TUCKER — On a Tuesday afternoon in the chapel that Vincentian Father Louis J. Franz helped found at Tucker Maximum Security Unit in Jefferson County, Bishop Anthony B. Taylor celebrated Mass as guitars and the soulful voices of inmates in the prison band played. It was a simple Mass, no frills, and three Catholic inmates received Communion.
It was a fitting memorial Mass for Father Franz, who fought for inmate rights and the abolishment of the death penalty and life without parole. He died July 11 from cancer at the age of 86.
Sister Joan Pytlik, DC, diocesan social justice advocate, who has known Father Franz for about 30 years, spoke at the memorial Mass Aug. 14, saying it was a way both to remember his work and to prove him wrong.
“Father Lou often told me about death, ‘The first week they glorify you, the second week they remember all your sins and the third week they forget about you,’” she said. “Having died on July 11, we still are proving him wrong over a month later.”
The Mass invoked the Lord’s mercy at every turn, with the responsorial psalm “The Lord attends to the groaning of the prisoners,” the Gospel reading of Matthew 25:31-46 and, by divine coincidence, it was the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the patron saint of prisoners.
Father Franz was ordained a priest on June 2, 1957, and spent his early priesthood in California and Missouri. He even served nine years as provincial of the Southern Province.
From 1985 to 1993, Father Franz served parishes in Lincoln and Cleveland counties in Arkansas, mostly St. Justin Church in Star City.
Bishop Andrew J. McDonald appointed Father Franz co-director of the Diocese of Little Rock prison ministry along with Deacon Frank “Buddy” King.
After learning that many were sentenced to death for crimes because the lack of skilled legal representation, he founded Arkansas Churches for Life in 1987, a nonprofit funded by the Vincentians to help the poor, mentally ill and minorities afford proper counsel.
In one case, Father Franz filed a motion with the Arkansas Supreme Court after a death row inmate was sentenced to death without any appeals, something the inmate requested. He said at the time, “The state cannot be hired to commit suicide,” according to a 1998 Arkansas Catholic article. The court agreed any death penalty case should be required to be appealed.
“He knew that many were mentally ill or deficient, depressed or not wanting to face their crime. He knew God in his mercy wasn’t finished with them,” Sister Joan said.
Along with Sister Joan, Bishop Taylor and Renie Rule, an advocate for inmates and founder of the Paws in Prison dog training program, spoke about the impact Father Franz made in policy and heart.
Though Bishop Taylor never met Father Franz, he said Pope Francis’ recent change to the catechism to make the death penalty contrary to Church teaching in all cases “would have pleased Father Lou very much.”
“We can say to Father Lou, if you can hear us, the Church has finally caught up with you,” Bishop Taylor said.
Just as Pope Francis has called life in prison without parole the “death penalty in disguise,” Father Franz echoed those sentiments in his most recent interview with Arkansas Catholic in 2017.
“People don’t know much about the prison system and sentencing system … it’s in-prison execution; that’s what life without parole is,” he said last year.
Sister Joan told the roughly 10 inmates, two wardens and chaplain present at the memorial Mass that Father Franz would show up at trials of inmates in his Roman collar.
He said in a 1998 Arkansas Catholic article, “I wanted it to be seen that the Catholic Church was concerned for the inmates and the families.”
The white-walled chapel, with tall, narrow windows of colored glass, was a dream of Father Franz and King, while Rule was one of the people he pushed to make that dream a reality.
Though Rule, now executive director of Arkansas Hospice Foundation, had many irons in the fire, it didn’t faze Father Franz, who told her “I will meet you tomorrow and we will begin working on this chapel.”
Rule was co-chair of the fundraising committee and took over after King’s death in 2003 from a heart attack. Father Franz donated substantially to the chapel.
“When you’re ready to learn, a teacher will appear and Father Lou was that man for me,” Rule said, adding that she tried to explain the next day at lunch how taking on the chapel project would be difficult, he simply replied, “Would you please pass the ketchup?”
The chapel took 15 years to complete, and while Rule would get discouraged, Father Franz would remind her it took Moses 40 years to cross the desert.
She said he emphasized, “You are on a journey and this journey will not be over until it’s time. God knows what he is doing.”
Father Franz returned to Arkansas to dedicate the chapel to King in 2010.
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