For nearly two decades, Deacon Peter Murphy has prayed, counseled, consoled and rejoiced with the men and women he has encountered in his parish of prison fences.
As the director of Catholic ministries to prisons and jails, the work of the Church is ever present in the lives of the faithful, especially those living on the margins of life or in institutions.
It has been a unique and wonderful opportunity for Deacon Murphy to share the hopeful Gospel message of Jesus, to study Scripture and engage in personal conversations.
Although his ministry has grown by leaps and bounds with the unprecedented number of women entering the prison system, it’s tough to get volunteers.
“People don’t want to go in the prison,” Deacon Murphy said. “We’ve tried to recruit at ministry fairs, but it doesn’t work. It either speaks to their heart, or it doesn’t.”
It’s a difficult ministry in that it’s constantly subjected to personnel changes within the jail and prison system. The rapport previously established in one institution may not hold water with the new employees, forcing Deacon Murphy and his volunteers to start from scratch.
Primarily, his office provides Liturgy of the Word with Eucharist to as many facilities as possible — broken down, that would be to male and females, in English and Spanish, and in minimum, medium and maximum security locations.
“Multiply one facility by 15 times,” Deacon Murphy said. “We try to provide as many services as we possibly can.”
The one mainstay that gives constant support is funding through the annual diocesan Charity and Development Appeal, which last year provided the ministry with a working budget of $214,520.
“There would be no office without CDA,” Murphy said. “Everything we do comes from CDA.”
Both Deacon Murphy and Kevin Starrs, diocesan ministry coordinator for incarcerated youth and young adult outreach, make their dollars stretch.
Both expressed gratitude to parishioners who donated to the annual CDA appeal, which supports more than 70 community and charitable organizations that assist individuals and families in need or in crisis.
Starrs, who began his work in prison ministry in 1994, has witnessed the young children he mentored grow into adulthood and become parents of their own.
Success in this ministry is measured by the ongoing relationships Starrs has formed on the streets of 7th Avenue and Buckeye Road.
“They are all adults now, but we still help them get jobs,” Starrs said. “We are still very involved in their lives, and get them mentors.”
He said the reward of the ministry is the example Jesus gave His apostles on Holy Thursday when He washed Peter’s feet: love and service to others.
“It’s walking with them through the good and bad,” Starrs said. “It’s leaving and then being reunited, it’s reconciliation and friendship. It’s the human part of our lives.”
His wife, Silvia, helps facilitate a group of prisoners’ wives.
“Ninety percent of the people locked up are men. It’s a male-dominated ministry, but we try to support the females left behind,” Starrs said.
In addition to running summer camps and Bible studies and passing out Bibles and facilitating trainings and classes, Deacon Murphy said he wants to help fund a new ministry out of St. John Vianney Parish in Goodyear.
The reintegration program assists newly released inmates by helping them reestablish their identity, secure housing, and land jobs, among other things.
“We would love to be able to purchase a house where these newly released inmates could stay,” Deacon Murphy said. “It’s big time, but that’s the dream.”