Church Having Success Among Prisoners

Twelve women prisoners in Michigan recently came into the Church with the help of a permanent deacon who works there.

DETROIT — “If the murderers like you, you’re okay. The murderers love Mike,” said Deacon James Ward of the Archdiocese of Detroit about his friend and fellow deacon Michael Chesley.

Deacon Chesley has run an RCIA program at the Scott Correctional Facility, a woman’s prison on Detroit’s west side. For the past three years, he has averaged 15 prisoners coming into the Church each year. About 30 of the women have formed a community called Our Lady of Sorrows. They actively evangelize other prisoners to join their group. But is this unique?

“There isn’t a single national organization above the dioceses that would have a bird’s-eye view of prison ministry in the country,” said Anthony Latarski, director of prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

“I’ve never heard of anything like that,” said Father Kenneth Boyack, president of the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association, an organization that provides free religious education materials to over 800 prisons across the United States.

“These women are told all day how bad they are, but very few people show them love. It really makes an impression on them,” Deacon Chesley said.

That doesn’t mean that Deacon Chesley’s program is low on doctrine.

“When a prisoner asks to be baptized, I say okay. But first you have to go through RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). I can’t baptize them unless I know that they’re going to try to live the faith,” Deacon Chesley said.

A skeptic may say that people in prison will do or say anything to get out of their cell. But at Scott, prisoners can choose from a number of prison ministry options.

Prisoners who are already Catholic get challenged about aspects of their faith. Some organizations will practically bribe prisoners to listen to their message.

“Each visitor is allowed to bring a prisoner $10 in quarters that the prisoner can use in the vending machines. Prisoners will listen to anybody just to get a soda. We give them rosaries and tell them it’s not worth a soda,” Deacon Ward said. Deacon Ward runs his own program at another facility nearby.

But what makes the woman choose to become Catholic?

“Some ministry groups will come in and make a lot of noise, but they won’t come back for six months. The prisoners aren’t stupid. They know who cares,” Deacon Ward added.

It takes a lot of time, especially since deacons usually have a family and a full-time job. But that is the life of a deacon.

If anyone in the group still needs to come into the Church, Deacon Chesley holds either an RCIA class or a Bible study once a week and a Communion service, if a priest isn’t available, on another day.

Most parishes hold RCIA programs that begin in September and culminate in the Easter Vigil.

The schedule in prison is a little less predictable. Prisoners get moved to different prisons and they are always at the mercy of the warden. Deacon Chesley sometimes has to compress the schedule into a few months.

“The last place you should see a deacon is in church,” Deacon Ward said. “If you see a deacon it means you’re in trouble because you’re in jail or in the hospital.”

Msgr. John Zenz, moderator of the curia for the archdiocese, emphasizes the importance of prison ministry in the Church.

“In Luke 4, his inaugural sermon in the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus spoke specifically of prisoners. In many ways, they are the most forgotten of all people and they bear in their hearts a strong sense of isolation and being forgotten and judged/condemned. More than ever, they need the leaders of the Church to touch them and assure them of their dignity and potential for good,” Msgr. Zenz said.

Msgr. Zenz has gone into Scott and confirmed some of the women who have gone through Deacon Chesley’s RCIA program.

“I myself was deeply touched by their tears and genuine conversion,” Msgr. Zenz said.

The move into prison ministry has been a natural progression for Deacon Chesley. Before being ordained in 2005, he visited nursing homes and worked with the homeless in downtown Detroit. While preparing to be ordained, he was challenged to do ministry outside his comfort zone.

“I thought I was pretty streetwise growing up in Detroit, but prison ministry was a challenge for me,” Deacon Chesley said.

The Register was not able to speak with any of the prisoners. And Michigan law prohibits contacting prisoners once they leave prison. Deacon Chesley says it’s to protect against over-familiarity.

When prisoners are released, Deacon Chesley ensures that they are connected with a parish and the local St. Vincent DePaul Society.

Ironically, Deacon Chesley has no way of knowing how his former charges do on the outside. But he loves the challenge. “I’m just trying to do God’s will.”

Mark Sullivan is based in

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.