Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 15, 1999
Prison to the priesthood
Allan Ammerlaan always wanted to be a priest, but he's taking an unusual route to get there
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
Allan Ammerlaan's mother recalls his desire to be a priest in early childhood.
"She tells this story about when we used to play house as kids," he chuckles. "I would always be the priest and have all the other kids lined up for Confession."
It should be no great surprise, then, to discover Ammerlaan is today studying for the priesthood. He's in his pre-novitiate with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, studying at Newman Theological College and in residence at Annunciation Parish in west Edmonton.
But his journey has been anything but predictable.
Born in Vancouver, Ammerlaan was raised in a Catholic family. Although he never lost his belief in God, he "put God in the back seat" during his adolescence. His life turned to alcohol, drugs and crime. He was in prison by the time he was 20 and spent eight of the next 10 years there.
Eleven years later, after successfully establishing three homes to help those released from prison get their lives on track, he felt something inside him telling him he had to go further.
"I was happy, I was content, I was already doing God's work and pushing my limits," he says. "But it wasn't enough. This voice inside me kept growing, and it was something I couldn't let go."
Now, he says, the voice inside him is relaxed. "Instead of saying 'You have to do this,' it's saying 'Hey, you're doing it.'
"I ask God all the time 'How did you get me here? Where are we going? But I've learned that God calls you from everywhere and it's a beautiful thing."
In fact, God called Ammerlaan from his prison cell. He began spending time with the prison chaplain and was put in charge of cleaning the chapel, which gave him the opportunity for reflection and prayer.
But it was at Sunday Mass that his conversion became real.
"I was watching the priest hold up the host and say 'This is my body.' You know, you hear that so many times, and you kneel, and it's just part of what you do at Mass. But this time, I looked up, and it was real. The Mass is real to me now."
After his release from prison in 1987, Ammerlaan worked as a cab driver and put into action his plan to help those being released from prison make a successful re-entry into society.
After knocking on a lot of doors and writing a lot of letters, the first Luke 15 house opened in November 1992 in Burnaby. A second house opened six months later, and a third in August 1995.
The project takes its name from Luke 15:7 - "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance."
The success of Luke 15 made it difficult for Ammerlaan to respond to the voice inside him, calling him to leave the project and move on.
Although he knew his call to the priesthood was real, it took a lot of talking to friends and colleagues and spiritual guidance before he made the decision to step down as executive director of Luke 15 in July 1998.
"In the end, it was a decision to 'let go and let God,'" he says. "You have to know that God will let you know when it is a real call. And you have to believe that if it is a real call, it is a call to goodness and it will make you happy because it is of God."
Although his studies and pastoral work keep him busy, Ammerlaan says he is still in close contact with 10 of the inmates he used to visit while in Vancouver. He also visits the Edmonton Remand Centre weekly and the federal prison once a month.
"There are three things I want to let people on the inside know: that there is hope if you trust in God; that through God, we can all change; and that although change happens through God, we all need the help and support of others.
"These people need someone to listen to them," he says, adding that "we all have a call to visit the imprisoned."
His ministry to the imprisoned is something he plans to continue. His dream is to establish a farm for what he calls the "lost group," those 18 to 25 who need somewhere to go on their release.
But how he gets there is in God's hands.
"I've asked God many times: 'Why couldn't you leave me alone?' I could have ignored the call, and stayed where I was, but then I would always have that nagging feeling inside me. It would have ached.
"It's the same with everything in life," he says with a smile. "No matter what you are called to be, if you follow, you will be blessed."