Prison Ministry volunteers find mercy behind bars

Prison Ministry volunteers find mercy behind bars
Prison ministry volunteers from the Church of St. Andrew the Apostle in Gibbsboro wash the hands of an inmate during a Holy Thursday Mass in 2015. With her back turned is volunteer Chris Parry, facing the inmate is volunteer Catherine Rossignol. Photo by Joanna Gardner

Prison ministry volunteers from the Church of St. Andrew the Apostle in Gibbsboro wash the hands of an inmate during a Holy Thursday Mass in 2015. With her back turned is volunteer Chris Parry, facing the inmate is volunteer Catherine Rossignol.
Photo by Joanna Gardner

Deacon Jim Hallman often tells a story in his homilies about the moment he knew he had found a calling in prison ministry.

He was in Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, one of the five correctional institutions located in Cumberland County, leading a Communion service for some of the inmates. He had noticed that every week one particular man always sat in the back of the room. When it came time for Communion, this man never received. But this particular day, a priest was hearing confessions during the service, and he was first in line.

“When he came out he was a different person. You could see the tears in his eyes,” Deacon Hallman said. When the time came, the man came up and received Communion. He then went back to his usual seat in the last row and started to cry.

“And when he cried he just said, ‘Lord, stay with me,’” Deacon Hallman said, tears in his own eyes at the memory. “All the prisoners who were there bowed their heads. And I said to myself, ‘Thank God I’m here.’ I’m feeding them, but they’re feeding me.”

Sister Mary Lou Lafferty, OSF, has been the Prison Ministry Coordinator for the Diocese of Camden through Catholic Charities for the last three years. She oversees all prison ministry volunteers and provides them with support and resources, while helping to recruit and place new volunteers.

Currently, 105 volunteers serve in eight of the nine correctional institutions located within the Diocese of Camden. They are priests, deacons and women religious, but the vast majority are laypeople, some 70 percent. They lead Bible studies and Communion services, administer sacraments and provide religious education.

“The volunteers are so self-giving,” Sister Lafferty said. “Once they have the experience they tell me they’re receiving more than they’re giving. It’s the gratitude of the men and women they’re serving, who realize that these volunteers do not look down on them. They see the face of Christ in the people that they serve, and likewise I think the prisoners see the face of Christ in these volunteers.”

One of Sister Lafferty’s services to prison ministry volunteers is providing an annual retreat day and gathering for current volunteers and those interested in the ministry to share experiences and reflections. This year’s annual gathering will take place on Saturday, June 4, in Vineland.

Guest speakers will include Father David Link, a prison ministry chaplain from the Diocese of Gary, Ind., who is also a lawyer. Other speakers include formerly incarcerated men and women who will share their stories of receiving prison ministry services while they were behind bars.

“All are welcome at the gathering,” Sister Lafferty said. “Those who are volunteers; those who are thinking about becoming volunteers; even those who are not interested in volunteering themselves but want to learn more about how these ministers are living out the corporal work of mercy, ‘Visit the Imprisoned,’ during this special Jubilee year.”

Ann Smith and Michelle Budd sit outside the Camden County jail on a Thursday night, preparing for their reflection group with the jail’s female inmates. The two women have been coming to the jail once a week for three years. Their ministry is housed at Sacred Heart Church in Camden, which has an active men’s prison ministry during the day. Smith and Budd would like to see the women’s ministry at the parish grow.

“It’s really a ministry, a calling,” Smith said. “People say you’re crazy, but for me it fit. It has strengthened my personal walk with my God.”

Both Smith and Budd come from teaching backgrounds and Smith has training in the 12-steps method employed by Alcoholics Anonymous, a technique she weaves into all of their lessons. Smith says that most of the women she sees in the jail suffer from addictions.

Budd had volunteered in prisons before she joined Smith in the ministry to the Camden jail and said the experience surprised her. “It struck me how like me [the prisoners] were. There but for the grace of God. That really eliminated any fear I might have had about going in,” she said. “It’s just about being there for them, showing them somebody loves them for that little bit.”

“If it were my kids, I would want somebody to visit them and help them pray.”

The Third Annual Prison Ministry Gathering will take place on Saturday, June 4, from 9 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. at the former Sacred Heart School, 1010 East Landis Ave., Vineland. The event is free and open to the public. For more information and to register, contact Sister Mary Lou Lafferty, OSF: 856-342-4106, Sr.MaryLou.Lafferty@camdendiocese.org.

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