These Stone Walls 2014 review: Pornchai Maximilian Moontri family reunion. Anthony Begin renews life. Jesse Pickard finds freedom. Status of Father MacRae’s appeal.
These Stone Walls has a New Year’s tradition for a year-end review with a format used by the Journal Editorial Report hosted by staff from the WSJ Editorial Page. The JER airs at FOX News each Saturday and Sunday afternoon with a review of the week’s news and the WSJ panel’s “Hits & Misses of the Week.” Viewers are encouraged to register their own “Hits & Misses” at the Journal Editorial Report website. I invite readers to do the same after this post.
THE BIG HIT: A FAMILY REUNION
I have to cover the year in reverse because our best and most important “Hits” of 2014 behind These Stone Walls are part of a tapestry woven all year, but unfurled in December.
Earlier in 2014, I wrote of the seemingly miraculous reunion between Pornchai Maximilian Moontri and Joe and Karen Corvino, the beloved foster parents who became so important in Pornchai’s life before he became stranded at age 17 and went to prison at age 18. In “Loved, Lost, Found: A Gift for Mother’s Day” in May, I told the story of how they found each other again after two decades. It included a moving excerpt from Joe Corvino who described the heartbreaking injustice by which he and Karen lost Pornchai at age 17.
Then, in “A Stitch in Time: Threads of the Tapestry of God,” I continued that story as Joe and Karen, from their home in rural North Carolina, “accidentally” connected with the various people and events that have become so much a part of Pornchai’s new life and redemption. As that post reveals, those connections link people around the globe.
On December 13th, Joe and Karen Corvino, along with their daughter, Lucia and foster son, Paul, traveled from North Carolina to Concord, New Hampshire to be with Pornchai and me at an annual Christmas gathering for prisoners and their families Joe and Paul drove, visiting along the way with some of the many foster sons Joe and Karen have guided into adulthood. Karen, a nurse, had to work so she booked a flight to meet them in Concord.
The night before the event, Pornchai telephoned Joe, and then came into our cell looking discouraged. He asked me to say a prayer because Karen had to work late, missed her flight, and was on standby at the airport but every seat on every flight was booked. I asked him to put this in the hands of our Blessed Mother, but even as I said the words I wanted to prepare Pornchai for what seemed inevitable disappointment. Oh we of little faith!
Late that night, after many failed tries to get on a flight, Karen was able to get the very last seat on the very last flight out just minutes before takeoff. The next day, Saturday, December 13th, Joe and Karen along with 150 other visitors were escorted from the New Hampshire State Prison visitor entrance into the inner chasm of the prison complex, a sight most visitors never get to see.
They walked across the long walled yard to the prison gym where Pornchai and I and seventy-five other prisoners were waiting. The gym was beautifully decorated for Christmas by Pornchai and other prisoners who work with him at the prison Recreation Department. Other than a few guards walking around, there were few other signs we were in a prison.
Karen, who Pornchai thought wasn’t going to make it, was the first to spot our friend across the crowded gym – despite his being sight unseen for 22 years. Joe was soon at her side as they came to Pornchai. Not many here who know Pornchai and knew of the importance of this reunion could keep a dry eye as they embraced for the first time in over two decades. I promised photos, so below, left to right, are Joe Corvino, Pornchai, Karen, their son, Paul, and, in the front, their daughter, Lucia:
After returning to North Carolina, Joe composed his own thoughts about this reunion, and he tells the story much better than I. We promised Joe some space so here is his heartfelt account of the visit:
God is good! As many of you know we were planning a trip to visit our son Pornchai and to finally meet his best friend, Father Gordon. Our trek began on Wednesday, December 12, 2014, to cover 1,063 miles to the prison. My foster son Paul who was also Pornchai’s old roommate back at the group home when they were kids, shared the driving. We were to drive to Concord, and pick up my wife Karen and daughter Lucia at the Manchester, NH airport as they had to work. We had 9 states to drive through. About 130 miles out, the wind picked up and it began to snow as we were on the tail end of a Nor’easter. For 2 1/2 days we traveled in cold, windy, rainy and snowy conditions!
We were almost to Massachusetts when our daughter Lucia called in a panic! She blurted out that mom who is a Home Visiting Nurse, had a patient who became ill again and had to be admitted to the hospital. My wife could not find coverage and decided to stay with her patient. She risked missing her flight, but it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately she missed her flight. Our son Pornchai called, “Hi Dad, It’s me, Pornchai!” His voice sounded sooooo excited! “Where are you? When are Mom and Sis going to be here?” I sighed and went on to explain our dilemma. Pornchai got very silent for a few seconds, and then said to me, “Dad, sometimes things get chaotic in this life. This is when we test our faith, step back and PRAY!” He continued, “Mom did what she had to do. There is no doubt in my mind that God will get her here!” You must remember this is our son, Pornchai who has lived his hell on earth until he found Jesus in prison; our son who lived in the Supermax Solitary Confinement for over six years and hated everything this world ever put him through; our son who God reached down into the lowest bowels of prison confinement and made him whole, forgiving and loving. For me, hearing him tell me to pray, and that he was going to ask Father Gordon to pray for mom to get there safely is a Christmas miracle in itself! About an hour later my wife Karen called all excited! “Dear,” she says, “ I will arrive tonight! I just bought the very last ticket on the very last flight!”
For those of you reading this and having never experienced a prison visit, it is a cold, humiliating, and down right embarrassing experience for the visitor! You cannot carry even a tissue in your pocket. You have to stand with your arms out and legs spread while guards pass an electronic wand over your body. You are lined up and moved about from station to station, herded like cattle as doors lock behind you and you wait for the next one to open.
Inside the gym Karen yelled out, “There he is! There’s our Pornchai!” Everybody is crying as she hugged him half to death. Envision this: we just walked across a prison yard, guards in towers with loaded guns and barbed wire rolled up everywhere along the yard and we step in this gym which was transformed into a Christmas village! The music in the background was all Christmas music. There was a very long catering station that was set up and served by the prisoners who had no families there. For 3 hours we sat and talked with Father Gordon and our son. We shared stories of Pornchai when he was 14 to 17 years old. We laughed and laughed. We were allowed to walk around and meet some of Father Gordon and Pornchai’s friends who I had gotten to know from These Stone Walls. For a short time it was like being at a Christmas party with our family altogether. In a sense we were.
May God bless you all from my family to yours.
I arrived in the prison gym that day just moments after Pornchai, and as I approached their table Joe stood and said, “I’d recognize that famous dome anywhere.” We all laughed, and had the eeriest sense that we had all known each other for many years. Then Joe refused to sit down again until I stepped in for a second photo. I don’t think we’ve seen or heard the last of Joe and Karen at These Stone Walls!
MICHAEL CIRESI’S CHRISTMAS FAMILY REUNION
At the same time, our friend Mike Ciresi had a visit with his twin sons, Michael and Steven and their mother Lisa. TSW readers met Mike Ciresi this past year in his very powerful post, “Coming Home to the Catholic Faith I Left Behind.”
ANTHONY’S NEXT CHAPTER
Running parallel to the above was a story I began in “Pentecost, Priesthood, and Death in the Afternoon,” and continued just weeks ago in “The First of the Four Last Things.” If you missed either or both of those posts this year, I urge you to go back and read them, the latter first.
They describe a first hand experience of the sort of faith explained in the Letter to the Hebrews as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (The Letter to the Hebrews, 11:1).
I am humbled and awestruck by recent events in Anthony Begin’s life, and so is Anthony Having left us to die in the prison’s medical unit six months ago, Anthony is back with a new lease on life, and not just on life, but on eternal life. Antony sent in a comment that was posted on “The First of the Four Last Things.”
A HIT AND A MISS
During 2014, TSW readers met our friend, Jesse Pickard, in “What if the Prodigal Son Had No Father to Return To?” After growing up in foster homes in Florida, Jesse ventured north at age 19 in search of his biological mother, only to land in the NH State Prison.
Jesse turned 27 on December 11, and on January 15 he will be released from prison having served the maximum of his sentence. He did not seek to be paroled earlier because, like many prisoners from similar humble beginnings, Jesse had no home to parole to.
We have done all we can to coach him in the art of living and surviving beyond these stone walls. Please pray for Jesse. He has been a very good friend to me and to Pornchai. Jesse’s life in freedom on the horizon is a hit, but we will miss him.
AN ONGOING HIT AND MISS
As of this writing, there is as yet no decision in the Federal Habeas Corpus Appeal announced by Ryan MacDonald last February. If you have been spending any time at all at The Marshall Project, then you may already know of the long, uphill battle that appeals for the wrongfully convicted are. Win or lose this step, I do not yet know what comes next, but you will know of it as soon as we have news.
As this legal effort unfolded this year, I passed the twenty year mark of wrongful imprisonment on September 23rd. But from it, some wonderful things have arisen. Not just the events I describe above – which are spectacular in their own right – but in the arena of public witness for the modern day witch hunt manifested in Catholic priests falsely accused. It seems my twenty years in prison brought some much needed attention to this in some phenomenal guest posts that I hope you will read again and share anew.
One such post was by Father James Valladares, an Australian priest and author of the acclaimed book, Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast (iUniverse 2012). His influential August 2014 guest post, “A Priest Twenty Years Wrongly Imprisoned in America” reached out to the ends of the Earth, and was shared some 850 times on Facebook. It would be great if we could add to its progress as 2015 begins.
Then in September, Catholic League President Bill Donohue published “A Travesty of Justice,” and that, too, propelled this story forward in the ever important court of Catholic public awareness. The Catholic League also published an abridged version of that same article entitled “The Ordeal of Father Gordon MacRae” in the October 2014 issue of the Catholic League Journal, Catalyst.
Raising the consciousness of a Church and a people about a travesty of justice almost makes the travesty itself worth enduring. Almost. At any rate, I am planning a rather pointed post about this in January.
Copies of our appeal brief and other pertinent documents can be found at the National Center for Reason and Justice which endorses and helps sponsor this appeal.
ANOTHER HIT AND MISS: THE FUTURE OF THESE STONE WALLS
Because I have been posting over the last few months, lots of readers have presumed my typewriter has returned from being repaired. It hasn’t. Just after sending it to the repair vendor in Dunkirk, New York, the area was buried under seven feet of snow. That set the repair business back a month or so. For now, I still manage some posts by typing them when I can on a prison library typewriter.
We will have some news regarding the future of These Stone Walls coming up in January. We’ll need your help. Stay tuned.
OUR 2014 HIT FROM HEAVEN
TSW has grown substantially in the last year, reaching people in ways I never thought possible from prison. I am told it is the only Catholic blog of its kind, but its success is largely your doing. Please continue to share links with your contacts by email, twitter, and social media.
Above all else, there has been one hit I must save for last. You, TSW Readers, have been outstanding and exemplary in your generosity, kindness, sense of justice, and Corporal Works of Mercy. A year ago, the fundraising goal we set for this federal appeal seemed entirely out of reach, and yet you reached it.
For me and for our friend, Pornchai-Maximilian, your gifts fed us when we were hungry and clothed us when we were cold. Your letters and comments comforted us when we felt alone, and consoled us when we were set upon by prison’s inevitable noon-day devil. Your coming to These Stone Walls week after week visited us in prison. Your telling others of us spread our news and our hopes.
Stand proud, Dear Readers, for when we were hungry and in prison you were here with us at every step. Our Way of the Cross brought far more than suffering. It brought grace in abundance. Who now can say, in the Tapestry of God, what is good and what is bad? Thank you for being present with us behind prison walls in the spirit of Hebrews 13:3. You are my Number One “Hit” for 2014.