These Stone Walls, the writings of Fr Gordon MacRae from prison, began
seven years ago in the ashes of injustice to become one of the most popular Catholic blogs.
- “By faith, the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days.” (Hebrews 11:30)
- “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them.” (Hebrews 13:3)
On the evening before I sat down to type this post, I received a letter in the mail from someone at a Baltimore law firm. It was a copy of a letter to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. She had been quoted in a national news story stating that a non citizen who commits a crime in the United States, however long ago, is subject to “speedy removal.” The writer’s cover letter to Justice Kagan included a copy of my recent post “Criminal Aliens: The ICE Deportation of Augie Reyes,” as an example of how the words, “speedy removal” are being carried out in reality.
The person who sent it to me asked, “How many Catholic blog posts do you think are forwarded to Supreme Court justices?” I do not have an answer, of course, but over the seven years that I have been writing these posts, I often receive mail from people reading These Stone Walls in unexpected places: A priest ministering to U.S. troops in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan; a Vatican diplomat in an African nation; an Archbishop living under virtual house arrest in another; a noted priest-physicist at Oxford; a Catholic writer and interpreter in Argentina; an American cardinal. I am always surprised, sometimes even alarmed, at the global reach of These Stone Walls which turns seven years old in July.
It doesn’t seem that long. These seven years flew by for us, but the passage of time feels different in prison, a phenomenon I wrote about in. “Time in a Bottle with Jim Croce and the Twang Brothers.” The Twang Brothers, by the way, are much improved since I wrote that post. If not for their imprisonment, they might qualify for a stint on “America’s Got Talent.” Or was it “America’s Most Wanted?” Either way, both await “speedy removal.” Pornchai-Max has waited 25 years, and Chen going on two.
TSW GOING POSTAL
My friend, Pornchai Moontri and I have spent a combined forty-seven years in prison. In the last seven of those years since These Stone Walls began, our lives behind these walls changed dramatically. Last week, Pornchai-Max received a letter from someone in the Philippines who did a Google search for “Divine Mercy conversion” and found him on These Stone Walls. Cardinal Kitbunchu, Archbishop Emeritus of Bangkok, also wrote to him, as did a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, and Marian Helper magazine editor, Felix Carroll who featured Pornchai, me, and These Stone Walls in “Mary Is at Work Here.”
Like every prisoner on the planet, we love to receive mail. But responding to it is sometimes a source of anguish. ‘We have no computer or word processor access at all, so anything we write must be handwritten or typed. Typing letters is difficult because I can purchase only six typewriter ribbons per year so for the most part I have to preserve them for TSW posts.
I can also purchase only 20 postage stamps per week, and three of them are required for international mail. For these reasons, I have been known to answer some letters six months after receiving them. Before TSW began, I received one or two letters per week. You should have heard the comments at “Mail Call” one day last week as two prison guards arrived. One with a stack of mail for 59 other prisoners in this cellblock, and the other a stack of the same size for me. (Please see the mail rules at the “Contact” page before writing).
I meant what I wrote at the end of “Priesthood in the Real Presence and the Present Absence.” These Stone Walls changed everything for us behind these stone walls. Without it, without this vibrant exchange with other Catholics the world over, I may by now have become just a prisoner. There is little here that sustains faith, and far less that sustains an identity of priesthood. These Stone Walls came into being at a crucial moment in this crucible of prison, and is responsible for multiple conversions to the Catholic faith – and even a miracle or two. I am not yet at liberty to describe the miracles that you have helped to bring about, but in time I will. I promise.
IN THE BEGINNING…
The story of how These Stone Walls began has been told before, but it’s a really good story and really good stories are worth repeating. It began in 2009, and Ryan MacDonald had a hand in it. He took it upon himself to call out a Catholic writer who had presumed my guilt based solely on the fact that I am in prison. By the time Ryan was done with him, he was anxious to print a retraction, and did. It was a simple thing, just a few sentences, really, with a title something like, “Father Gordon MacRae…Revisited.” It sufficed.
On the far side of the world near Sydney Australia, Suzanne Sadler spotted it. She searched my name, and among all the wreckage of accused priests, false witness, and the snarling of ravenous contingency lawyers, Suzanne came upon a small website that a lawyer friend had put up for me. Suzanne wrote that the site was nice “for an iron-man competition,” but suggested that I should really be writing for publication. I was thoroughly intimidated. I believed I had nothing to say that anyone would want to read.
By telephone, Charlene Duline, a heaven-sent friend in Indiana, read me the messages and helped me respond. Over much of May, 2009, Suzanne and I communicated back and forth across the globe with ideas, but I was very skeptical. When I came to prison in 1994, blogs did not exist. Nor did Facebook, Linkedln, Pinterest, or even the words, “social media.”
I was also skeptical because the news media – especially in the U.S. – had been unjust and merciless with accused Catholic priests, making no distinction whatsoever between demonstrable guilt and mere accusation – accusations that were driven by the reality of money and bullied settlements. It felt as though I had been wearing a big target on my back, and writing a blog might just make it bigger still.
Most priests in America are simply not good at defending their faith or themselves. Prior to the last twenty years, we never really had to. We became too comfortable in this culture and began to accommodate ourselves to it too much. Priests came to expect wide acceptance with few questions asked. When the persecution came, many fled. Many faltered. The guilty took plea deals. Some of the innocent did, too. Some even took their own lives, a tragedy I wrote about in “The Dark Night of a Priestly Soul.”
The last two decades of scandal have wrecked havoc in and on the priesthood, and someone wanted me to step onto that mine field with a blog from prison? My first reaction was “thanks, but no thanks.” Like Jonah, I had already been thrown overboard, and was swimming frantically in the opposite direction from Nineveh, when Suzanne asked me to write for a new Catholic blog.
Then there was S.N.A.P. and the news media to consider. They ganged up on every accused priest at every turn. So I debated whether I was ready to write boldly at a time when it seemed the whole country had turned on its priests. Then a friend of mine said, “You’re overlooking something. If they write about you, then write about them.”
But in the seven years of writing for These Stone Walls, this never became an issue. TSW has been cited a lot in the Catholic press, including the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Catalyst, First Things, Marian Helper magazine, and others, and in secular media such as WSJ.com and CounterPunch. We were cited in a science journal as well. Yes, there is someone “out there” who likes our occasional science post.
These Stone Walls also had appearances in several published books such as Catholic Priests Falsely Accused by David Pierre, Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast by Father James Valladares, and the wonderful Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions by Felix Carroll. TSW was even cited in a history book, 1620: The Story of Thanksgiving by Rick Gregory, and Congregants of Silence by George Schaller.
A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS
So in May, 2009, I agreed to think about it. We wondered what to call this blog. I liked the poem, “To Althea from Prison” by Richard Lovelace, a 17th Century British prisoner. I had read of the poem which was set to music and mentioned by one of my favorite authors, the late Patrick O’Brian in his masterful historical novels, the Aubrey-Maturin series of books beginning with Master and Commander. Patrick O’Brian became the posthumous recipient of our first annual “These Stone Walls Stuck Inside Literary Award” which featured some photos of Pornchai’s prodigious craftsmanship with woodworking and model ship design.
I asked Suzanne if we could name the site after the poem which is now displayed on the TSW Home Page. Suzanne suggested “My Stone Walls,” but that felt awkward. I was keeping my friend, Pornchai apprised, and he suggested that “My Stone Walls” gives the impression that we like it here. (For the record, we don’t!) Pornchai thought about it, then said, “How about ‘These Stone Walls’?” I cannot explain why, but the moment I heard it, I knew we had our blog name.
I agreed to write a weekly post thinking that this would be a very short lived adventure. Then right on cue, my aging Smith-Corona typewriter died and had to be shipped for repairs. That took five months as the vendor excavated Smith-Corona graveyard to find the needed parts.
Nonetheless, in early July, 2009 TSW put up its first three posts starting with “Maximilian Kolbe and the Man in the Mirror.” It was handwritten so a friend had to retype it. I have to admit that I really liked the first post I actually got to type. It was dated August 5, 2009 entitled “Contentious Convicts.” Pornchai mocked me because of it: “Really?” he said. “You got the world’s attention and you’re writing about your pet fish?”
TSW generated 42 “page views” in its first month of existence. Today its monthly page views average about 25,000, and TSW has a presence on many social media including Facebook, Linkedln, and Pinterest, none of which I have ever seen. Over time, another friend, Father George David Byers got involved and took on the task of scanning my typed pages, doing some formatting and e-mailing them to Australia for publishing. Mrs. Lavern West in Cincinnati, another Heaven-sent friend, prints and sends me your comments.
No other blog in the world goes through such a grueling process to get posted. We’re still the underdog in this Catholic online world. So help us, please. Share our posts on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedln, Pinterest, and in comments on other sites. Links still matter. Thanks!
Someone out there has given us a very nice gift. A few weeks ago, I asked a friend to search online for an image we had used featuring Pope Francis just after his papacy began. It’s a wonderful image of him on a city bus in his native Buenos Aires, Argentina, and it’s my favorite image. We found what we were looking for, but in an unexpected place.
Carmelite Sister Carol Mary Nolan, O. Carm. who, like Pope Francis, has an active presence on Twitter, is also a fan of the social network, Pinterest. This is foreign territory for me because I have never seen Pinterest. Sister Carol stumbled upon These Stone Walls while looking for the same image of Pope Francis that my friend and I had been searching for. When she found TSW in 2013, Sister Carol posted a short introduction entitled “These Stone Walls” on her blog, The Walking Nun.
Then Sister Carol also established a Pinterest board entitled, “Father Gordon MacRae and His Blog ‘These Stone Walls.’” It has hundreds of “pins,” images posted on and about TSW, and to date it has about 1,800 followers. A reader who came across Sister Carol’s board printed about 15 of its pages and sent them to me. It’s a stunning display of the story of seven years behind These Stone Walls told in pictures.
I am so very grateful to Sister Carol Mary Nolan, and hope that you will visit and follow her amazing display at “Father Gordon MacRae and His Blog ‘These Stone Walls.’”
There’s just one problem. It isn’t “my” blog. It’s ours! From the depths of our prison, we thank you for seven years among friends. We thank you for the courageous Catholic witness of true believers. That’s what our friend, Pornchai-Max calls you. “True believers.” To paraphrase America’s poet, Robert Frost, by coming here, you have taken the road less traveled, and it has made all the difference.
We are in Ordinary Time, but it’s really Extraordinary Time. May the Lord bless you and keep you.
Editor’s Note: Long-time TSW reader, Maria Stella, extends this invitation,
“As the next TSW post will probably be June 29, could you please add a note at the end of the post to invite supporters of Fr. MacRae to join in a 54 day rosary novena that will start on June 30, the day the first martyrs of the Holy Roman Church are commemorated? The intention is justice for Fr MacRae and that he be released from prison. Other readers may want to add their particular intentions.“