Norbertine Priest, Pro-Life Hero, Recalls Time as Jail Chaplain

“I was there to introduce them to the person of Jesus Christ,” says Norbertine Father Leo Celano

Father Leo Celano
Father Leo Celano (photo: St. Michael’s Abbey)

Among his many apostolates, Norbertine Father Leo Celano, 89, served as a jail chaplain at the Southern Reception Center and Clinic (SRCC) in Norwalk, California. Although the facility is no longer used as a jail, at the time of his service it was one of two state diagnostic detention facilities for male juvenile offenders, who underwent testing and were then sent to serve their sentences at other facilities in the state.

Father Leo is a member of the Norbertine Order at St. Michael’s Abbey in Southern California, and is the community’s first American-born vocation after seven Hungarian members fled communist Hungary and established St. Michael’s in 1961. After spending time in seminary on the East Coast, he entered St. Michael’s in 1967, and was ordained a priest in 1972. He is well known in the community for being an outspoken defender of the Catholic faith, as well as for his pro-life activism, including his arrest for blocking the entrances to abortion clinics at Operation Rescue protests.

The incarcerated at the SRCC were all convicted felons, guilty of such crimes as murder, rape and armed robbery, and were nearly always the products of broken homes and violent neighborhoods. At the time of his service in the 90s, 45% were Hispanic, 30% black, 15% white and 5% Asian. All were male (in fact, 96% of the youth in the 11 California Youth Authority facilities were male). At his time of service the facility housed 650 boys, or nearly 150% of capacity.

“I was there to introduce them to the person of Jesus Christ,” explained Father Leo of his role as chaplain. “And if they already knew him, I helped them bond with him.”

Father Leo, for example, recalled the prayer and support he offered to 18-year-old Jeff, who was brought into the SRCC hospital ward near death from a rare muscle disorder. Jeff had the ability to be affable and good-natured to visitors, but was a three-time felon, convicted once for stealing a car and twice for burglary. His father was a drug addict, and spent all of his money on his addiction. His mother and only sibling died in a car accident. When his father kicked him out of the house, Jeff turned to crime to support himself. Like many of the boys in the detention center, he used drugs. When Father Leo knew him, he resolved to turn around his life of crime and go back to school.

Father Leo’s message to Jeff and the other boys was simple: “God did not make junk. You are special, made in the image and likeness of God. You are called to know the Lord, and experience his love and forgiveness.”

Lack of self-esteem is a typical ailment amongst the boys and suicide attempts were common. Frequently, they had begun sexual activity as young as 12 or 13, and by their 18th birthday had become fathers to two or three illegitimate children that they were unable to support.

Another boy Father Leo worked with, 17-year-old Ed, was father to two small children by a 15-year-old girl to whom he was not married. Ed had the many tattoos common among gang members and had attempted to escape the facility. The girl and Ed’s parents brought his children to the facility to visit Ed; on one visit they informed him that his 15-year-old younger brother had been killed in a drive-by shooting. Ed’s parents, who were poor immigrants, had to raise Ed’s children.

Upon their request, Father Leo counseled the boys in a cell converted into any office at the SRCC facility. His first query of them was, “Tell me about your relationship with your father.” To which 80% responded, “I’ve never met the man.”

The priest identifies a direct link between the father’s availability in the home and the boys’ involvement with crime. With the fathers absent, the boys suffer the loss of what Father Leo terms the “three D’s” — discipline, direction and devotion. The mothers then become the providers in the home, and they, too are absent from the lives of the boys much of the time. This translates into the loss of the “three A’s” — attention, affirmation and affection.

Starved for the love of a healthy family life, the boys frequently turned to gangs for support, and hence their involvement with drugs and crime begins. They also seek this love in sex, and father children for whom they have no ability to provide. Father Leo also suggested that what Pope St. John Paul II termed “the culture of death” mentality of society and sex-saturated programming all contribute to the boys’ delinquency.

On Sundays, Father Leo offered two prison Masses attended by about 250. While conceding that some went just to get out of their cells, he remarked, “The boys are respectful, reverential and receptive at Mass. I’m pleased to see that most are aware of the divine presence.”

The staff of the SRCC appreciated Father Leo’s ministry, he said. Bob Schulman, who served as the SRCC assistant superintendent and was Father Leo’s supervisor, recalled, “His job was to be their religious advocate, to offer the ‘religious angle.’ The wards liked him.”

Father Leo began his prison ministry at the suggestion of his former superior, St. Michael’s Abbey founding abbot Ladislas Parker (1915-1994). At the time, Father Leo chuckled at the contention of the most famous reform school chaplain, Father Edward Flanagan (“There’s no such thing as a bad boy”) but after his years in prison ministry, he came to agree.

“They’re all good boys! But even good boys do silly and stupid things. I’ve come to define sin as doing something silly or stupid.”

Father Leo went on to contend that in a good environment, the boys can recognize their natural gifts and go on to realize their potential.

“They can be good men. They can be great men. They can be saints.”