Priest serves his flock within confines of prison
Rick Shaw thought he would have loved the newspaper business, but being a priest is where he feels he belongs.
Nonetheless, the Rev. Richard Shaw, a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany since 1968, still enjoys writing, and his latest book, his fifth, tells the story of his life inside jails and prisons. “Naked as a Jailbird: A Raw Narrative of Life Behind Bars,” self-published and printed by Troy Book Makers, is an account of Shaw’s long life ministering to prisoners.
“One of the men looked at me through bars the other day and said, ‘you and me done 30 years here together,’ ” said Shaw, a Brooklyn native who moved to Albany with his family as a young boy.
“I felt like that kind of captured my whole ministry. We have a community here, and when I celebrate Mass with the inmates I think it’s a beautiful experience. It’s as beautiful as any parish experience could be.”
As he writes in the forward, the book is made up of his many experiences in jails and prisons as he recorded them in a daily journal he’s kept since he was a teenager.
“I took some things out of chronological order and made it thematic,” he said. “I think in my other book I had too many footnotes, endnotes, too many substantiated sources. There were too many distractions for the reader. Like the subtitle indicates, this is a raw narrative.”
study at siena
After graduating from Vincentian Institute, Shaw headed to Siena College looking to get a degree in journalism.
“I worked my way through college at the Times Union and Knickerbocker News,” he remembered, “and I always thought I was going to go that route. I used to say how I was going to college at Siena during the day and then going down to the newspaper at night to get my real education. But when I was a junior I changed my mind. In this day and age it might sound corny, but I think it was an impulse of grace. That’s where God wanted me to be and I’ve never regretted it or turned back.”
Shaw left Siena after his junior year and headed to Christ the King Seminary at St. Bonaventure University in western New York. In 1968 he was ordained in the Cathedral of Albany and has remained in the Albany Diocese ever since.
Now a New Baltimore resident, Shaw has worked as a school teacher at Catholic Central High School in Troy, a chaplain at Albany Memorial Hospital, and has served Mass at a number of churches in the Capital Region. Around 1980, however, he began focusing much of his work on jails and prisons, in particular the Rensselaer County, Greene County and Coxsackie Correctional Facilities.
“After teaching at Catholic Central, I was in Boston for a semester and just by chance I was helping out at the St. Charles Jail, and a great pastor, Monsignor Burke, was there in charge,” said Shaw, who has also served the inmates at the Albany and Schenectady County jails.
“It was a great, life-changing experience. After coming back I started teaching school again for a few months, but then I started going to the Rensselaer County Jail and knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Shaw, who also earned a doctorate in criminal justice from the University at Albany, found working with the inmates an inspirational parish experience.
“It’s a very chaotic place, but the terribleness of it doesn’t come from the men and women in there,” he said. “It’s just the nature of jails. A correctional facility is a place where a lot of people are going through a very sad time in their life. But part of what makes it so enjoyable are the volunteers there helping the inmates, and the officers. A guard might tell me about how the guy in C block just had a death in the family. They’re looking out for these guys, dealing with them like human beings to make sure I get plugged in with them, and that just makes me feel really good.”
Empathy with people
Shaw’s work and the time he’s spent with people behind bars hasn’t gone unnoticed by public officials.
“He’s probably one of the most caring and adored men that I have ever known,” said Chief Ed Bly of the Rensselaer County Jail. “He has the ability to listen and understand and comfort people in a time of need.”
Bly also knew Shaw years ago when he worked at the Coxsackie Correctional Facility.
“You won’t find a staff member or an inmate that would speak poorly of Father Rick,” he said. “The spiritual guidance he provides for the inmate population is unbelievable. What he does absolutely has great value.”
Shaw, who also serves Mass in churches in Albany and Catskill, is technically retired. But he’s not slowing down at all.
“This is a great career to get old in,” he said. “You get to be the old man of the mountain, and people come up to you and tell you how their father used to talk about you. I feel like I’ve had a blessed life. It’s been so fulfilling.”
While Shaw grew up in the Catholic religion and saw no reason to look elsewhere, he doesn’t get overly concerned about the details of dogma.
“I would consider myself very happily ecumenical,” he said. “Tradition is what makes you more Christian than anything else, and your spirituality is something that’s between you and God. For me, the pull to my Catholic faith are the sacraments and the historical nature of the church.”
The 1967 meeting between Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey of the Anglican Church of England went a long way toward developing the ecumenical nature of Shaw’s approach to religion.
“I was so proud to be a Catholic when they announced their mutual statement of faith,” said Shaw, referring to the agreement worked out between the pope and the archbishop. “To be able to look beyond our historical differences and restore some of our unity was a beautiful thing.”
Since 2003, Shaw has shared his compassion and knowledge of the Bible with parishioners at Catholic Community of Saint Patrick Church in Catskill.
“He’s a wonderful person, and very easy to get to know,” said Janine O’Leary, pastoral associate for administration at St. Patrick’s. “From a religious perspective, it’s amazing to sit and listen to him give Mass on Sundays. He is a scriptural scholar and the knowledge he has is unbelievable.”
Shaw, whose earlier books include “Dagger John,” “The Christmas Mary Had Twins,” and “Chaplains to the Imprisoned,” has alternated between non-fiction and fiction.
“I may re-write one of my earlier smash flops,” he joked. “Even when I decided to become a priest, I knew that I would continue to write. I enjoy writing non-fiction and fiction, and there’s been no real continuity of theme to my books.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or email@example.com