Teresa Kelendonk, associate director of pastoral care for the Edmonton Archdiocese, spoke of her work in prison ministry Feb. 16.


Teresa Kelendonk, associate director of pastoral care for the Edmonton Archdiocese, spoke of her work in prison ministry Feb. 16.

February 27, 2012
Following is the witness presentation that Teresa Kellendonk gave at the Feb. 16 session of Nothing More Beautiful at St. Joseph's Basilica.

When Archbishop Smith asked me to consider speaking for Nothing More Beautiful, I was speechless. Now, anyone who knows me knows this doesn't happen often – yet, like many of the witness speakers before me, I asked myself: Why? Why me? I am like so many of you, an ordinary person.

Yet, as I used to say to the inmates that I served as the RC chaplain at Edmonton Max – everyone has a story.

I was born in Toronto, and for most of my single life grew up in Ontario. There are seven girls and two boys in my family. I am the second eldest. My husband, George (who provides me unconditional love) and four of my sisters (Chris, Deb, Darlene and Diana) are here with me tonight.

Growing up in such a large family wasn't always easy. In fact some days were very difficult; feelings of aloneness, loneliness, rejection and fear lived with me. There were some family members who in my childhood grounded me with love and support. I never felt alone. I used to talk to God as a child and ask for help.

I knew I was never alone – the presence of God was always with me – however, at the time I didn't know how to articulate this feeling.

In my adult years as a new mom, there was Eva, my neighbour who showed me what unconditional love was. She was kindness, gentleness and pure love. She was a warm and gentle embrace, much like I used to experience in childhood (on those dark days) from God, who I knew and understood to be loving, kind, gentle and very patient.

As I grew up, maturing into an adult, not knowing what I wanted to do or where life would lead me, I knew one thing for sure: God was there and would be there, in my journey of life.

Now, having received for most of my childhood a Catholic education, I learned about God's love – we all did – but maturity brought me something different. I wanted and needed a continued relationship with God and to know the person of Jesus.


I used to tell the men in the prison, Jesus is the greatest model and mentor of what it means to live our humanity. When we read and hear the Gospel stories, we learn how to live as Jesus taught us.

There were times when I was angry with God. My husband used to tell me, "Teresa, you can't get angry with God," and I would say, "Of course I can. God is my friend. Who better to share my emotions with than with God, the good and the bad?"

This was especially true when after years trying to have a biological child, and many surgeries later, my surgeon gave me some very sad news, that this dream would not happen for us. I remember him telling me at a previous appointment as he was looking from me to our son (who was gifted to us through adoption at birth, and age three at the time), "You know, Teresa, you couldn't have made a child any more perfect than what you have right here, with Paul."

I was not happy knowing that becoming a mother for a second, third or more times was never going to be. I also knew that our son's presence in our life was a gift then, and it remains a gift to this day. He is our joy, our blessing.


Alone, in that hospital room, I asked God to help. Reflecting on the words of the surgeon, I knew Jesus was in the room with me. Like the Footprints poem, Jesus journeyed with me in my grief, gently holding me and my husband so we could process the news.

This evening's topic, the Wonder of the Sacraments, gave me a lot to think about in preparing for my witness talk. It also gave me a lot to think about in my faith journey. We are a sacramental Church, and the sacraments are about relationships.

My sacramental journey, like many of yours, began with my parents and the sacrament of Baptism in infancy. It moved forward at age seven to my First Communion, Confirmation, then Marriage.


If I trust in God's love, I know that the commitment made to me in the sacraments is just that: a relationship of commitment, not just between God and me but with this universal Church, a Church made up of all kinds of people.

We will not and do not always agree, and like my own family, there will be times that we will agree to disagree.

My formal training in ministry began after university at St. Patrick's Parish in Niagara Falls with (the now deceased) Father Benedict Hogan O'Carm, or as we all called him, "Gentle Ben."

Never in a million years did I think I would work in the Church, so when Father Ben asked me to take on the role of pastoral assistant, I thought he was kidding. I mean, me?

So we had a deal. We agreed that if I was terrible in the role, he was to call me into his office and let me go, no hard feelings. I trusted Father Ben.


Father Ben gave me a nugget of sage advice. He told me, "Teresa, one thing I want you to remember, don't ever be so rigid you can't do ministry, because ministry is about relationships." Those words have guided me in all of my ministerial roles, from the parish to hospital chaplaincy, prison chaplaincy, and now as the associate director of pastoral care.

To my surprise, I loved parish ministry. I loved engaging with the children, teaching sacramental prep, going to our schools, working with our families and engaging the greater community in our mission. It was all great.

I would like to share with you a story from my ministry about two altar servers at St. Pat's Parish.

At St. Patrick's we had a lot of students sign up for this ministry. We also had a recessional cross that was very heavy. The kids designated for themselves the role of senior altar server and junior altar server.

One day in the back of the church where the altar servers would vest, one of the junior servers and a senior server were fighting. Imagine, before Mass! I overheard the junior server saying, "Ya, well when I tell Mrs. K what you did, she's firing you," and "I am big enough to carry the cross, you're not the boss."

I couldn't wait to hear this story. I poked my head in the door and asked what I should be firing him for. Just then Father Ben came back, the conversation dropped, and they were ready to process in.

After Mass I took the boys aside and asked them what the problem was. The younger one said, "He got caught stealing from the little store across from St. Pat's." Of course, cries of denial happened, yet I looked into (I'll call him Danny) Danny's eyes and knew there was a story. I told the junior server that I needed to speak to Danny alone. He left.


Danny's parents didn't usually come to Mass, but Danny was faithful serving at the 9 a.m. Mass every Sunday and usually served at the school Masses for his school. I asked him if this was true, and he denied it again.

Then when I said, "You know, Danny, being an altar server is a position of trust. Can I trust you to teach and model for the junior severs what this means?" He looked down at his feet and said, "Ya, okay, I got caught stealing a chocolate bar. It was just a chocolate bar."

We talked some more and finally he asked what was I going to do with him. "Well, I think you need to make it right, you know, make amends to the owner." He didn't quite understand, so I asked him if he was okay going to the owner to apologize and pay for the chocolate bar.

I told him I would go with him, give him the money to pay for the chocolate bar and that he would have to do a good deed to the church to pay his debt. We went over; he apologized and worked off his debt with me, cleaning up the garbage around the church.

Never be so rigid we can't do ministry. Danny had some issues at home, but I just loved his sense of self. He was a good kid, loved being in the church and loved being a senior altar server (he kept the role).

When Christ was asked by his disciples, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" he said to them, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And the second is, you shall love your neighbour as yourself."


These words represent for me the foundation of our sacramental theology – Love. In each one is expressed the love shared through the divine relationship between the Trinity. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit and humanity. It's all about love, God's love for God's people, God's love for me and God's love for you. Food for the soul.

Love one another. It sounds easy but it will be one of the hardest things we can do. Jesus did not instruct us to judge one another, he asked us to love one another.

Some of you have heard me say, "I tried to take the chaplain out of Teresa until one day I realized that's who I am. I am a chaplain. I have always had a pastoral side to me."

My experience in the sacramental life of the Church was wonderful, both as a receiver and also as one who taught sacramental prep.

It is important for those us who do this work to ask the people we serve: What do you know, what do you need, and how do you experience Church? I need to remember, as I am part of the Body of Christ so were they, so are you. I am part of the living Church, which means I bring and share the friendship and the acceptance that Christ has for me, to all those I encounter.

Perhaps the most profound experience was my six years as a prison chaplain at Edmonton Institution, a maximum security prison. It was in that harsh, cruel, violent, joyful, humorous environment where I experienced the holy in a tangible, grounded way.


When I applied for the position of RC chaplain at Edmonton Institution, Archbishop Collins supported my application; he gave me the mandate from the archdiocese to forward my application to Corrections Canada. He asked me, was I nervous? I wasn't.

I knew I was being drawn, called, to prison ministry, and it was there while studying for my M.Div. at Newman Theological College. I kept ignoring that call.

Again, I couldn't imagine working in a prison, yet all throughout those studies and my residency in clinical pastoral education in the hospital, the call to prison ministry got stronger.

I remember saying to my supervisor, "Margaret, I have this call to prison ministry." She suggested I research what prison ministry could present to me, so I did my research.

One day I found an article on the Theology of Prison Ministry, by Stephen T. Hall. It was as if he had been inside my head; his description of the theology of prison ministry resonated with me to the core of my being. I knew that was where I wanted to be. In prison! After a lengthy process I was the new candidate for Edmonton Institution.

My first day, walking in the main gate, I was happy. No one told me of the procedures when entering an institution. I needed to show my photo ID (I did not know that). I walked to the principal entrance (where I was told to go), and introduced myself. "Hi, I'm Teresa, the new chaplain."


Well, for those of you who know about entering prison, if you don't show your ID, you don't get in. The officer at the gate (behind a big wall of glass) kind of yelled, "Ya? Well, where's your ID?"

I responded, "It's in my car." "Well, go get it."

I turned, walked out, and walking to my car I thought to myself, "Yikes, he's cranky."

Well, excitement and nerves being what they are, this introduction to the institution didn't bother me, for as soon as I was processed and gone through the metal detector and introduced to the other chaplain (he came to walk me in), I knew I was exactly where I needed to be, where I was meant to be.

I felt this incredible peace and presence of God and almost shouted, "Yes, God, this is what I've been waiting for, thank you!" I never felt afraid as each gate behind closed and locked. I never felt fear or apprehension, only a sense of living ministry in a heart way. The presence of Christ, walking with the outcast, the marginalized, was there. What a feeling on a first day!

I moved from a mindset of doing ministry to an experience of living ministry – being, not doing. Prison ministry was and is not about doing – no ministry is – it is about being, being a presence, being the person to extend the opportunity, a container of transformation in a non-judgmental manner. I brought to the institution a presence of joy, a sense of the holy.

I knew in the core of my being that Christ's gift to me was his ability to enable me to see the humanity of each man that sat before me, not their crime, but the person. The human being, not a human doing.

I heard their stories without judgment, and as they told their stories, I as a chaplain also brought into their world the knowledge of restorative justice. How could they, who perpetrated crime, be open to restorative justice?

As a chaplain I never forgot the inmate and victim have a relationship – the relationship of the criminal act. I could not undo the hurt and heartache caused by the criminal behaviour; however, I could introduce the inmate to a new way of being. As we read in Matthew 25.35-40:

"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."

Those first few weeks were look, see and judge – the chaplain was being tested. The inmates were used to having a male chaplain, or a woman religious, but not one who was married, and I wasn't old.

So they questioned, Who was she? How tough is she? How scared is she and, more importantly, does she know what this is about, this place, and does she know what she is doing?


The first test was phone calls. What I mean is, when an inmate wants something, they ask for easy things, you know, a phone call, a pen (good ink for tattooing). Not knowing the rules, I said no for the first request, no to the second request, and at the third request a particular inmate said to me, "C'mon Chaplain Teresa, you're supposed to be nice!"

Well, I am nice, but the men soon learned, I said no, a lot. I wasn't going to be the easy yes. I gave a lot of maybes – that bought me time when I needed to delay or think about my response. Saying no is critical, not just in prison but in life.

One day I was walking to a unit the warden was close by, and he asked me what I was mumbling. I told him, before I go to a unit, I pray, "Dear God, please do not let me harm anyone with my words and actions, and allow me to see the face of Christ in all of those I meet."

His response to me: "O Lord, you don't really pray that?" "Yes," I said, "I do."

I believe, as we read in Genesis, "God created humankind in God's own image." That means that God created all of us, including the inmate.

Think about it. It applies to each human being, those we care for and those we don't. I would often hear my son and his friends say, "Oh, he/she is such a loser." I was quick to respond with, "No they're not, not in their mother's eyes and not in God's either." They would roll their eyes at my comment, but I believe this.

As Christians, Scripture calls us to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to bring the relational Jesus to each other. I was that symbol to the men. God with skin on. Christ came to us in his humanity to teach and model for us how to be present in a prison, and I as a chaplain brought God alive.

I wanted the men to know the relational God that I knew. What do I mean by this, that it is the living gospel, with skin on? It is a gospel of laughter, of silent tears, of challenges, of joy, sadness and of acceptance.

As Jesus instructed his disciples to go out two by two, I did not do this work alone. I was supported by many including the archbishop, and the staff at the Pastoral Centre.

I met regularly with Father Greg when I needed support. Sometimes debriefing needed to happen, especially when an incident or combination of incidents were so tough that I needed to unpack the experience before re-engaging in my ministry. Without support I could not do my ministry.


We celebrate the sacraments in prison. Have you ever experienced sacraments of initiation in prison? Well, I have and it's amazing. The sacredness of space, the chapel, our baptismal pool, surrounded by the men who are supporting the elect, along with family members and volunteers from this community created an atmosphere of awe. That's the wonder and beauty of the sacraments lived in a tangible, unexpected, non-traditional environment.

The men embraced the living sacraments. The sacraments brought joy, peace, renewal and the promise of grace and mercy to an environment of violence and harsh realities. Through those sacramental actions of initiation each man was transformed into a member of the living Body of Christ, just as you are and just as I am. We are all Church.

Sacred space in an institution is the chapel, and it was important to me that the men respected that space. As I told them, we are all like Moses when we enter this space; we are standing on holy ground.


We celebrated Mass once a month. Each week, on Monday evening I had three Liturgy of the Word services. The men were always invited to participate. They were the lectors; as I shared a reflection, so did they.

Keep in mind we only had about 45 to 50 minutes before they would be returned to their unit and until the next unit came. Sometimes there could be 15 men in the chapel, some weeks less and occasionally, only one man would come to chapel.

I would often hear him say, "I guess you want me to go back, it's only me." "Oh no," I would say, "we can talk, pray, share. Our Lord is present." Sometimes those evenings were the most profound. The sharing and getting to know the person behind the mask and label of "inmate" were amazing. Those were experiences of living sacrament and living Church.

A question often asked of me by the men was, "Teresa, did you always know God?" and I would always answer yes. As I shared earlier, I always felt the presence of God in my life, especially when life was particularly difficult.


I would comment that I always knew God was with me; however, there were moments when I was angry with God, and would often say, "Hi God, you and I need to talk." I still find this form of prayer the best, my conversations with God, being real and honest.

God is relational, and my feeling of God's love is always present, giving me that sense of security which is life's only guarantee, that God is love and I am love.

It is the love that I experience in sacrament. God is sacrament to us so we can be sacrament to each other. God's love is real and authentic and authenticity is so very important, especially in prison.

I knew that if I was going to talk the Gospel talk, I'd better walk the Gospel walk. What does that mean? Being real is being able to sit and hear the men challenge me about what I believe Church to be. What it means to be Catholic amidst the scandals that we all face as Church, and not getting angry hearing their challenge.

Being real is being who I am, who you see standing in front of you tonight, a woman who is grounded in faith, fed by the living sacraments offered by our relational God through our relational Church.


My life has been a tapestry woven together by moments of grace gifted to me by my family, friends, teachers and colleagues in ministry. I see many of you sitting here tonight, and for those who are not here with me, especially Trudy, please know you all hold a special place in my heart.

Scripture calls us to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

Scripture calls us to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

If I can leave you with a visual of what I mean when God is present in the prison, allow me to share what happened with myself and the men in our Holy Thursday services. When we read about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples and you prepare in the parish to do that action, I also prepared the men for a ritual of hand-washing.

Imagine in front of me here, is a round table with a small bowl, a pitcher filled with water and several small fingertip towels. The table also holds a candle and a small cross. The men read from the Lectionary, and I would read the Gospel and we heard the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.

I asked the men if they were comfortable with me washing their hands. They said yes, not really knowing what to expect.

With soft instrumental music playing in the background, I move to the first man. Water is poured over his hands, he dries his hands, and I move to each man and repeat the ritual until the last man is served. Other than the music, the chapel is silent.


As I got to the last man, the first asked, almost in a whisper, "Teresa, who will wash your hands?" I asked him if he would. He looks at me and nods yes, but we needed help. Someone has to hold the bowl, so the man beside him takes the bowl and hands me the towel.

This is done several times as each man wants to be a part of this ritual. Not the norm, but this is prison.

When this ritual is complete, in silence I put the bowl, water pitcher and towel on the table, sit in my chair and allow the silence to be. It is then I hear a whoogh! . . . I look at the men, some have tears streaming down their cheeks, and I ask, "Oh, are you okay?"


The response: "Teresa, that was real, I mean, I've never felt that before, that was like, well, like we're human." They are human! As human as I am, as human as you are.

Father Gregory Boyle in his book Tattoos on the Heart shares a story from his colleague, Jesuit Father Leon Dufour.

As he was nearing the end of his life, he said, "I have written so many books on God, but after all that, what do I really know? I think in the end, God is the person you're talking to, the one right in front of you" (p. 158).

With integrity, dignity and respect, we can be transformed and transform.

You, me, all of us here tonight are sacrament to each other, invited by our relational God in our relational Church.