Prison volunteers provide powerful witness to God’s mercy

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Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted greets female inmates at Easter Mass with women at Perryviille State Prison Complex following an Easter Mass March 27. Men and women in prison often write to churches hoping someone will respond and relish religious-based visits with volunteers. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted greets female inmates at Easter Mass with women at Perryviille State Prison Complex following an Easter Mass March 27. Men and women in prison often write to churches hoping someone will respond and relish religious-based visits with volunteers. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)
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An array of emotions swirls behind the barbed wire, steel bars and cold concrete walls that surround jails and prisons across Arizona.

Anger and shame likely top the list. A degree of fear follows each new inmate as they begin the booking process. In a place where one door must fully close — or slam with an echo — before another can open, embarrassment manages to creep in.

Amid all of that, sincere remorse, equal to that found in the confessional, remains within reach. So does a degree of hope and joy, brought in largely by prison visitors, especially those who come on a faith-filled mission.

Roughly 100 volunteers across the Diocese of Phoenix support the diocesan prison ministry out in the field. Three of them have earned awards from the prison for their volunteer work in recent years including one last month. They lead Bible studies and Liturgy of the Word services with Eucharist. Others agree to regular one-on-one visits with an inmate, support outreach or offer mentoring upon release.

Jean Quarelli began volunteering with prison ministry almost five years ago. She found herself regularly passing by Lewis Prison in Buckeye en route to San Diego.

“The prison just kind of called to me,” Quarelli said.

Now, she carries out what could be one of the more challenging corporal works of mercy — visit the prisoner — twice a week. Quarelli was a nervous and silent observer during her first visit and noted an unexpected aura.

Jean Quarelli attended Easter Mass with women at Perryviille State Prison Complex and regularly volunteers with the female inmates. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)

“I just remember the ladies and how happy they were,” Quarelli said.

She’s now the volunteer coordinator for 30-some Catholic volunteers at Perryville prison in Goodyear. The female inmates continue to exude gratitude for anything the volunteers do for them.

Several ladies have gone through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and completed their sacraments of initiation into the Church while behind bars. When women and men are ready for the sacrament of Reconciliation, it’s most often Msgr. Tony Sotelo who hears their confession. He heard 96 of them during March alone in five Maricopa County jails. Numbers for four other state-run prisons within diocesan boundaries weren’t tracked.

“We love to hear the stories of every act of mercy, no matter how big or how small, because each one has changed the life of an individual or a family,” said Carrie Aranda, director of the diocesan Charity and Development Appeal.

The generosity of every CDA donor helps fund vital outreach to thousands in need, including in local prisons and jails. CDA funds make retreats a reality for Catholics living in a cell that’s half the size of a parking space. About 50 Catholic teenagers confined to the Juvenile Youth Center attend an all-day retreat each June.

Dcn. Chuck Shaw holds up a crucifix during an Easter Mass with women at Perryviille State Prison Complex March 27. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)

“When it’s time to leave, they weep,” said Kevin Starrs, director of prison ministry for the diocese.

His office’s outreach extends to youth with a parent in prison and to wives who have a husband in prison. Starrs’ own wife, Silvia, heads the latter program, providing a powerful presence.

“They’re like the forgotten people. They’re trying to hold it down,” Starrs said.

Prayer for mothers of prisoners (page 42)

He said there’s often a lot of hurt and hidden anger. Connecting with each other and with their faith helps. Some of the women in Silvia’s group have gone on to attend a retreat, Cursillo or the diocesan women’s conference. Former prisoners and their wives get their own retreat each spring.

Prison ministry support also comes from parishes such as St. Timothy in Mesa and St. Patrick in Scottsdale who have provided Bibles and other religious items. Starrs sees his role as empowering parishes to be a bridge to those living behind bars and their families. He regularly receives calls requesting that the Church visit their relative in jail.

“You’re not going to change or fix it,” Starrs said of the imprisonment, but that follow through from the Church is key. “You can just hear in their voice they’re real appreciative.”

Female inmates pray the Our Father during an Easter Mass at Perryviille State Prison Complex March 27. Some women local Catholic volunteers have worked with have gone on to complete their sacraments while behind bars. Wives of inmates have gone on healing retreats thanks to efforts of the diocesan Prison Ministry. (Tony Gutierrez/CATHOLIC SUN)
Female inmates pray the Our Father during an Easter Mass at Perryviille State Prison Complex March 27. Some women local Catholic volunteers have worked with have gone on to complete their sacraments while behind bars. Wives of inmates have gone on healing retreats thanks to efforts of the diocesan Prison Ministry. (Tony Gutiérrez/CATHOLIC SUN)

Dcn. Paul Hursh knows that all too well. He approached his first prison visit out of obedience during formation for the diaconate. It was tough to get on the schedule to distribute Communion at his parish at the time, but slots were wide open at the jail.

The would-be deacon was pro-death penalty at the time. As Divine Providence would have it, letters inmates blindly wrote to churches hoping someone would respond ended up in his mailbox at the church. The deacon has since corresponded with and met three death row inmates.

He knew about their crimes and convictions — they’re public record — and learned an eternal lesson from the men. In a very real and very raw way, Dcn. Hursh said the men taught him there’s no greater sin than God’s grace.

“God loves us so we can be good. Most of those people down there have never been loved,” Dcn. Hursh said.

“It’s only after someone has received love that we can give love,” he said. “Empowered by God’s love, nothing can stop us, not even the darkest place in our state.”

More stories behind bars

Global Sisters Report: Working to change mass incarceration

‘Throwaway people’ and the sisters who care for them

Dignity after jail

Praying for prisoners

Archived Catholic Sun stories

Religious services within the Arizona Department of Corrections

Student documentary on America’s criminal justice system

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