San Quentin’s legacy of church activities goes back to 1858, when Gov. Weller directed the warden to provide Sunday religious services. In December of that year, volunteer Rev. Gilbert began offering Protestant services in the mess hall.
In 1860, Father Gallagher held the first official Catholic mass. Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany gave a sermon in the mess hall in May 1860. He presided over confirmations of those who had drifted from the church.
The archbishop came to America in 1840, participating in missionary work. Moving to the Bay Area in 1853, he became California’s first archbishop.
Throughout the years, California’s prison chaplains have provided spiritual rehabilitation to incarcerated residents.
Early chaplains helped incarcerated people with their reformation, making religion the first self-help opportunity in the system, according to a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation press release.
“Men are not bettered or materially improved simply by confinement; there must be something built-in if they would go out of the institution fit to return to society,” said San Quentin Chaplain Oliver C. Lazure in 1920.
“It is up to you on the outside of the prisons to give them a square deal. It is because they have a cold reception when released; men who have been to prison become discouraged and commit crimes, and sent back to us at San Quentin,” said Lazure.
Government officials believed chaplains would aid rehabilitation, guiding offenders on a path of morality.
The first ethical teacher at San Quentin was C.C. Cummings, appointed in 1870, followed by Rev. Hiram Cummings. In 1881, William Hill worked as the prison’s “moral instructor,” and after two years, he became the first “prison chaplain,” said the news release.
The Rev. Larry Newgent served as the chaplain at San Quentin for more than a dozen years. He discussed his views on the causes of crime and the nature of those incarcerated, noted CDCR.
“It’s bad company, thirst for thrills, the desire to be tough, that starts them [on the criminal path]. They become hardened and calloused. The time to do something [to help them] is when they are youngsters,” Newgent said in 1932.
In 1965, a San Quentin chaplain asked Frank Sinatra, accompanied by the Count Basie Orchestra, to perform for the incarcerated people.
“I enjoy being with the public almost under any circumstance regardless of where it is or why,” Sinatra said. “So I do my utmost to fulfill that responsibility as a performer and a man of public life.”
Today San Quentin is a self-help facility. Many of the incarcerated residents strive to improve themselves before returning to society.
The prison has made religious services available to all faiths. San Quentin currently has chapels for Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Native Americans.