Dismas Ministry helps former inmates begin a new life

COLUMBIA — Our Lady of the Hills Church has established a ministry dedicated to addressing the needs of women recently released from prison.

It is named after St. Dismas, who according to Catholic tradition was the “good thief” crucified next to Jesus at Calvary. He is the patron saint of criminals, reformed thieves, and condemned and death row prisoners, among others.

Currently, the church has an active prison ministry to men and women incarcerated in the Midlands. It was founded in 2001 with the encouragement of Father Anthony Droze. Many of the women the prison ministry serves are inmates at the Camille Graham Griffin and Goodman facilities, state correctional institutions located off Broad River Road in Columbia.

Sister Christina Murphy, SNDdeN, pastoral associate at the parish, said the idea for the Dismas Ministry came from comments she heard while delivering the Eucharist to inmates.

“I had a lot of women tell me, ‘We need you on the outside,’ ” Sister Christina said in a recent interview. “Many of them are concerned about what will happen when they get out. They don’t want to fall back in with … their old ways,” or bad influences.

The Dismas Ministry’s primary function is to put newly released women in contact with other organizations and programs that can help them begin a new life.

Sister Christina said many released prisoners need help with the most basic needs, including housing, transportation and medical care. Volunteers help former inmates locate support groups for addiction and other needs.

Many of the women receive special donated duffel bags filled with towels,  linens and basic personal hygiene items. They also usually receive some donated clothing.

In the future, Sister Christina said, the ministry will also offer help with personal finances, resume writing, and proper workplace attire.

Prior to being released, women fill out an “introductory goal sheet” which helps them make decisions about whether to go to a halfway house or other location. The sheet also lists the documents they will need, and asks them to list goals and information such as clothing sizes.

Volunteers from Our Lady of the Hills, St. Joseph and St. Peter churches in Columbia have been helping with the program.

The Dismas Ministry has received funding through grants from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy in Charleston.

Sister Christina said many women also need someone to provide spiritual guidance and help in making the correct choices in their new lives.

Women who want to receive help through the ministry sign a “Contract for Success” that was written with the assistance of a volunteer from St. Joseph Parish in Columbia. The contract is not legally binding, but is meant to help form a spiritual and mental bond between the former inmate and the ministry, and to help her focus on both concrete and spiritual goals for the first year following her release.

The contract begins with a quote from Cardinal Newman: “God created me for a reason and I cannot be thrown away.”

The Outreach Ministry in turn agrees to help find clothing, food, shelter and employment, and to provide weekly guidance services from Sister Christina for one year.

Sister Christina said she received guidance in forming the ministry from the Rev. Jimmy Jones, a Columbia minister who runs Christ Central Ministries, another organization that works with former inmates. “The most important thing is to think small and steady, to ask the newly released to focus on goals for one week at a time,” she said.

The next organizational meeting for the Dismas program will be held at Our Lady of the Hills in January.

Anyone who is interested in helping with the ministry or in making a donation can call Sister Christina at (803) 772-7400, or e-mail her at Sister Christina@sc.rr.com.