prison. This ban includes all greeting cards – Easter cards, birthday cards, note cards, Christmas cards, and anything printed on card stock. Nothing thicker than a plain sheet of paper will be allowed to be mailed to prisoners. We will keep you posted if this draconian policy changes or is reconsidered.