Claire Dion, a contributing writer for These Stone Walls, interviewed Pornchai “Max” Moontri at the New Hampshire State Prison for a tale of hope and amazing grace.
Preface by Father Gordon MacRae
The following is a guest post by Mrs. Claire Dion, a reader of These Stone Walls in Bridgton, Maine. Claire graced these pages with a Corporal Work of Mercy that touched our hearts in 2017. After two years with us, our friend, Kewei Chen from Shanghai, China, was transferred to the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to await his deportation.
After reading of the unique circumstances that brought Chen from China to an American prison, and the pain of our parting as well as our hopes for Chen, Claire drove from her home in Maine to meet with him at the place where he was awaiting deportation. The result of that visit became her first guest post on These Stone Walls, “My Visit with Kewei Chen in ICE Detention.”
Her post was comforting. From my perspective, and that of Pornchai Moontri who had become Chen’s older brother, the void in our hearts could not be filled, but Claire’s guest post left it not quite so empty. It ended with a wonderful photograph of Chen emailed from the Shanghai airport as he saw his parents for the first time after his unplanned three-year absence.
More recently, Claire asked if she could visit me and Pornchai, a much further winter drive for her. Since prison rules allow for being on the visitor list of only one prisoner, I asked her to visit Pornchai, to treat it as an interview, and to write another guest post for These Stone Walls.
I did this because, as I have hinted in some previous posts, there is a very special story coming, one that I know will both break your hearts and then mend them again with evidence of the immense power of Divine Mercy to restore the human soul. This story is coming when I am able to fully tell it, and it will be unlike anything you have ever read before on These Stone Walls.
So as a prelude, I want to present Pornchai “Max” Moontri through the eyes of a reader meeting our friend for the first time. His story should begin, after all, not upon the dung heap of Job where life took him, but at the point to which Divine Mercy has redeemed him out of darkness into a very great light.
Claire Dion is a wife and mother of five adult daughters and a devoted grandmother. She is currently retired from a career as a registered nurse in obstetrics at Lynn, Massachusetts General Hospital. She today lives in Bridgton, Maine where she has been part of the Faith Formation Team at Saint Joseph Parish and a follower of Father Michael Gaitley’s 33 Days to Morning Glory and Marian Consecration. It’s an honor to present Claire Dion.
SATURDAY – JANUARY 8, 2018 AT 800 AM
I pulled into the parking lot of the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord. I will be meeting Pornchai Moontri, a man I have come to know and love from reading These Stone Walls. Walking into the visiting area where I have to sign in, I feel a little uneasy. I did not have a clue what I was to do and I had not slept the night before as I was afraid I would do something wrong and the visit would be canceled.
Everything went well until I passed through a metal detector and the alarms went off. What was I thinking? I should have realized that two knee replacements and a hip replacement might present a problem. After being sent back to the waiting room with alarm bells ringing, some guards questioned me, and then led me into the visiting room. It was a large room with metal tables and chairs screwed to the floor. Each table was numbered, and I was instructed to go to table number twenty-four.
From a distance I saw Pornchai walk into the visiting room. I realized that he had not seen me before, but I recognized him from These Stone Walls. So I waved and smiled, and he smiled back. When he got to the table, I asked him if I could give him the allowed “three-second hug.” He laughed while I hugged this man whom I had only read about but was very anxious to meet.
While I was waiting for Pornchai to arrive, I wondered how we were going to fill in a two-hour visit. I was not allowed to bring anything with me so I had no notes to help me remember what I wanted to talk to him about and all the questions I had. I knew that Father Gordon wanted me to write about this visit for These Stone Walls.
We sat next to each other at the table in a room filled with cameras. The large room was also full of visitors, and, as many of them were children visiting their fathers on a Saturday morning, it was noisy. It took only seconds for us to relax and start talking. From the moment we sat down, I had a sense that I already knew this very special person.
We continued to talk non stop for the entire two hours. We both felt that it was amazing that we were sitting here together, Pornchai from Thailand and me from Lynn, Massachusetts (which, by the way, is the city just North of Boston where Father Gordon grew up).
Soon we were talking about Pornchai’s incredible journey from a village in Northeast Thailand to Bangor, Maine and ending at the New Hampshire State Prison. I learned that Pornchai was abandoned by his mother at age two and that a teenage relative found him and brought him to live with his family.
Nine years later, when Pornchai was age eleven, his mother returned to Thailand. He did not recognize or even remember her, but against Pornchai’s will he was taken from Thailand and brought to America. A series of traumatic events broke his heart and his soul. That is another story that hopefully Father Gordon will be telling soon at These Stone Walls.
When Pornchai was fourteen years old, he ran away. He became – though not by choice – a homeless child living on the streets for the second time in his young life, and he spoke little English. While still a teen, he was involved in a struggle that resulted in the death of another man, and he was sent to prison.
While listening to his story, my heart ached as I could see and feel his pain over these events from so long ago. Sentenced to 45 years in a Maine prison, Pornchai continued to have outbursts of anger and rage which landed him in solitary confinement for many years in Maine’s “supermax” prison. (Note: PBS Frontline. did a gripping story on that very place and time).
Pornchai told me that his only plan for life was to never leave prison. It sounded as though he knew he was going to die there, and that was what he wanted. It was his “Plan B” for his life. However, God had other plans for Pornchai Moontri. Fourteen years later, he was moved to a prison in New Hampshire for the rest of his sentence, and Father Gordon MacRae stepped into the story of his life.
Here Pornchai’s eyes and expression softened as he spoke about meeting Father Gordon whom he and other prisoners call “G.” At this point, Pornchai said he felt completely alone, still angry and trusting no one. Another prisoner, a young man from Indonesia, introduced him to a man called “G” and said that G helped him a lot and that he trusted G.
Pornchai watched how G in a caring and patient way helped others and how they trusted him. In his life, the very idea of trust was entirely new. Slowly and cautiously, Pornchai let G into his life and a friendship began.
We talked for awhile about G and I learned that no matter what happens in prison G stays calm. He is a humble, steady person in the midst of the constant turmoil and darkness of prison life, and is always available to any prisoner who comes to him. With a chuckle, I have to add here that I remember Chen telling me that G is a very good man “but you don’t bother him when he is typing a TSW post!”
“WHEN I WAS IN PRISON, YOU CAME TO ME” (Matthew 25:36)
It was quite awhile before Pornchai found out that G is a Catholic priest. We spoke about how Father Gordon’s strong faith impressed Pornchai even though many in the Church had abandoned him. Pornchai told me that G’s faith shines in prison, and has attracted some of the prisoners to join him at Sunday Mass and in retreats sponsored by Father Michael Gaitley and the Marians of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy.
Pornchai also said that Father Gordon constantly reaches out to those he feels he can help, and Pornchai was one of them. It was during this conversation that I asked Pornchai to tell Father Gordon how much I love, respect and honor his priesthood.
Through him, Christ’s presence is being felt there, and it is making a difference for many behind those stone walls and many of us TSW readers.
As their friendship grew, Father Gordon told Pornchai that he must start taking positive steps with his life. He encouraged Pornchai to leave aside “Plan B” and plan instead for a future.
Pornchai began taking education courses, spending his days in school instead of in a cell. He proudly told me that he earned his high school diploma in prison and was Valedictorian of his 2012 graduating class. I listened and learned that his educational journey was just beginning. With Father G’s help, he then enrolled in courses in social work and psychology at Stratford Career Institute earning academic certificates “with highest honors.” This was followed by studies through a scholarship at Catholic Distance University where he took courses in theology with a straight “A” average.
What Pornchai has accomplished is nothing short of amazing given that he learned English in prison. He and “Father G” encourage other prisoners to become educated, and Pornchai now spends time mentoring and tutoring them, especially in mathematics in which he excels. He also spends his days in the woodworking and Hobby Craft shop where he teaches safety training to other prisoners on the use of carpentry tools and machines.
Pornchai designs and builds handcrafted model ships, beautiful Divine Mercy keepsake boxes, and other creations in wood. Some of these are made as gifts and some are sold in a store near the prison grounds. Pornchai used the proceeds to pay for his education courses. Father Gordon later told me that Pornchai is modest about his great skill in woodworking. One of his ships is on display in Belgium where a curator posted a brass plaque indicating that it was designed and created by “Master Craftsman Pornchai Moontri, Concord, New Hampshire.”
DIVINE MERCY CONVERSION
As Pornchai’s friendship with Father Gordon deepened, and Pornchai was influenced by his patient practice of faith, he made a decision to become a Catholic. Seeing the many comments how much Father Gordon’s posts spiritually affect TSW readers, we talked about how becoming Catholic has helped Pornchai in prison. He received the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation on April 10, 2010. He chose “Maximilian” as his Christian name to honor St Maximilian Kolbe.
On the next day, he received his First Eucharist from Bishop John McCormack. When this was first being planned, neither Pornchai nor Father Gordon realized the date was Divine Mercy Sunday. On that day, Jesus showered Pornchai with His love and mercy and Pornchai felt it. He said that before he became a Catholic he was always feeling unloved and alone. Now he could feel that God was with him and loved him. He also spoke about his love for the Blessed Mother. As he told me this, there was a sense of peace within him.
When I asked Pornchai what he would like me to tell TSW readers, he became very serious. He said that he and Father Gordon are deeply impacted by the support they receive and that TSW could not exist without it. They deeply appreciate the love, prayers, and encouragement they receive from readers all over the world. He kept going back to the TSW readers and how important they are to both of them. He spoke of how he has done nothing to earn this outpouring of love.
Pornchai spoke about the lawyer who has helped him and Chen so much, Clare Farr in Western Australia, and how she learned of him through TSW. He spoke of Suzanne Sadler, TSW’s Australian-based webmaster and publisher. He spoke of Father George David Byers who helps ready Father G’s posts for publishing He spoke of Mrs. LaVern West who prints and mails him the TSW comments.
Pornchai also said that Father Gordon corresponds with Father Andrew Pinsent, a scientist at Oxford University who has cited his science writings. I mentioned that Father Gordon’s science posts are over my head and Pornchai said with a smile, “Mine too!” In an astonishing connection that Father Gordon later told me about, Father Georges Lemaître, the priest-physicist considered in science to be “Father of The Big Bang and Modern Cosmology,” was a close family friend of Mr. Pierre Matthews in Belgium who today is Pornchai Moontri’s Godfather.
And Pornchai also spoke of Charlene Duline who helps Father G communicate with readers, and is Pornchai’s Godmother. She once sent him a letter in which she called him “precious,” and then other prisoners teased him about it, but he laughed and said that they are jealous because no one calls them precious.
Suddenly the lights in the room flashed on and off. Our visit was over, but not before we were able to have a photograph taken together. With a hug (three seconds only) we said goodbye. I was truly blessed to meet this amazing young man, Pornchai Maximilian Moontri, and to see Father Gordon through his eyes. I know I will visit him again.
On the coldest day of winter, I left the New Hampshire State Prison with summer in my heart.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae:
I thank Claire Dion for this snapshot into our lives. In my recent post, “The Days of Our Lives,” I wrote that Pornchai Moontri and our friend, J.J. Jennings work together in the woodworking and Hobby Craft center. The photos below are of their latest project, a Jewelry Cabinet.
The design for a cabinet of this size was by J.J. Jennings, who collaborated with Pornchai Moontri for the highly skilled construction. The one on the right was made by J.J. and the one on the left by Pornchai. The woods for both are solid maple and black walnut. The drawer fronts are maple or black walnut with poplar sides and bottoms. The drawers and side cabinetry doors are lined with velour.
These beautiful pieces are 20″ high, 14″ width, and 8.5″ depth, and are customized with wood-burned or painted designs and brass fittings. The top is hinged with a 2.5″-deep display area. Two of the drawers are for rings and the other drawers are deeper. The intricate side cabinets are for hanging jewelry such as necklaces, bracelets, and rosaries. Other photos of their work can be seen on the Pinterest Board, “Woodworking and Model Shipbuilding by Pornchai Moontri.”
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