By Father Frank Cosgrove
MERIDIAN – “I was a prisoner and you visited me . . . as long as you did it for one of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25:36-40)
Ministry to prisoners is nothing new for the Catholic Community of Meridian. From 1985-1995 Tom and Joanne Zettler were one of nine families in Meridian who opened their home to prisoners sponsored by the Prison Fellowship Ministries, founded by Chuck Colson.
Prisoners who were still incarcerated would go to the Zettler’s home for a two-week work program. During the day, the prisoners, who were incarcerated for non-violent crimes and were within one year of being released, were assigned to a work project. Tom Zettler told me that they never had problems with the prisoners and that their nine children learned a lot about living their faith.
“These men fully realized that they owed a debt to society. They were willing to pay the debt and continue their lives with God as their leader,” said Zettler. The Zettlers receive Christmas and Easter cards every year from some of the former prisoners. The program was very successful with a recidivism rate of almost zero, according to Zettler. Frequently the prisoners in the program visited Meridian High School and shared their stories with students, hoping to prevent them from committing crimes.
The Catholic Community of St. Joseph and St. Patrick continues to minister to prisoners incarcerated at the nearby Lost Gap Correctional Facility. For more than 16 years, Dudley Valentine and Mike Lundstrom have visited prisoners and led prayer services. Mike Lundstrom continues the ministry and is now joined by John Maloney, Daniel Pittman and Ken Woodward. We began an RCIA process at the prison in 2011. Since then 26 prisoners have been initiated into the Catholic Church.
On May 21, Bishop Joseph Kopacz received seven prisoners into the church during Mass at the prison. The bishop was accompanied by myself and associate pastor Father José de Jesús Sánchez as well as Deacon Jason Johnston and seminarian Nick Adam. Adam was part of the ministry team before entering the seminary.
“It seems like the men who are locked away have a deep desire for God and, in this case, a deep desire for the sacraments. It was very inspirational to be part of their initiation into the church through baptism, confirmation and Eucharist,” Deacon Johnston noted.
In addition to RCIA, Maloney, Pittman, Woodward and Lundstrom lead a Word and Communion Service weekly and Father Sánchez celebrates Mass once a month. Father Sánchez and I celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation each Advent, Lent and by request. I reassure the prisoners that while they are paying their debt to the state, God is merciful and forgiving and that He accepts and loves them, no matter what crimes they have committed.The prison ministry team has wonderful rapport with the staff and prisoners because they treat them with dignity and respect. Chaplain John Newbaker, a Baptist minister and pastor, is very cooperative and helpful.
Chaplain Newbaker told Deacon Johnston that the Catholic prison ministry at East Mississippi Correctional Facility is one of the most organized, well-rounded ministries at the prison and that the four Catholic volunteers who go there weekly for ministry, work together like a well-oiled machine.
“The ministry, which started only two months after the prison opened in April 1999, with Valentine, was one of the first ministries there,” Newbaker said. “Pastor Cosgrove, along with the other associated pastors, deacons and volunteers have done an excellent job representing the Catholic Community of Meridian. I look forward to them coming each week for service with the offenders.” We are happy for the zeal and commitment of our Prison Ministry Team and the Catholic Community which supports them.
John Maloney loves prison ministry and said he will do it as long as he can walk and drive and he has told the prisoners that. “They prayed hard for me when I had esophageal cancer and I appreciate that. I started ministry to prisoners in 2008 and we started the RCIA process in 2011.”
(Father Cosgrove is the pastor of the Catholic Community of Meridian)
By Father Frank Cosgrove