Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
February 1, 2009
Local Catholics take Christ's healing words behind bars
Prison ministry allows volunteers to bring everything from books to the Gospel to inmates
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Be mindful of prisoners as if sharing their imprisonment, and of the ill-treated as of yourselves, for you also are in the body" (Hebrews 13.3).
Some Catholics in the Edmonton Archdiocese take biblical passages like this seriously, so seriously that they spend a great part of their spare time in prison serving inmates.
Parishioners from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park and Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Fort Saskatchewan are among dozens of volunteers doing prison ministry at Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre, a multi-purpose, medium security facility.
The province is currently using the prison as an additional facility to house remand inmates while a new remand centre is being built.
The volunteers work side by side with Catholic chaplain Mary-Anne Miskolzie to bring Christ's love and forgiveness - as well as his Gospel - to the incarcerated, both male and female.
While some of these volunteers share God's Word with inmates or help them grieve, others bring warm clothing, money and books for them. Some come to play the piano or to sing. Others come during the day and pray the rosary with the prisoners. At Christmas, some volunteers bring goodie bags for the inmates and even carol for them.
"Volunteers form the backbone of chaplaincy, reminding all that whether incarcerated or not we are one in God's love," says Miskolzie, one of three chaplains at the institution. "Those who come to minister as volunteers under the leadership of the chaplain provide a mantle of unity of God's unconditional love - always compassionate and forgiving."
Five parishioners are currently involved in prison ministry at OLPH. Some have been involved for three or four years, others for more than a decade. At Our Lady of the Angels in Fort Saskatchewan about 15 parishioners are involved. One of them has been facilitating a course for 10 years. Volunteers from other denominations serve at the jail too.
Miskolzie clears every volunteer before they begin their ministry. She interviews them individually to see in what program they would be most suitable. Characteristics common to all volunteers are that they are compassionate and non-judgmental, Miskolzie pointed out.
"We try to help and support (chaplain) Mary-Anne in her ministry," Denis Beaudry, who leads the OLPH prison ministry group, said in a recent interview. "We are at her disposal."
None of the parishioners have formal training in prison ministry, although all are well versed in Scripture and have experience with small groups. Some OLPH volunteers have been participating in small Christian communities for almost two decades.
Parishioners visit the prison once or twice a week on a rotating basis. "One of the main things we do is Scripture sharing with the inmates," notes Beaudry, who has been involved for four years.
CELEBRATING THE WORD
They use a program called Celebrating the Word, which was originally developed for small Christian communities. The program contains the readings for the following Sunday Mass as well as activities and questions related to the readings.
Beaudry, a retired teacher, says the idea is to help inmates meet the Lord. "We want them to discover a personal relationship with Christ if they don't have one already and we want to help them in any way we can."
About 15 inmates sign up for Celebrating the Word each time it is offered.
Ron MacDonald, who became involved in prison ministry at OLPH soon after he moved from Fort McMurray in 2005, helps to facilitate the program at the Fort jail. "I go on Mondays with Denis (Beaudry) to share the word there," he points out.
MacDonald views the ministry as an opportunity to share his knowledge of the Scriptures and to bring God's love to the inmates, most of whom, after hearing the word, soften their hearts and start to receive God's healing and transforming grace.
"We get a lot of satisfaction," he says. "When they leave, we sort of stand there and shake their hand and they usually say 'thank you very much' and you can tell they got something out of it."
Of about 450 inmates currently at the Fort jail, close to 300 are Remand Centre inmates likely waiting for court appearance. The rest are inmates serving sentences of less than two years
LEAVE ON A HIGH
Dan Bingham, a retired CBC employee, and his wife Ann have been doing prison ministry at Fort Saskatchewan for 12 years. They deliver the program on Tuesdays. "Most evenings we leave on a good high," he explains. "We are delivering God's Word and I hope we are showing God's love and evangelizing."
"We go there because we accept them where they are at," adds Ann Bingham. "It doesn't matter what they've done or what I've done in my life. We are equals in that room. The room is sacred and I remind them that it's sacred because they made the choice to come."
Most inmates share their stories, even though volunteers don't ask for them.
"When you follow this program, the questions lead them to speak about their own stories," continues Ann. "We end up praying with them. So they bring to the circle their prayers, their concerns for their children, for their elders and their grandparents and people that have died. And we are privileged to hear that."
But Ann is adamant she doesn't go to the prison to convert the inmates.
"I'm not there to make them a Catholic," she said. "I don't know about anybody else. I'm there to bring the word of God. I'm there to remind them that God loves them."
MacDonald agrees. "If the inmates get the message that God loves them, that they are not forgotten, then we have achieved something," he says.
"The Holy Spirit is there and is really apparent when we are there praying together," points out Dennis Nash, a member of St. John Bosco Parish who participates in prison ministry through OLPH, his former parish. "There are tears of joy, all different feelings that come out and I think there is a feeling of self-discovery that these people get."
Eileen Loeffelmann is one of about 15 members of Our Lady of the Angels Parish doing regular volunteer ministry at the Fort prison. "I think one thing that we try to do is journey, walk together with them," she says. "And we learn from them as they learn from us."
Loeffelmann and some members of her group go into the prison's chapel each Monday evening to facilitate a nine-week program called Free to Be Me, which was developed in the 1960s by Father John Powell.
The program, ideal for small faith communities, leads participants to reflect on how they see themselves, others and God, explains Loeffelmann. She offers the program three times a year and usually starts the program with about 20 inmates.
INMATES GIVE BACK
"In part, my involvement is selfish because I get a lot in return," she says. "I do it for the love of God. They help me to grow in faith and knowledge and understanding. They help me get another perspective."
The other thing volunteers from Our Lady of the Angels do is offer grieving services for inmates experiencing grief due to death. They run the services at the prison chapel four times a year or whenever needed.
"A big part of a grieving service is listening," Loeffelmann said. Inmates often experience guilt because they can't be present when someone close to them is dying or has died. "The service gives them an opportunity to come together and to talk about that."
Either a priest from Our Lady of the Angels or the jail's chaplain performs the Saturday morning services. "When everybody is away, the lay volunteers would lead the liturgy," notes Loeffelmann.
Miskolzie appreciates the presence of the volunteers at the prison, saying their work "contributes a sense of self-worth" to the inmates.
"Some lives are transformed by what they do and at least it gives the inmates a new sense of who they are in God's love."
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