Father Michael O’Hara, O.M.I. is
involved in one of the most
challenging of all Christian ministries. He
serves as the chaplain at the Metropolitan
Correctional Center (MCC) in New York
City, a federal prison that houses some of
the most notorious criminals in the world.
The bosses of various crime families in
and around New York City have been and
are incarcerated there. The world’s most
infamous investment fraud perpetrator was
an inmate for a time at MCC, sharing a
cell that was smaller than the walk-in
closet of his Manhattan penthouse.
But despite the heinous crimes committed
by some of the inmates, Fr. O’Hara’s work
at the prison is much more positive than
negative. He describes his task as
pre-evangelization, showing people that
their lives have value even though they have
been convicted of serious crimes.
Father O’Hara sums up his ministry in
one word – hope.
“I view my work as the farmer who
tills the soil and plants the seed,” says
Fr. O’Hara. “Then it is up to someone
else to harvest it.”
As a youth Fr. O’Hara became
familiar with the work of the Oblates. He
was drawn to the congregation because of
their work with the most marginalized
people in society. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1973 and for a few years
taught at a high school and served in
parish ministry in Miami, Florida.
For the past 26 years Fr. O’Hara has
worked at federal and state prisons in
Pennsylvania and New York. He has been
at MCC since 1998 and is presently the
only full-time chaplain at the facility,
which houses nearly 1,000 inmates.
The population at MCC consists of
prisoners from 48 different countries. Drug
lords from Colombia and international
terrorists, including those involved in the
World Trade Center bombing in 1993, are
among Fr. O’Hara’s “congregation.”
While high-profile criminals at MCC
attract a lot of media attention, most of the
inmates are serving shorter sentences for less
serious crimes. Father O’Hara said his
prison ministry at MCC can help these
inmates realize they can change their ways
and become productive members of society.
Father O’Hara celebrates Mass,
organizes rosary groups and conducts
several Bible study sessions throughout the
week. About half of the inmates identify
themselves as Catholics, but Fr. O’Hara said
very few understand fully what that means.
Father O’Hara is also the prison’s
supervising chaplain, which means he
oversees the religious needs of all inmates.
No fewer than eight religions are practiced, including Islam, Buddhism and Judaism.
As supervising chaplain Fr. O’Hara
coordinates the activities of ministers of
other faiths and arranges translators for
several different languages. He also
provides counseling and religious activities
for the prison staff.
One additional challenge at MCC is
that over 500 of the inmates have to be
isolated from other inmates due to security
concerns. As a result Masses and other
religious services are held in individual
units instead of at a central location.
Since the early days of the congregation
the Missionary Oblates have been involved
in prison ministry. The founder, St. Eugene
De Mazenod, was part of a charitable
organization that aimed to help prisoners in
his native city of Aix, France even before he
entered the priesthood.
Before becoming a priest, Eugene had a
short but active role in an organization in Aix
that provided spiritual and material care for
prisoners. He became a voluntary chaplain to
prisoners in Aix who had typhoid and he
himself fell victim to the same disease. He
was known for his compassion in his ministry
In this country the Oblates have a long
tradition of prison ministry. Father
O’Hara explained that during the 1970s
and 80s the Oblates had more men involved in prison ministry than any other
male religious order in the United States.
Father O’Hara tries to help the
inmates focus on the present and future
more than the past. While justice has to be
administered, he believes that people can
change their lives for the better.
One of the Bible passages that
Fr. O’Hara likes to share is the account
of the crucifixion in the Gospel of
Luke. In the story Jesus is crucified
with two criminals. One criminal
reviles Jesus by saying, “Are You not the
Messiah? Save Yourself and us.”
But the other criminal points out that
Jesus has done nothing wrong and asks
Him to, “Remember me when You come
into Your kingdom.”
Jesus replies to that criminal, “Amen,
I say to you, today you will be with Me
Father O’Hara reminds the inmates at
MCC that the first person to whom Jesus
promised eternal life was a criminal, just like
them. Jesus’ act of forgiveness on the cross
motivates Fr. O’Hara in his work at MCC.
“Prison ministry is truly a Christian
ministry,” says Fr. O’Hara. “It is both
fascinating and rewarding for me.”