The Promise I Made to God

The Conversion of Carl James Monroe


Carl James Monroe, 63, was born in Clarksburg, West Virginia. He is incarcerated at Easterling Prison in Alabama, where he is serving a life sentence for murder.

The child of an unwed mother, Carl grew up always on the move, staying in fleabag motels and shacks that cost ten dollars a month. His mother had to work, so Carl’s evening meal was, more often than not, peanuts, hard-boiled eggs, and chips from the saloon where he waited until his mother got off at closing time.

Undisciplined and unsupervised most of the time, Carl skipped school anytime he wanted. His first brush with the law was at age nine. Eventually he landed in a foster home—a dairy farm owned by a fanatical Pentecostal man who worked Carl and another foster boy mercilessly. In trouble again at age seventeen, Carl’s probation officer gave him a choice: Join the military or go to prison. Carl enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966 and was sent to Vietnam.

One day Carl was ordered to stand guard outside a facility containing items prized by the enemy. Carl being Carl, on his way to his guard post, he stopped to pick up a bottle of whiskey he had stashed away. When he got to his post, he proceeded to drink himself to sleep. While he slept, two Viet Cong managed to infiltrate the area. Not wanting to take any chances, they decided to kill Carl before entering the facility to steal what was there. At this point the story gets a little confusing, but the end result was that Carl killed both Viet Cong with his right hand—one eye hanging down on his cheek and his left hand holding in his intestines.

The Corps faced a dilemma: whether to court martial Carl or decorate him. Apparently someone up the chain of command decided he should be decorated. So, from Vietnam he was transferred to Pearl Harbor for a number of surgeries and a long physical rehabilitation.

Given a medical discharge in 1964, Carl returned to his native West Virginia. Before long he was in trouble with the law again. After serving eleven months for burglary in 1968, he decided it was time to change his lifestyle. He was soon drinking again, but now he was working instead of stealing. Then one night in 1970, everything fell apart. On his way home from a bar, Carl was involved in a traffic accident with a woman and after an argument, beat her to death.

From the day he was arrested until the judge’s gavel fell at the conclusion of the trial, only thirty days elapsed. Carl was sentenced to death by electrocution in Alabama’s Old Sparky, the state’s electric chair at Holman Prison.

Compared to life in general population, Carl rather enjoyed his time on the row. Carl says, "In the long hours of the night, especially when we could see stars out the windows, the guys on the row would get into deep conversations about life, death, God, and the universe." Carl’s argument was always that God did not exist—that when you die it’s all over. Everything in Carl’s life had convinced him there was no God. He recalled the countless times when he and his mother had prayed for a warm place to sleep or something to eat, but the prayers were never answered.

Despite Carl’s atheism, his experience on the row caused him to think a lot about death, which became planted seeds. Carl says,

Sometimes I would sit on my bunk and try to imagine what it would be like to have 20,000 volts run through your head and down your spine … I spent a lot of time thinking about my victim, her family. I was not the kind of person that went around beating people up. I’d always been a loner. When people bugged me, I left.

Carl was functionally illiterate when he arrived on death row. With not much else to do, he turned his attention to improving his reading and writing skills. Then, in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional. Carl’s sentence was commuted automatically to life in prison, and he was removed from death row and sent a few miles away to Atmore Prison Farm, a dangerous place where living conditions were horrible. Despite the circumstances, he thrived. No matter what a convict wanted, Carl was the man to get it. He could provide julep (prison-made wine), dope, and even "boys" for the man willing to spend a few bucks. Carl became a legend in the penal system.

Bullock Prison was the state’s newest prison, and it had a reputation as the "go-home" camp. In other words, men who went through the various programs there seemed to make parole. Eventually Carl went to the captain and told him he had been at Atmore long enough and that he wanted to go to Bullock. Happy to be rid of him, the captain sent Carl away the very next morning.

When I came to prison, about forty percent of the inmates were functionally illiterate. It was even hard to get a book to read. With the sponsorship of a sympathetic security sergeant, I teamed up with a former schoolteacher to start an inmate tutor program for literacy and GED. A natural extension of the GED program was inmates’ desire to go to college. Our educational sponsor, Michael Haynes, convinced Faulkner University (a Church of Christ school) to set up an extension program at Bullock. When Faulkner was established at Bullock, those of us in the program were moved into the same cell block. About that time Carl enrolled in Faulkner and moved in with the rest of us.

In those days, we were allowed to get four 20-pound packages from home for Christmas. A lot of men had no one to send them anything, or their families couldn’t afford a package. With the help of First Century Christian Ministries, we established our "Boxes of Love" program. All anyone had to do to get a 20-pound box in December was to attend our weekly catechism class, the biweekly class our priest taught, and two monthly Masses from August until December. To miss any one of these eliminated a man from the program.

Carl came to me one day and asked if it was true what he’d heard about the Boxes of Love. After I explained it to him, Carl told me had never received a Christmas package because he had no one to send him one. He told me he was going to attend only for the package, and he didn’t want anyone to bug him about becoming a Catholic. I promised Carl that at no time would anyone suggest that he even consider Catholicism. All he had to do was show up.

It was easy to keep my word, since our policy was never to ask anyone to become a Catholic. After all, the faith speaks for itself. I wasn’t sure, though, that Carl would be able to keep to his commitment. To my great joy, Carl not only never missed anything, he began asking me a lot of questions. Then, about two weeks before Christmas, Carl pulled me to one side after class and told me he wanted to become a Catholic after the first of the year. I asked why he wanted to wait until the new year, and he responded that he didn’t want anyone to think he was doing it for the package.

The turning point for Carl came when we studied the Eucharist. Our class used Fr. Robert J. Fox’s twenty-six lesson series on video called Sharing the Faith, which included two lessons about the Eucharist. At the next class, I would show a video on the Eucharistic miracle of Lanciano. The class after that included a video by Dr. Scott Hahn called The Fourth Cup. It was Dr. Hahn’s talk that convinced Carl of the immutable truths of the Catholic Church.

Another thing that convinced Carl was the sense of family. It began with our group itself. Just as non-Christians said of Catholics in the first century, others said of us at Bullock: "See how those Catholics love one another." Carl gradually came to realize that the Catholic Church is itself a family. We have a Father in the triune God, a Mother in Mary, and all the saints of two millennia are our older brothers and sisters. All work together for our sanctification and final end in glory.

While Carl was on death row, he had received a letter from his aunt informing him his mother had died. The only person who ever loved Carl was gone. After hearing of his mother’s death—in spite of his claims of atheism—Carl prayed to God, asking the Almighty to forgive his mother’s sins and accept her into paradise. He said that if God would do that, he would spend the rest of his life telling others about him.

After the Mass at which Carl was baptized and confirmed, we all went back to the cell block to celebrate. After a short time Carl quietly excused himself. I had given him my Fatima rosary as a baptismal gift, so he decided to "try it out." As he recalls it,

I went to my bed across the cell and laid down with the rosary on my chest. No one was in any of the bunks around me, so I began to pray the Creed. Then, as though someone was right beside me, I heard a voice say, "What about your promises to God?" At the same time I could see myself sitting on my cell on death row, holding the letter from my Aunt Katie telling me Mom was dead. It felt like I was there. I opened my eyes and nothing had changed. Russ and the group were where I left them. No one was near me. But I have never, from that day forward, forgot the promise I made to God.

For Carl, this was confirmation that his death row prayer for his mother’s soul had been answered. Carl has since kept that promise to tell others about God. He is a well-trained catechist who has brought many into the Church. He has studied Church history so thoroughly that I’d be willing to put him up against anyone in the free world who teaches that subject.

At this writing my beloved godson has been locked away thirty-six years. All of Carl’s prayers, penances, and efforts for Holy Mother Church help to win you, gentle reader, many wonderful graces. I hope, then, you will pay a special little visit to the imprisoned Christ in the tabernacle for Carl J. Monroe.


Russell L. Ford is the co-founder of First Century Christian Ministries, a prison apostolate. He is author of The Missionary’s Catechism (Magnificat Institute Press, 1998). His work has been published numerous times in This Rock and elsewhere. He is serving a 25-year sentence...

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 3.