The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: September 19, 2003
Death row inmates lose best friend and apostle
By JUDY MORRIS
The Apostle Paul is dead. When 81-year-old Paul Stevens died Feb. 25 the men on Kentuckys death row lost their best friend. He had been a consistent presence with them for 17 years as a chaplain, mentor, friend and father figure.
Stevens journey to death row was a long and painful one. His 20-year-old daughter, Cindy, was murdered in 1969, and the trial brought great disappointment when an error in transcription of trial proceedings brought a seven-year prison sentence for the murderer. Years of hatred, bitterness and support for the death penalty followed for Stevens.
A turning point came when he participated in a parish Cursillo in his new home of Dawson Springs, Ky. He noted, I came to realize how much hate I had, how much bitterness. This time allowed me to understand that I really did not want the death penalty. When I put all of that together, I could get rid of the hate.
Upon retirement, Stevens expressed interest in finding meaningful volunteer work. A local priest invited him to visit the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville. From that moment he was hooked and continued to visit the men on death row until illness prevented him from continuing in 2002.
The greatest challenge for Stevens came in 1997 when he accompanied Harold McQueen to the death chamber. McQueen had become another son and had converted to Catholicism through Stevenss influence. He was given Cindys rosary and prayed with it every day.
For Stevens, ministry on the row was about sharing and healing. In his ministry, Cindy was always present as co-missionary. He experienced her presence, especially as he prepared for McQueens execution. There were times I wondered how I would answer people and the answer would come to me, Stevens said. When I first went to Eddyville, I asked the Lord to help me because I had never done anything like that before. There were times I said things when meeting with the men that I had no idea where the thought came from. I believe Cindy was with me because I knew she wanted to work with the poor.
On July 1, 1997, Stevens shared a last meal with McQueen. They prayed, shared stories, laughed and talked about heaven. When he walked the last mile, McQueen held Cindys rosary until he was strapped into the electric chair. Paul offered a final prayer and said, I love you, son. McQueen responded, I love you, father. Now, Stevens had lost a daughter and a son.
But, like the other Apostle Paul, his missionary work was not finished. He went to visit then-warden Philip Parker. At the memorial service for Paul Stevens, Parker reflected on the great sensitivity shown to him by Stevens. He wanted to know how I was doing. He never blamed me or passed judgment because he knew that I had a job to do and could not do anything to prevent his execution. He ministered to me. Still, he was not finished. He asked if he could meet with each of the men on death row to console them because they lost a good friend. Because I had complete trust in him, I said yes. So, around 2 a.m. he continued his ministry of healing.
That was Paul Stevens, a man in full stretch, always on a mission of healing. As I walked around the funeral parlor filled with flowers, I noticed an angel with chimes. A note from the inmates was attached: Paul has changed our lives forever.
He remains, the angel among us, teaching us a lesson of compassion and forgiveness.
Dominican Sr. Judy Morris writes from Louisville, Ky.
National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 2003
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