Prison ministry benefits the inmates and the volunteers

BISHOPVILLE—An inmate at Lee Correctional Institution had a life-changing experience on April 9. Thanks to six dedicated volunteers from the Sumter Catholic Community, he was confirmed by Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone and became a Catholic.

It was the bishop’s first visit to that facility, but is familiar ground for the prison ministry group.

These volunteers go to the men’s maximum security facility three times a month while another group from the Sumter churches leads a weekly Bible study in Spanish.

On each trip, they spend over an hour with inmates, teaching the basics of the faith to those who wish to join the Church or discussing Scripture, catechetics and spiritual topics with those who are already Catholic. Father Noel Tria, pastor of St. Anne Church in Florence, celebrates Mass each month for the volunteers and inmates.

The Sumter Catholic Community even hosts an annual Christmas dinner at Lee, and members participate in Kairos, an interdenominational prison ministry.

Richard Boisvert, who attends St. Jude Church, was one of four men who started the Sumter group in 2006. He has been involved in the outreach since 1983 and has a passion for the work.

“There are a lot of challenges, like dealing with rules and regulations that constantly change, but that’s not important,” he said. “We realize this is not about us, it’s about God and these inmates. That’s what has kept us going all these years.”

Visiting a maximum security prison requires a lot of cautionary measures such as a pat-down by guards and a walk through metal detectors — and any item brought in, such as books or Bibles, must go through X-ray to detect possible contraband. But there is none of the noise that some people might think they would hear, Boisvert said.

“Our entire walk to the prison chapel is relatively quiet, and beautiful flowers line beds we see as we walk,” he said. “We make contact with the inmates right before entering the chapel area. It is not intimidating to encounter them, though we need to be aware of our surroundings at all times.”

He said he has never been afraid of entering a correctional facility since he started the ministry.

In nine years, five inmates have become converts and many others have returned to the Church after not attending Mass for 20 years or more, he said.

Witnessing the change in the men’s lives is what keeps many of the volunteers coming back week after week. Hazel McLean, who attends St. Jude, said she felt “a call in my heart” for many years to join prison ministry, but she didn’t answer it until a year ago. She has been amazed to see the change that talking about God can make in a man’s life.

“It’s wonderful to see the transformation,” she said. “Some of these inmates are really hungry for the word of God. It’s like they are getting fresh food.”

Sherilyn Bethea started volunteering about three years ago.

“The ministry not only helps the inmate,” she said, “it helps those of us who work in the ministry to learn that our God can help you in any situation, no matter where you are. One guy said to me that he felt free even though he was inside the prison, freer than he had felt on the outside, all because he had found God.”