Shortly after her husband’s inauguration as governor in 2016, Donna Edwards toured Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to learn about its educational programs. While there, she noticed chapels that served inmates’ spiritual needs.
At the Governor’s Mansion are trustee inmates who are housed at the State Police Barracks in Zachary, and Edwards assumed they had similar facilities.
“I asked the guys about their chapel, and they said, ‘Well, Miss Donna, we don’t have one.’ I said, ‘What do you mean you don’t have one?’ ”
They do now.
At the urging of Louisiana's first lady, a nonprofit effort to complete a worship building there has created New Beginnings Chapel, a 4,815-square-foot facility for the roughly 140 inmates. The chapel was dedicated on May 19.
“The guys need that spiritual growth. They need to have people come and minister to them,” Edwards said. “It was an opportunity for them to grow even more spiritually if they had this place to go and worship and have an opportunity to sing and share their gifts with one another.”
This project finishes an effort begun almost a decade ago by the Louisiana Prison Chapel Foundation, a nonprofit that built 14 chapels around the state. The State Police Barracks chapel wasn’t on its original list of projects, but it had received a specific donation for it, which was enough to pour a slab and construct sheet metal walls and a roof before the foundation closed, said Cindy Mann, LPCF’s former executive director.
Since tax dollars could not be used to build a church, Edwards needed someone outside of state government to lead the effort.
When she prayed about it, she said, the Rev. Rodney Wood’s face kept coming to mind. Director of The Mission Foundation, which ministers to those who work at the State Capitol, Wood leads weekly Bible studies at the Capitol that now-Gov. John Bel Edwards attended when he was a state representative from Amite. Woods and his wife, Becky, became close friends with the Edwardses.
“He literally took the bull by the horns. I have never in my life … seen someone with such persistence as Rodney,” Donna Edwards said. “He wanted to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i.’ He hit some adversity multiple times, and it really knocked him to his knees a couple of times, but he did just not give up.”
Wood recruited a board of directors made up of Chairman Mike Grace, Jimmy Field, Scott Kirkpatrick, Mark Barbre, Johnny Koch, Tom Higgins, Jody Moscona and John Waitz, then began raising funds and seeking people in the building industries who could make those dollars stretch.
“I had a vision that God would call together a group of charitably minded contractors and suppliers who would make this attainable,” Wood said. “The word ‘team’ from the beginning was very important, and God did call together those contractors and suppliers.”
Jay Comeaux, president of Limcon Construction, was the general contractor, and Keith Keller, of Lincoln Builders, collaborated. Numerous subcontractors donated time, material and expertise or provided them at greatly reduced cost, Wood said. Architect James Deshotels drew up plans for the building.
Through a nonprofit organization, Prison Inmate Chapels of Louisiana, Wood said he’s raised more than $200,000. It’s been enough to create a chapel worth many times more than that. This includes furnishings for the sanctuary and classrooms, a sound system and musical instruments for worship services, most of which were donated.
Keller said subcontractors he approached bought in to the vision. The biggest obstacle was scheduling the donated work and material around the subcontractors’ other work.
“We had to make sure we scheduled every person accordingly, and when we were a month, two weeks out, we were calling them,” Keller said. “Jay and I both were leaning heavily on those donors and vendors to help us, and they all stepped up and did exactly what they promised to do.”
Although those who came to the dedication service sat in rented chairs, the sanctuary will have pews donated from St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Prairieville.
“It has been an incredible experience,” Wood said. “We’ve had times when it looked like … there was no answer in sight to some major challenges we’ve had over these two years. Then, as we prayed and sometimes fasted, God did things to help us.
“Every man on the board of directors, every single one of them would say that this project came about through God’s answering prayer and the generosity of many people, a wonderful, wonderful collection of donors to this project who donated very, very generously from throughout our city.”
The New Beginnings Chapel will be staffed by inmate pastors and visiting clergy, Wood said.
On the walls are a cross donated by Limcom superintendent E.J. Hebert and an inmate-made crucifix donated by Donna Edwards, so the chapel can be home to both Catholic and Protestant worship. Worship and Bible studies had been taking place in the cafeteria.
“It’s going to be such a blessing,” Donna Edwards said. “I’m already hearing from the guys. They are so excited.”