The Monk and the Murderer
This is a story about how God leveled time and space, breaching prison bars and cloister walls, lining up the Catacombs of Rome with Death Row in McAlester, Oklahoma, through the life of a hidden monk in the 21st century.
The monk, Brother Vianney-Marie Graham of the contemplative Clear Creek Monastery in Hulbert, Oklahoma, had long been praying for inmates on Death Row because he considered them "the abandoned of the abandoned."
He had a famous precedent for his prayers. St. Therese of Lisieux had prayed for the conversion of the notorious and unrepentant killer Henri Pranzini in 1887 and was able to read in the newspaper of his last-minute grab for a crucifix as he approached the scaffold. He kissed the wounds of Jesus three times before being guillotined.
In 2001, Brother Vianney-Marie decided to ask his superior for permission to write a few inmates, "to tell them not to despair, to tell them that God's mercy is available to them no matter what their crimes."
In deciding whom to write, Brother Vianney-Marie sought out the worst cases. He started with James Malicoat, a man who had brutally killed his 13 month-old daughter through a series of beatings over two weeks.
"When I first saw the crime, I thought, 'He needs a friend more than the others. Everyone is going to shrink back because the crime was so horrendous,'" Brother Vianney-Marie said.
He received permission from his superior to write to Malicoat, and did so for the first time on the feast of the Assumption, 2001. Malicoat took a month and a half to respond, dating his letter October 1, which is the feast of St. Therese.
Brother Vianney-Marie wrote faithfully to Malicoat and two other inmates once a month. "I would talk about their families, the way they were brought up," he said. "They would talk about themselves."
The monk said it was like shooting arrows in the dark, making contact with the worst of society's offenders from a cloistered Benedictine monastery. He had no idea where or how the arrows would fall.
Contemplative monks such as those at Clear Creek rarely leave the monastery. The monks work and pray in obscurity. Brother Vianney-Marie has a certain identity to outsiders only because he can be seen from the road tending the monastery's chickens.
Brother Vianney-Marie wrote to the inmates for two years. Then he decided to ask permission to go to Death Row once a year to visit them.
"I wanted to have at least some contact, so that they could see that the person they're writing to is a real person," he said.
He received the permission.
"He's been a monk for quite a while," said the prior of Clear Creek, Father Philip Anderson. "We wouldn't let a novice do it."
Visits to Death Row
Brother Vianney-Marie's first visit to Death Row, two hours away at the super-maximum-security penitentiary in McAlester, made him physically ill. "The atmosphere was so bad," he said. But he became more accustomed to it as time went on, and he used the infrequent visits to try to draw the inmates out of themselves.
He would tell prisoners in his letters and in his visits "not to worry, to be calm. The devil's going to try to tempt you to despair. Trust God and say you're sorry to God and the victim. It's got to be asked for earnestly."
He first met Malicoat on Sept. 17, 2003. Despite the fact that the monk picked the inmates for their awful crimes and commensurate need for mercy rather than their capacity for religion, they treated him with respect, and he was able to sense in them an instinct for God while he talked to them on a telephone from behind a thick glass window.
"I was always amazed that they were extremely polite. There was no foul language, which was absolutely great. I think later on they realized their unique opportunity to have a religious on their side. In the long run they said, 'There's a monk, and he's going to be there for the worst.' Subconsciously they would think in the long run this friend is going to get me out of a bind. An eternal bind."
Malicoat at first hesitated to talk about his crime. He said he was afraid of scandalizing the monk. But eventually, after Brother Vianney-Marie told him stories of the despairing people he used to work with at a factory before entering religious life, Malicoat unloaded a tale he'd bottled up for years.
Brother Vianney-Marie says that many prisoners on Death Row don't have a high school education or a family. They have a hard time even putting a sentence together coherently. Malicoat, he says, didn't know why he killed his daughter, named Tessa. He had been beaten as a child. He didn't know for sure who his father was. He was married but had been living with another woman, the mother of his child, when Tessa died of her injuries February 21, 1997. The mother was serving a life sentence for allowing the torture.
"Until that moment, he had been five years on Death Row and hadn't spoken to anyone about his crime," Brother Vianney-Marie said. He could see that the unburdening was a great relief to Malicoat. And then he thought to ask a question that might get deeper into the killer's mind and open it up.
"Do you talk to Tessa?"
The look of shock that passed over Malicoat's face the only time Brother Vianney-Marie had seen him emotional told the monk not only that Malicoat never thought anyone would ask him such a question, but that he had indeed been talking to his dead little girl. It was similar to the way Catholics talk to the saints.
"What do you say?" the monk asked him.
"Tessa, do you forgive me?"
An Opening for God's Grace
While Brother Vianney-Marie looked for and seized windows through which to reach Malicoat, the prisoner warned him not to push religion too hard. The monk sat patiently on the other side of the glass separating them and listened to Malicoat talk about his worries for his family, especially his mother, as they waited out the years until he would be put to death.
Between his visits, the monk wrote faithfully, urging Malicoat to pray for the right disposition and teaching him how to pray a perfect act of contrition. It was a painstaking three years of building confidence, holding back so as not to turn him off, awaiting openings for God's grace to slip through. The inmate would respond fitfully, often depressed.
"You're not there every day so you have to really pray," Brother Vianney-Marie said. "The friendship was spiritualized. I had to accept a weight on my shoulders. You have to be very open."
In a letter dated June 26, 2006, Malicoat informed Brother Vianney-Marie that his execution had been set for August 22 at 6 p.m. The monk's last full-length visit with him occurred on July 5. Brother Vianney-Marie referred to him, as he had often done before, as "my little Pranzini."
"Being a non-Catholic, he tried to understand. There was a nun who was praying for Pranzini. He understood the correlation there." At this point, Malicoat told Brother Vianney-Marie that he didn't mind being put to death. "He said, 'I've done things I'm not proud of. I'll have to present that to God.'"
That was just the kind of window the monk had been waiting for. "It opened it up to God's mercy. God always gives you those little moments. You have to be on your toes."
Brother Vianney-Marie told Malicoat that he was confiding him to the intercession of four people: Our Lady of a Good Death, St. Therese, St. Maria Goretti because she had been murdered as a child and had forgiven her killer before she died, and her killer had repented and an obscure child-martyr of the Catacombs, St. Bonosa.
Brother Vianney-Marie's prayers had never been the only ones directed to God on Malicoat's behalf. His brother monks joined theirs, and the community of the lay faithful that has sprung up around Clear Creek Monastery in northeastern Oklahoma was praying, too. Brother Vianney-Marie had asked a blind girl in a wheelchair to offer her prayers for Malicoat.
Enlisting St. Bonosa
St. Bonosa added another chapter to the story. Her remains had been found late for an early-Church martyr on March 27, 1848, in the Catacombs of St. Praetextatus in Rome. Fontgombault Abbey in France, Clear Creek's motherhouse and a part of the Solesmes congregation of Benedictine monks entrusted with preserving Gregorian chant after Vatican II, was entrusted with the relics of St. Bonosa. During an anti-clerical wave that swept France later in the 19th century, the monks of Fontgombault were dispersed, and the relics were brought to the United States for safe-keeping.
It had been only in 2005 that the relics had been rediscovered, at a monastery in Idaho, and plans were made to have them brought to Clear Creek on August 30, shortly after Malicoat's execution. Brother Vianney-Marie enlisted St. Bonosa in his cause.
On July 20, Malicoat's lawyers informed Brother Vianney-Marie that the inmate's family minister would not be able to attend the execution. Malicoat had agreed to have a priest and Brother Vianney-Marie assist him instead.
It took a couple of days for the news to sink in. Then Brother Vianney-Marie realized that "everything is going to be possible now." He wrote Malicoat a long letter about Catholicism, losing some of his hesitancy, "explaining the faith in a gentle way and hoping he would have the right disposition. Telling him how to pray and ask for divine mercy and the forgiveness of the others he has offended."
"I told him a little bit about confession: that the priest has the faculties to absolve. It would be possible to make an act of faith in the Church. Then confess. The minimum for a Catholic that enables this vital sacrament to go ahead," he said.
Malicoat did not write back this time. It's Brother Vianney-Marie's experience that prisoners that close to death quit writing.
Father Kirk Larkin is the assistant pastor of a parish in Ponca City, Oklahoma, who had done prison ministry before his ordination. That had been a while. Out of the blue, one of Malicoat's lawyers contacted him about assisting at the execution. It caught the priest off-guard.
"At first I said no," Father Larkin said. His previous work had not prepared him for anything like this. "Then I thought, 'Maybe God has called me to do this.'"
He joined Brother Vianney-Marie in taking up the burden of Malicoat's soul, and several days were added to the agony. The execution was delayed to August 31. The monks found out that the arrival of St. Bonosa's remains would be delayed as well, to the same day.
The Final Days
In the days leading up to the execution, Brother Vianney-Marie had nightmares. On the night before it, he was so exhausted that he finally slept.
Malicoat did not. On August 31, the priest and the monk drove down to the penitentiary, arriving a little after 10, and proceeded to H-unit, the home of Death Row. Malicoat's lawyers met them with the news that they weren't sure Malicoat would confess to the priest or even see the two men.
"He was so petrified," Brother Vianney-Marie recalled. "He said, 'The last time I confessed it got me Death Row.' You just don't know the tension these guys are under."
But at 10:45 a.m., under their own tension, the monk and the priest were ushered in to see Malicoat. After days of trying to conjure up what the killer would look like, Father Larkin was relieved to see a human being on the other side of the glass. Brother Vianney-Marie had never seen him look worse. Malicoat was slumped over for terror and want of sleep. "It's inhuman," the monk said. He was given about an hour with his last visitors, and Brother Vianney-Marie wasted no time. He made quick inquiries about Malicoat and his family and then introduced him to Father Larkin, telling Malicoat that he could make an act of faith and confess to him. He gave Father Larkin the telephone.
Malicoat told the priest he didn't want to confess.
"James was truly concerned about other people more than himself at this point," Father Larkin recalled. "He told me, 'Father, I don't want to burden you with the horrible things that I've done and that have been done to me over the course of my life.'"
The priest, with nothing rehearsed, trying to pry open the window that Brother Vianney-Marie had cracked, turned to the Profession of Faith. He went through the Creed point by point, asking Malicoat whether he agreed with each article.
Brother Vianney-Marie, his active participation relinquished, could hear only the priest's side of the conversation. He was in agony. When Father Larkin turned to apostolic succession and how a priest could forgive sin, the monk imagined how much time the explanation could eat up and couldn't take it any longer. He got up and went to the back of the room, where he paced and prayed the rosary out of earshot.
"It was a terrible weight," Brother Vianney-Marie said. But at the same time, "I never felt so much support of prayer of others as on that day. It wasn't me who was there. It was everyone who was there."
Back at Clear Creek Monastery, the relics of St. Bonosa had arrived. The monks were processing with them toward the chapel, chanting the Litany of the Saints and praying to the child martyr for the man who had made his own daughter the same.
As the monks were entering the chapel with the bejeweled casket of bones, Brother Vianney-Marie looked up from his prayers in H-unit to see Father Larkin raising his hand in blessing over James Malicoat. The monk had no way of knowing whether this was absolution. But he could be pretty sure.
"I just knew it was his confession," Brother Vianney-Marie said. "I was ready to jump through the ceiling."
A few minutes later and Father Larkin was beckoning Brother Vianney-Marie back to Malicoat. Their half an hour apart had closed a chasm. And opened the window.
"All of a sudden, he had this weight off his conscience," Brother Vianney-Marie said. "I told him, 'I don't think you're my friend, you're my brother.' He has all the same graces. I said, 'Are you ready to go?' and he said, 'Yeah.' There was a peaceful tranquillity. He realized what he had done and was man enough to accept the consequences."
Brother Vianney-Marie at that point became the last friend in the world who would speak to Malicoat.
"I wanted to make sure that the last contact from the outside, which I also meant for his mother, was 'I love you.'"
The priest and the monk went on to witness the execution that evening.
"It was vulgar," Brother Vianney-Marie said. "He was pretty brave." Malicoat's last words were to ask forgiveness.
"When I was watching it I was saying, 'Jesus, Mary, Joseph save him. Take him to heaven.'"
Father Larkin said the horror of the death could be seen in the reaction of the monk and Malicoat's lawyers. "They were physically hurt when he was executed."
None of Malicoat's family was there to witness it.
"It was true: He had been abandoned in prison," Brother Vianney-Marie said. "At the last moment, God's grace was offered and accepted. Which is a rarity. It doesn't always happen."
Hidden Monks and the Power of Prayer
The changes monks effect by their prayer and sacrifice are of the profound, culture-changing sort G.K. Chesterton referred to when he said: "Whenever monks come back, marriages will come back."
In exceptional cases, a monk can have a direct influence, but "the power comes from the power of prayer behind him," Clear Creek's prior, Father Anderson, said.
"You have a contemplative order whose purpose is just prayer and not ministry, but there's an overflow into the world. Most of it is invisible, in souls. Once in a while, God lifts the corner of the veil, and you see how it works."
Brother Vianney-Marie, he said, "was God's secret agent on Death Row."
After the execution, the monk returned to the monastery that night to find out about the timing of Malicoat's conversion with the entry of St. Bonosa's relics into the chapel.
"You can't imagine something more beautiful," he said.
It wasn't the only convergence of events. Brother Vianney-Marie found out only later that Malicoat's death had occurred on the same date, August 31, that St. Therese's Pranzini had been put to death.
"You can't tell me these saints weren't praying for James," the monk said.
To Father Larkin, the monk is "a real hero" who allowed himself "to be put into that situation with no concern for himself or the aftereffects, to be there for a convicted child killer.
"He was concerned for this man's soul when most people want to take this guy off the face of the earth."
While Brother Vianney-Marie said he could understand such a reaction, Father Anderson said of Malicoat, "his soul is immortal. Christ died even for him. Regardless of the horrendous act he'd done to his daughter, he's the lost sheep. Our Lord wouldn't care what he'd done He'd go after the lost sheep."
A few days after the execution, Brother Vianney-Marie received a letter from Malicoat dated August 29, two days before his execution. In it the doomed man had written: "You will see, prayer is never in vain."
Annie Calovich is a reporter for The Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.
This item 7954 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org