The Shepherd’s flock behind bars

How diocesan Catholics minister to inmates, former inmates

Barb Arland-Fye
St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville hosted a gathering July 22 of individuals from around the Diocese of Davenport who are involved in jail and prison ministry. Bishop Thomas Zinkula, pictured with the group, top row, requested the meeting to hear from the group and to encourage the exchange of ideas.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

CORALVILLE — Twenty Catholics who volunteer at Iowa correctional facilities or who mentor to adults released from these facilities gathered last month with Bishop Thomas Zinkula to talk about their ministry and to share ideas.

The bishop annually visits correctional facilities in the Diocese of Davenport and also county jails as his schedule permits. The July 22 meeting at St. Thomas More Parish with volunteers in jail and prison ministry provided an opportunity to learn the scope of their ministry and the needs that they witness.

“Bringing everyone together is valuable so that we can appreciate our response to the needs of those in and outside of correctional facilities,” said Kent Ferris, diocesan director of Social Action and Catholic Charities. “Those who are Catholic and incarcerated are part of our diocese, part of our flock.”

Volunteers at the diocesan meeting represented 40 or more individuals, clergy and laity, who minister to as many as 120 adults weekly or every other week at correctional facilities throughout the diocese. Among the facilities: Iowa State Penitentiary, Fort Madison; Newton Correctional Facility and Riverview Release Center, Newton; Iowa Medical and Classification Center, Coralville; Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility, Mount Pleasant; Muscatine County Jail, Muscatine; and Scott County Jail, Davenport.

Needs and challenges

Their ministry ranges from celebration of the Mass and Communion services to providing the sacrament of reconciliation to organizing Scripture study and prayer. Challenges include a transient population at some facilities, and a shortage of volunteers, priests and religious supplies. Also, staff at some correctional facilities are not supportive of Catholic ministry to inmates. One facility does not allow lay ministers, a deacon who ministers at the facility, said.

Father Joseph Phung, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Fort Madison and St. Joseph Parish in Montrose, ministers at Iowa State Penitentiary (ISP) in Fort Madison. Scheduling challenges occur at times because of the requirements entering and exiting the maximum security facility. He also identified a need for Spanish-speaking ministers. “None of us speaks Spanish,” he said of the 12 volunteers from the Keokuk Deanery who minister at ISP and Lee County Jail.

Similar needs for Spanish-speaking volunteers exist at some other facilities, volunteers said. They also need more training, volunteers, space for priests to provide the sacrament of reconciliation and copies of devotional materials. Also, prayer cards, retreats and prison/jail staff support.

Grateful inmates

Barry Buschelman of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville has been volunteering at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center for around 14 years and feels blessed to minister to the inmates. They pray the rosary, stations of the cross and sometimes reflect on the Sunday Gospel reading. Father Chuck Adam, the parish’s pastor, celebrates Mass once a month at the facility. Communion services are offered other weeks. The inmates say, “Thank you for coming,” Buschelman said. At the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility in Mount Pleasant, inmates are very appreciative of Father Paul Connolly’s offer to hear confessions, volunteer Ronald Trueblood of St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant said.
Jean Gunn of Holy Family Parish-Fort Madison, said inmates at ISP are always happy when the bishop comes to celebrate Mass. Volunteers at other correctional facilities spoke of inmates’ appreciation for the bishop’s visits in addition to their gratitude for the volunteers’ ministry. “They’re grateful the bishop is willing to travel and be with them,” Ferris said.

Circle of Support

Mary Knight, a nurse and member of St. Mary Parish in Solon, talked about the Circle of Support that she and fellow parishioners, Diane Wurzer and Deacon David Krob, have participated in. A Circle of Support commits to supporting offenders who have been released and meets with them on a regular basis to provide spiritual and moral support and resources to help them live a better life.

Over the past 10 years the Solon group has supported four individuals, Knight said, working through Iowa’s 6th Judicial District, which includes the Archdiocese of Dubuque. The archdiocese has well-established Circles of Support.

Knight pointed out that individuals participating in the Circle of Support often are struggling to overcome addictions, find employment, secure an apartment, make new friends and leave behind friends or family members who enabled their addiction. One of the women the Solon group supported was depressed and later died because of her dependence on alcohol.

The Solon group is not presently working with anyone, but might in the future — with a caveat. “I would have to work with the other people from our church. I’d have to have that kind of support. I need their encouragement to do this again,” Wurzer said in a later interview.
Inspired by faith

Gene LaFosse, a member of Holy Family Parish in Davenport, has volunteered for years at the Scott County Jail. He shares with inmates his story of falling away from the church for 32 years and how he’s been with God for almost 30 years. LaFosse developed a faith-based program, inspired by Galatians Chapter 5, to minister to Scott County Jail inmates. “They don’t want to hear that they’ll be rich or important (by turning to Christ). They want to know about peace and love.”

Bishop Zinkula thanked the volunteers for their ministry, which he described as a corporal work of mercy. “Pope Francis says to go to the peripheries; this is one of those peripheries.”

The bishop noted that staff at prisons and jails may need ministering as well as the inmates. He also encouraged the meeting’s participants to continue to talk, support each other and to share ideas.

He told The Catholic Messenger, “I am very impressed with the dedication of the priests and volunteers to this particular ministry. It isn’t for everyone. Many of them have been ministering for many years to people in jails and prisons. They are inspired by the faith of the inmates and they are uplifted by their gratitude.”

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