Summary of today’s show: For the last 34 years, Fr. Joe Baggetta has served as chaplain of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Corrections, living out Fr. Edward “Boys Town” Flanagan’s dictum that there are no bad boys, just bad examples and bad environments. Scot Landry and Fr. Chris O’Connor have a conversation with Fr. Joe about how his short career as a prison guard before (and during!) seminary helped prepare him for his ministry, as well as the efforts he takes in showing unconditional love and acceptance to his kids in order to give them the childhood they have been deprived of.
Listen to the show:
Today’s host(s): Scot Landry and Fr. Chris O’Connor
Today’s guest(s): Fr. Joseph Baggetta
Links from today’s show:
- Cardinal Seán’s Blog on his visit with Fr. Joe at the Department of Youth Corrections
- Fr. Baggetta on CatholicTV’s “Going My Way”
Today’s topics: Priest Profile: Fr. Joseph Baggetta
1st segment: Scot and Fr. Chris said they are 4 days away from the ordination to the priesthood of six men for the Archdiocese of Boston. Fr. Chris said they are seeing a whole bumper crop of great young men answering the Lord’s call. Fr. Chris said the men are on retreat this week with Fr. John McLaughlin in preparation. The Cardinal has a meal with the men on Friday night and then meets with them individually to give them their first parish assignments. They discussed the logistics for the event, including providing hospitality to some friends and family who are coming into town from overseas.
Scot said the most moving moment for him is the first priestly blessings. Fr. Chris said for him the two moments are when the Cardinal places his hands on the ordinand’s head to call down the Holy Spirit and then when the Cardinal receives the first blessing from the priests and then kisses their hands.
Scot said Fr. Baggetta is the chaplain to the Department of Youth Corrections and works to help reform youth who have been incarcerated and to help them re-enter society.
Photos of the ordination will be available live this Saturday at [BostonCatholicPhotos.com]
2nd segment: Scot welcomed Fr. Joe Baggetta to the show. He asked him about growing up in the North End. His parents were born in Abruzzi and Calabria, Italy, and he was born here in the US. Fr. Joe said his parents didn’t speak very good English, so he speaks Italian. He went to school at St. Leonard’s and attended Christopher Columbus High School, both in the North End.
He went to Merrimack College and it was a cultural shock for being far away from the city. It’s one of the half-dozen Catholic colleges in the Archdiocese. It’s run by the Augustinians. He’d had inklings of the priesthood, but never coalesced. When he got out of college, he worked as a prison guard at the Charles Street Jail. He said the old-timers always told the young guys that when the jail was too quiet, be careful. It was the lull before the storm. He took the job because he needed a job, not because he had a particular idea of making it a career. He spent six years there and strange as it may seem, Fr. Joe says he enjoyed it, having learned a lot about life. He saw the humanness and goodness within a majority of the inmates, while also seeing the worst part of humanity. It was a county jail, so they were being held while awaiting trial as well as men who were serving sentences of 2-1/2 years or less.
Fr. Chris said the Charles Street Jail is now the Liberty Hotel, which is now beautiful. Fr. Joe sat down with historians to help provide a history of the jail in an exhibit in the hotel. Fr. Joe said there were 400-500 men in the jail when it was open.
Fr. Joe felt in his heart at the time that there was a way to assist the inmates. He saw how the chaplains had men gravitate to them and he saw the faith in the inmates. Fr. Joe started doing some reading and learned there war religious orders who worked with those who had fallen onto the wayward path.
Fr. Joe attended St. John Seminary where he had a great experience. On every vacation and every summer, he would continue to work at the jail. The inmates seemed to expect more mercy than justice from him. He was ordained in 1974. There were 15 men in his class and 9 continue to be in the priesthood in the Archdiocese. Scot noted that Fr. Kevin Deeley and Fr. Jerry Hogan were in his class and they continue to be great friends. Fr. Joe said the 38 years have flown by.
Fr. Joe’s first assignment was St. Catherine of Siena in Norwood. The parish is massive. They had 1,500 kids in CCD, in addition to all the kids in the parochial school. Even to this day, St. Catherine’s remains a tremendous supporter of his ministry.
He was then assigned as chaplain at St. Sebastian’s high school. Cardinal Medeiros called him and said he would be assigned to be Dean of Discipline. He was also going to be part-time working at the Department of Youth Services. It was the complete spectrum of teens from those who had everything to those who had nothing. But there was a common thread was that they were just kids with the same feelings and the same things they were going through in their lives. There were six priests on staff at the archdiocesan school.
Scot said may consider St. Sebastian’s to be an elite high school. Fr. Chris said the St. Sebastian’s students are well-formed in the Christian life. Fr. Joe said they are often going into major fields affecting society with this good formation.
Fr. Joe did double-duty for five years and has remained at Department of Youth Corrections ever since.
3rd segment: Scot asked Fr. Joe if this was the sort of ministry he asked for. Fr. Joe said he promised obedience at ordination and so Cardinal Medeiros called him to assume the position and it’s worked out very well. He’s extremely happy. He assists in changing the inner hearts of the individuals. He admires Fr. Edward Flanagan from Boys Town who said he firmly believes every child can be a productive citizen if given love, a home, an education ,and a trade. He also said that there are no bad boys, there is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, and bad thinking. In his ministry, he tries to change the bad environment, bad training, bad example, and bad thinking to give them an opportunity to be and feel loved, to give them a home environment, to give them an education and a trade.
Fr. Chris said he will be visiting Boys Town this coming week. It’s an amazing place that shows the benefit of investing in youth. He said Aristotle teaches us that we learn virtue by seeing other practice it. When there isn’t virtue in our life, how will we learn it? Fr. Joe said example is tremendous. The staff at the department are excellent models of character and goodness as well as the Catholic volunteers who come in.
Scot asked for an overview of the Department of Youth Corrections. Within the Commonwealth, it is separate from Youth Services. Their philosophy is that the kids are able to change. The difference from the adult program is that they do their set time. It is metric. The youth correction is not metric, but is about helping them change their heart and mind. The juvenile is committed to the Department for services until the age of 21. Some of the kids are living at home, but they are committed to the department. The majority of kids are between 13 and 21.
Scot said he thinks it’s great that this state office has a Catholic chaplain committed to caring for all the children in their care. He asked what the job entails? Fr. Joe said a part is the celebration of the sacraments and religious education, but also the chaplain’s role is one of presence, to assist them, to talk to them. It’s also the corporal works of mercy so when a kid leaves and needs clothes, they get it for them; on their birthday give them a card and a gift; Christmas gifts for all; work with family to make sure the kids get a card on their birthdays and holidays. They do many things, but they do it in the name of Jesus, showing them unconditional love and acceptance.
In 34 years, Fr. Joe has never asked to see a resident’s file. He doesn’t want to know why they’re there. He wants to love them unconditionally.
Fr. Chris said many of the kids need that encounter with Christ. He asked what’s most effective in reaching them? Is he overwhelmed by the numbers? Fr. Joe said he isn’t overwhelmed, but understands how one can be. This was the benefit of his correctional days. That unconditional love, calling them by their first name in a place when they are always called by their last name, creates a loving, calming effect. He watches TV with them, listens to music with them, plays games with them. The majority of them have never had a childhood, so they’re trying to give them positive memories. He often receives letters that went into the adult system, thanking him for the good memories.
Fr. Chris asked about the success stories. Fr. Joe said he will be walking down the street and someone will beep their horn at them, and it will be one of the kids who’s out of trouble and has a job. He got a call from California about a kid now working on the oil rigs. He comes into town and takes Father out to dinner every time. Fr. Joe recalls two kids who were afraid to go back to school in their neighborhood so he got them into Cathedral High School, where they did tremendously. After graduation, they had a contact at Gillette who pledged to send the kids to any school they could get into and so they went to Johnson & Wales to study business. They both got MBAs and went to work for major corporations. At Christmas they have their big bonuses from their employers an they now donate them to help other kids go to college.
Fr. Joe said the majority of the kids he works with are Roman Catholic. Those who are not, the attitude is still unconditional love and acceptance. They are all welcome to come to Mass. All religious activities are optional. They get the same treatment as everyone else. He said the Knights of Columbus have renovated a portable building to use as a chapel. Fr. Joe wanted the youth to be able to leave the facility, which is incarceration, to go to a place of freedom.
Scot said the chapel is 12 foot by sixty feet. On a weekend, Fr. Joe says 6 Masses.
Fr. Chris asked if he’s seeing a second generation of kids. Fr. Joe said he’s seeing the children of those who he first started working with in his 34 years.
Scot asked what the major reasons kids end up in the system. Fr. Joe said it’s like Fr. Flanagan said. It’s not totally environment though because there are many kids who come from the same background who do the right thing. That’s because the parents, guardian, grandparent is transmitting the values. If they don’t value education or value work, they’re not going to get up for school or a job.
In today’s climate, gangs are the most prevalent reason for kids getting into the system. The kids don’t call them gangs. They call them family because the yard provided food, clothing, affirmation. They feel respect for who they are. Because they’re now entrenched in this and becomes such a part of their identity, if they see someone of another gang, they must retaliate. It’s difficult because the kids say they can either work for minimum wage or stand on a corner as a lookout for drug dealers and make $500 per night.
In the department, they put kids of different gangs together for them to know them as a name, as a person. They also try to show them that there is more than the present, but that there is a future.
Scot asked if the kids are taught trades. Fr. Joe said there is a maintenance department where they work with the maintenance people. The majority are not going to graduate from high school, so they will get jobs where they use their hands. They teach them that they are as important no matter what they do, that doctors or lawyers are not more important than they. They also teach them culinary arts and other skills.
Fr. Joe said St. Anthony is one of his favorite saints because he is the patron of finding that which is lost, and it isn’t just about finding the car keys. He finds the lost souls. Also, Don Bosco and St. Vincent de Paul. It’s Don Bosco’s unconditional love and acceptance of street kids that he admires.
Scot asked about the misconceptions that people have about the kids in the care of Youth Corrections. Fr. Joe said most people see these kids as throwaways, that they have no future. People have even told him that he’s wasting his priesthood. Fr. Joe said he is having an effect through the work of the Lord. These are ultimately children of God and they are our children. These kids have not had the opportunity so let’s give them the opportunity. They are children at heart, they cry at night, they hurt like other children. One kid said the only thing he wanted for Christmas was to have a family.
For those who want to help, contact the Mass. State Knights of Columbus who continue to support the Chapel of Hope. He can also be reached at St. James the Great in Chinatown.