Through community, the Holy Spirit moves inside prison walls

April 24, 2018

Daniel Cardinal DiNardo visits with some of the men and their sponsors before he celebrated the Rite of Confirmation at the O.B. Ellis Unit in Huntsville on Feb. 10. Photo courtesy of Correctional Ministries.

HOUSTON — When it comes to serving incarcerated men and women of the Catholic faith living in prisons and jails in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, a visit by clergy or a volunteer minister even just one day a month can make a big impact on their faith development and opportunity to come into full communion with the Church.

According to Deacon Alvin Lovelady, associate director for the Office of Correctional Ministries of the Archdiocese, it takes a caring community and loving family and environment to help serve the 1,500 to 1,600 incarcerated Catholics in Harris County Jail alone, as well as those who live in the 26 state prisons and other nine county jails, one federal institution, and countless city jails each month.

Approximately 20 deacons and 200 lay ministers serve alongside many priests and bishops who volunteer their time to celebrate Mass, offer communion services, confession, RCIA programs, spiritual direction, and retreats, all held inside the prison walls.

The three-day Catholic retreat for incarcerated men and women offered by the Office of Correctional Ministries, one of sixty ministries supported by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF), is the St. Maximilian Kolbe Prison Retreats. Continuing to gain in popularity since their inception almost four years ago, these retreats are designed to help enrich and reinvigorate the spiritual lives of 80 prison inmates at a time.

The coordinator for the Kolbe Prison Ministries – Houston North for the past two years is Jerry S. Trzeciak. Since this is a relatively new ministry offered to prison units located on the north side of the Archdiocesan boundaries, one of Trzeciak’s main responsibilities is to reach out to these prison chaplains and wardens to help bring these retreats into their units on a regular basis. He also provides spiritual direction and faith formation opportunities to the clergy and volunteer ministers who serve in the prisons and helps identify parishes in the Archdiocese that may want to participate.

Trzeciak said a current goal for his ministry is to find parishes located in the northern part of Archdiocese that would like to “adopt” one or several identified prison units. The adopting parish would staff two-thirds of the team at each retreat and be responsible for ongoing catechesis during the weeks and months in between retreats.

To date, St. Anthony of Padua in The Woodlands and St. Martha’s Catholic Church in Kingwood each have adopted their first prison unit, and Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church and Prince of Peace Catholic Community are in the process.

Archdiocesan-wide, additional ways parishes are involved in the Office of Correctional Ministries is through support back at home. For example, Trzeciak said for an upcoming retreat, 500-plus students will pray for the core team and retreatants during the retreat weekend. Other students and parish families will bake cookies, make placemats for the retreatants with scripture versus, and prepare brisket and spaghetti for the 750 meals that will served over the retreat weekend. He said there are countless other ministries that lift up the team and their efforts, so God’s will is accomplished inside the prison walls.

Trzeciak said he feels blessed to have witnessed God’s love first hand through this support from the faithful in the Archdiocese, as well as his personal interaction with the inmates at the retreats.
“Lives are changed, for both the incarcerated and team alike, not only through the sacraments, but also through compassionate, humble, and open hearts,” said Trzeciak. “The transformation that takes place may be a simple embrace or a water-shed of tears that releases the beauty of forgiveness of oneself or the graces that the Holy Spirit provides at the moment when many of these men surrender themselves to the Lord. After the retreat, we see increased participation at Masses, enrollment in the prison RCIA program, and in the number of men receiving the sacraments for the first time.”

Trzeciak said the Kolbe Prison Ministry has taken his personal spiritual journey to a deeper level than he expected.

“When team members say ‘yes’ to visiting Jesus in prison, they help feed the incarcerated with food and the Word, clothe them with armor to battle the evil one each day, and pray for them,” said Trzeciak. “Our Lord responds back with his abundance grace to all involved. I’m constantly in awe watching how the Holy Spirit shares his love.”

Deacon Lovelady said the Office of Correctional Ministries would not be able to serve so tirelessly in the prisons and jails without DSF’s financial support.

“We would not have the opportunity to serve the men and women, and help the Holy Spirit reach them without the DSF that supports our ministry and the volunteers that come to the jails and prisons in the Archdiocese,” said Deacon Lovelady. “It is crucial to be present to these men and women in their time of need, just as much as it is for someone in a hospital or care facility, sometimes maybe even more important. Without our help, some of these individuals have no hope of ever getting past the despair their lives are in.”

Deacon Lovelady said that over the past 30 years, through the help of the DSF, the Correctional Ministries has evolved to what it is today, led by Director Father Ron Cloutier, who has served with the Archdiocese for at least 45 years, and has been with Correctional Ministries since the early 1990s.

“When Father Ron Cloutier and some of the volunteers started this ministry, it was a very unpleasant place to be, and I believe it was the love of God that got them through many years of hardship, and shaped the program into what it is today,” said Deacon Lovelady. “The jails are now cleaner and more volunteer friendly, which opens the door for additional programs to help the men and women improve their lifestyle and way of thinking.”

Deacon Lovelady said that every man, women, and child benefits from the DSF, those living within the Archdiocese and beyond.

“Our programs touch people around the world and that is what we are called to do,” said Deacon Lovelady. “For me, as an employee of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and with the Office of Correctional Ministries, I see the need for everyone to participate in the funding of our Church and the programs that do so much for so many. Spread a little love and give from the heart.”