Redemption on the Range

March 6, 2024 | 4 minute read
The Alliance Canada

A black and white image of prison cells

        Located twenty-four kilometres from Winnipeg near the community of Stony Mountain is a Canadian heritage building, surrounded by a stone wall made from on-site quarry. Opening in 1877, this prison, known as Stony Mountain Institution, once housed Big Bear and Poundmaker following the Northwest Rebellion. When Kingston Prison in Ontario closed in 2013, Stony Mountain Institution became the oldest running federal prison in Canada.

Into this space, behind numerous walls, security gates and clanging doors, walks Rev. Neill Stitt. A part-time pastor (At the Crossroads Church, Selkirk), full-time chaplain and a rancher, Neill is also husband and caregiver to his wife Debra and father of three grown children.

Neill Stitt speaking from the pulpit at the Crossroads church in Selkirk. The church is part of the Canadian Midwest District of The Alliance Canada. Photo courtesy Richard Enns.

In August of last year, he was found in a field, following a serious farming accident. Rushed to the trauma centre at Health Sciences Centre Hospital in Winnipeg, he stayed overnight and went home the next day.

“After he got home from the hospital, he eased himself back to work within a week,” his wife Debra wrote in an email at the time. “He took no time in getting behind the wheel, going to the penitentiary to do his chaplain work and preaching at church.” When asked about his misadventure, Neill made sure everyone knew that “It’s no big deal.”

 In an interview with Rev. Richard Enns (Assistant District Superintendent of the Canadian Midwest District of The Alliance Canada), Stitt revealed it was not difficult to get involved as a chaplain.

“There’s an organization called Bridges of Canada, which basically supplies all of Canada’s federal institutions with chaplains,” explained Stitt. “All I had to do was call [them] and let [them] know that I was a licensed worker with the Christian & Missionary Alliance and basically I was probably in place within two weeks.”

He has noted that there are various skills and ministry styles that can be useful for serving within prison societies.

“I tend to primarily be a preacher and maybe a counsellor,” said Stitt. “We have chaplains who are really good one-on-one, and you know there is an incredible place for that ministry. We have another chaplain who Is really administrative, and he is good with the paperwork.”

He shares stories of prisoners who meet Jesus, ‘redemption on the range.’ Neill shared a story about a prisoner named ‘Andrew’* who had murdered his father, and in sharing his shame and deep guilt with the chaplain about the crime, revealed he had experienced abuse as a child by the man he killed.

During one significant conversation, Neill asked Andrew about his understanding of forgiveness. After Andrew detailed how psychologists had told him to ‘forgive himself,’ Neill was able to share his faith.

Neill Stitt and his wife Debra. Photo courtesy Richard Enns.

“I don’t want to minimize what the psychologists say,” Stitt told the prisoner. “But none of us have the authority to forgive ourselves. Only God that can completely deliver us and that is why he sent his son Jesus to us.”

Stitt has been part of restorative justice ministries helping prisoners understand the impact of their actions, including cases of sexual offense. He also walks with inmates through the Overcomers recovery ministry.

“Whatever reason guys are in prison, they need to deal with their past so they can actually get on top of their life,” Stitt states.

Chaplain Elizabeth Greer, also licensed with the Canadian Midwest District, works at Headingley Correctional Centre. “Not only do we serve the prisoners, but don’t forget that we also serve the employees of the institution,” she said.

In 2023, a riot at Stony involving fifty inmates resulted in the death of inmate Colton Patchinose and the seizure of fifty improvised weapons. Tensions between prisoners and staff ran high. In these charged environments, the peace of Christ seems the only hope.

“The value of chaplaincy, of being there, of reaching out to these guys, of building relationships, you know?” Stitt shares. “Just listening to them and sharing and talking with them and befriending them. And I have no regrets for being a part of it. I love it. I love what I do, and I find fulfillment in my work every day.”

Larry Wilson is another chaplain working at Stony. In a 2019 Faith Today interview, Wilson shared that he is from Peguis First Nation. “Those guys need to see First Nations Christians, chaplains and leaders. They need to see First Nations who follow Christ, so they can believe that they can too.”

Inmates responded to the question of what prison would be like without chaplains. “The immediate word was ‘dark,’” Wilson said. “Guys are coming to the chapel because they find light, they find peace, they find quiet, they find hope.” **

 “[There is an] incredible need,” said Stitt, “guys in prison feel so cut off from the people they love.” The chaplain believes that building relationships, listening, and meeting these men exactly where they are at is key to moving them toward lives redeemed through the power of Jesus.

*Name changed

** Used with permission of Faith Today



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