Death row ministry a hallmark of canon lawyer, alumna's faith
College of St. Catherine alumna Jennifer M. Haselberger joined the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minnesota as chancellor for canonical affairs in August of 2008 after serving as bishop's delegate for canonical affairs of the Diocese of Fargo. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of London and a licentiate in canon law from Catholic University Leuven in Belgium. Although she has traveled the world, Haselberg's focus has been on the small town of Angola, Louisiana.
Just a scant 10 years after graduation from St. Kate's, Haselberger '99 is now chancellor for canonical affairs for the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Perhaps the one thing that continues to define her as a person of strong faith is that she continues to be a spiritual director to a death row inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
It started sophomore year at St. Kate's when she struck up a friendship with Sister Ann Thomasine Sampson, then 82 and the author of books on the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. It was Sister Ann who, after learning that Haselberger was opposed to the death penalty, urged her to begin a correspondence with a man, John, who had been on death row since the early 1990s.
"I felt strongly against the death penalty, but the Sisters of St. Joseph teach that it's not enough to feel, you have to put your feelings into action," Haselberger explained about her involvement.
The year she graduated, Haselberger was notified that John had asked that she be put on the death row visitors' list at Angola prison, so he could meet her face to face. She agreed to do it and went through a requisite approval process.
The Angola prison complex is in a heavily rural area of Louisiana and almost a two-hour drive from New Orleans. Inmates on death row are allowed a certain number of visitors, but each visitor is allowed only two visits a month.
When Haselberger met John for the first time, he was already seated in his half of the visiting room; the two halves were separated by chicken wire. He rose to greet her, but almost fell over because his hands and feet were shackled. She ordered food from the staff and visitors' canteen so they could have lunch together; he usually ordered a cheeseburger. The food, he remarked, was much better than what they served the inmates.
Haselberger began regular visits to Angola, traveling down every few months and usually staying a weekend to visit both Saturday and Sunday. During these times, she had to "let go" the feeling of personal threat and danger to herself. "I felt my presence there was important because there are so very few visitors on death row," she said.
During one visit she was in a waiting room with a young man who had driven his family to visit an inmate. He was staying behind in the waiting room, he told Haselberger, because he was afraid the prison would mistake him for one of the inmates and wouldn’t let him out. When she told him why she was there and who she was visiting, he said, "I heard there were people like you, but I never believed it before."
At one point, John asked her to be his spiritual director since his time on death row would soon come to an end. She would be allowed to be with him until a half hour before the appointed time of his death. With the consent of Bishop Balke from the Crookston diocese and Bishop Aquila from the Fargo diocese — she was approved.
Circumstances changed, however, when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, and records dealing with the inmate's appeals were lost. Instead of a death sentence, he was given life imprisonment. With the inmate no longer on death row, Haselberger went through personal discernment about continuing her role as spiritual director.
"I reflected on the reasons I had gotten involved in the first place, and I realized that I couldn't abandon him now," Haselberger says. "I had to be there for him for the long haul."
She still receives his letters regularly and following her new appointment has planned monthly visits to Angola.
By Arline Datu
Jan. 2, 2009
Contact Julie Michener, (651) 690-6521