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Behind bars, convict’s spirit is free

Victor Rosario’s now an ordained minister

By Jack Nicas
Globe Correspondent / July 11, 2010

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On March 5, 1982, Victor Rosario watched flames consume a Lowell three-decker and its eight occupants. It would change his life: The fire led to his murder conviction.

It also saved him.

Friday night, inside the concrete walls of MCI-Norfolk, where he is serving a life sentence, Rosario was ordained a Baptist minister. By all accounts, he is one of the first Massachusetts inmates ever to be ordained while incarcerated.

“I believe that God has called me to prison ministry,’’ reads an essay Rosario, 52, wrote to present to the five-member ordination committee Friday. “I also believe that one day I will be a free man and able to minister both inside and outside these walls that currently confine me.’’

A reporter was denied access to the ceremony by the Department of Correction; Rosario’s wife and pastors from Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston recounted the service.

Dressed in black, Rosario bowed his head as pastors and his wife pressed hands to his shoulders and prayed. Inside, he remained W39653; outside, he became the Rev. Victor Rosario.

Two weeks ago, a Globe investigative report highlighted flaws in the prosecution of Rosario, findings that suggest he was wrongfully convicted. His legal team is expected to file a motion for a new trial this summer.

“It’s wonderful . . . he’s been able to overcome and experience his real calling in life — to help other people,’’ said the Rev. Denton Lotz, Tremont Temple pastor and former head of the Baptist World Alliance.

“I would hope he doesn’t have to stay [in prison] much longer. If he comes out, he would be useful at our church to minister to others who have experienced difficulties like his.’’

Before the fire, Rosario was lost, a 24-year-old alcoholic. But that March night — the cries for help, the bodies — changed him. He was shaken.

Hours later, Rosario went to a local minister, where he experienced an epiphany.

“When he was praying for me, I went down to the ground, and I felt this kind of peace in myself,’’ Rosario said in an April prison interview. “Like a Christian person, . . . you’re reborn, I felt that peace in me and I went back with the Bible thinking Sunday I would be in church.’’

But by Sunday, he was in jail.

After an overnight police interrogation, he signed, through an interpreter, a statement that said he firebombed the house.

He was convicted a year later, in 1983. Since then, Rosario has run marathons, mentored fellow prisoners, and married in prison, where he says he is physically incarcerated but mentally liberated from drugs and alcohol.

In a window to what could have been, Rosario’s best friend before the fire is now homeless in Lowell, an admitted alcoholic and drug abuser, while Rosario has become a religious leader in Massachusetts prisons.

“He’d lead Bible studies, he’d preach. And his message was very comforting, and loving, and honest,’’ said Tim Elderkin, 46, who served seven years at Norfolk with Rosario. “He promoted Jesus Christ, and he promoted love.’’

As a prison chaplain for more than two decades, David Abbott has met thousands of prisoners, but Rosario stands out.

“That guy, I’m telling you, I would trust him with my kids, my life,’’ said Abbott, 61, of Brockton, the Protestant chaplain at Norfolk from 1999 to 2009. “He was pretty much my right-hand man the whole time I was there.’’

In 1987, Rosario began taking English classes with a woman named Beverly Startz. The two connected through their faith. In 1992, Startz left the department and began visiting Rosario.

The next year, with her father’s permission, Rosario proposed. On August 17, 1993, Startz became Beverly Rosario at a ceremony, complete with flowers, a keyboard organist, and a three-tiered cake, inside Bay State Correctional Center.

“It’s a gift from God,’’ Rosario said of his marriage.

Together they run Remembering Those in Captivity Miniseries, a nonprofit aimed at reconnecting prisoners and families, and preparing inmates for reentry into society. Rosario is the president; Beverly, 58, the treasurer.

At the ordination Friday, Rosario read a nine-page essay he wrote on his path to God and his theological stance.

“Through a series of events, made worse because I could not speak any English, I found myself arrested and convicted,’’ the essay reads.

“All the time, I knew I had been born again, and although I didn’t understand what was happening to me, I knew that God was with me and would take care of me. My faith in God was and is unshakeable.’’

After a series of questions, the committee voted unanimously to approve Rosario for ordination. (His wife abstained on grounds of their marriage.)

The department had no record of any previous in-prison ordinations, and several pastors and prison chaplains interviewed could not recall such an event in Massachusetts.

At least one Massachusetts prisoner was ordained in the 1980s, through an out-of-state association, according to Globe coverage.

Beverly Rosario only speaks of “when’’ her husband will return home, not if. She has grand plans for their nonprofit organization, their marriage, and their faith.

“We’re looking to do big things. We’re looking to help establish churches, and halfway houses,’’ she said “The sky’s the limit because there’s such a huge need.

“I could see him starting a small fellowship, a church of his own.’’

Victor’s plans are simple.

“Doing what I love to do,’’ he said. “Preaching the Gospel.’’

Jack Nicas can be reached at jnicas@globe.com.

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