San Quentin’s Catholic Church is losing its leader for the second time in three years. Father Manuel Chavira Jr., who became the new chaplain in 2020, is being transferred by the Jesuit order, of which he is a member.
On Sunday, Feb. 10, Chaplain Chavira announced his departure, scheduled for April.
During his tenure, Chavira has greatly increased participation of Sunday Mass. He has also helped with the transition of Death Row residents as they integrate into general populations in selected prisons throughout California.
Vic Perella, a volunteer for 32 years, spoke about the SQ stay of Chavira, or Father Manny as he is affectionately called by the congregation.
“Father Manny apprenticed here for six years under Father Williams before becoming a priest. During his apprenticeship, he found Christ in a society that is forgotten, and he has come to love the residents and wherever he goes, his heart will always be here at San Quentin,” Perella said.
After the height of the pandemic, Father Manny revived the congregation when the prison reopened chapels in 2022.
Chavira created a class for beginners that teaches the nuances of the traditional Catholic faith. To accomplish this, he recruited Sister Sharon and Sister Josefa of the Missionaries of Charity across the bay in Richmond. They no lead the class every Monday.
Father Manny also restarted the Spirituality Class on Tuesday evenings, Bible Study on Wednesday afternoons, and a class about humility on Friday afternoons.
He led the rejuvenation of all Christian Christmas festivities when he restored the traditional wintertime holiday feasts. This included shepherding Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s return for the Christmas Eve Mass ceremony, which brought back a sense of normalcy to the chapel.
“The work he has done to get the church back on track was amazing,” said resident Peter Bomnerito.
Through the years, the congregation witnessed Father Manny’s humble attitude of service, which included walking the Lower Yard and the residents’ housing units during times of lockdowns.
Father George Williams left San Quentin in July 2020 and relocated to the Jesuit Parish in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, Father Manny replaced Father Williams. Prior to his appointment at San Quentin, Chavira spent six years as a staff member for Father Williams.
Chavira said the Jesuits are reassigning him to Los Angeles to obtain his clinical pastoral education credential. His original assignment at SQ was for one year, but he asked to stay on for a second year.
After the conclusion of this second year, his superiors decided his next assignment should include the continuation of his education, which they believe will increase his aptitude for future ministries.
“I am truly torn about leaving San Quentin and prison chaplaincy after only two years as the full-time chaplain,” said Chavira.
As Chavira prepares for his departure, key members of his congregation remain surprised about his transfer and are worried about the chapel’s future.
“I am stunned and so sorry about his departure!” said resident Alan Brown. “I prayed he would stay longer than Father Williams because he had a great vision for the church.”
Lead Catholic Clerk Arturo Melendez said, “Working for Father Manny has been the greatest experience in my Catholic life. As a convert, he taught me truth and advised me well through my spiritual journey. Father Manny does a lot more than most priests do out in there in the free world.”
The church’s choir director, Megan O’Brien, said, “Father Manny has been a faithful leader of the prison’s congregation. His spirit of holy unification was evident during the holiday season as he helped other religions celebrate Christmas as well. He served the community and probably saved the church from a COVID demise, and we are all thankful for that.”
During his chaplaincy, Father Manny embraced San Quentin residents of all denominations as Christians. Incarcerated pastor Stephen Pascascio of the Protestant Chapel said, “What he did to help revive Kairos was amazing, starting it again from scratch for the entire prison. For reasons like this, Father Manny made an impact in a lot of Christian lives.”