Pennsylvania’s Prison Chaplains

In 1939 SCI Graterford inmate Howard Moser was laying on his deathbed. Dying of heart disease, the 39-year-old Easton native had spent most of his life in and out of prison for burglary and other crimes. It looked bleak. Things changed on February 6, when Graterford’s chaplain Matthew Keough visited Moser in the institutional hospital and baptized him into the Catholic Church. According to his baptism record, Father Keough then administered last rites to Moser including “absolution, extreme unction and last blessing” immediately afterwards. Even though he was not expected to survive the week, Moser surprisingly lived for a whole nother year before passing away in the winter of 1940. Perhaps his baptism gave him a new lease on life, Moser was a regular face at Graterford church services for the rest of his life.

Moser_Baptism record 1939
Howard Moser’s baptism was recorded in this ledger kept in Graterford’s chapel. Pennsylvania State Archives.

For Moser and thousands of other inmates, the work of prison chaplains like Keough was an extremely important part of their lives.

Religion always been an important part of Pennsylvania’s correctional history. In the 1700s, the religious convictions of important Pennsylvanians inspired them to build prisons where inmates could improve themselves and eventually rejoin society. In 1847, PA prison officials wrote that “the most appalling criminal designs have been abandoned, simply from calling to mind the purity and moral worth of a doomed man.” Throughout the 1800s prisoners spent a lot of time listening to sermons and reading religious literature with “moral instructors,” who served as chaplains, librarians, and teachers. By the early 1900s, all state prisons employed dedicated chaplains. Considered professional staff alongside physicians and psychologists, chaplains were responsible for the spiritual well-being of all inmates.

“Strange as it may seem to most people,” one prison chaplain wrote in 1905, “I have found the prisoners on every occasion most interested and attentive listeners. Nor have I found a company of people in any church under any preacher who listened more attentively, more eagerly, throughout the speaker’s sermon or address, that did the congregation of prisoners to whom I spoke every Sunday morning in the plain, bare chapel.”

Chaplain with Inmate_ESP
This chaplain worked at Eastern State Penitentiary. Circa 1950. Pennsylvania State Archives.

In Graterford’s early days, most prisoners attended Catholic or Protestant services each Sunday morning at 9:15 AM. Catholic confessions were heard afterwards by Father Keough in the Chapel Building. Chaplains regularly visited Graterford’s Maximum Security Cell Blocks, Tuberculosis Wards, and hospital to attend to inmates who could not attend regular services. Over the years, religious services and chaplaincy staff were expanded to accommodate Jewish and Muslim inmates, as well as a variety of other faiths. Graterford’s library was stocked with hundreds of religious books for inmates. Religious services were also expanded over time to include counseling, substance abuse support, letter-writing, procurement of future employment, and general assistance with parole and commutation.

In the 1950s, Graterford’s chapel building was enlarged, and Muslim inmates were allowed to build a mosque inside. According to one Bureau of Correction report, “artisans and skilled workers from every area of the institution volunteered their services” to build the mosque “regardless of race, creed, or religious preference.” The Chapel continued to play an important role in prison life as long as Graterford was open, hosting Mother’s Day observances and many other activities with neighboring community churches.

Featured Image: Baptism of an unknown person at SCI Graterford, c. 1970. Pennsylvania State Archives RG 15.176: State Correctional Institution, Graterford photographs.

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