Despite closures, volunteers still active in prison ministry

In this file photo from December 2019, Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone celebrates the sacrament of baptism for an inmate at Perry Correctional Institution near Pelzer. (Provided)

CLEMSON—An answer to prayer helped expand a prison ministry struggling to serve inmates during the ongoing pandemic.

Deacon John Leininger, who coordinates parish-level prison ministry at Perry Correctional Institution in Greenville County, said God responded just when it appeared efforts to enhance the volunteer effort would be shelved for several more months.

Thanks to an “out-of-the-blue” email from the Catholic Prison Ministries Association, the local effort has connected with volunteers from across the country. Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition and its Restorative Justice Ministry work closely with Catholic Charities. According to the coalition website, restorative justice is an approach that focuses on repairing relationships and is consistent with Catholic teaching. Restorative practices can be applied to the incarcerated and individuals and communities harmed by crime.

In mid-March, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster ordered the closure of all state correctional institutions in response to the pandemic, action that still remains in place. No visitors or volunteers are allowed inside the institutions.

Deacon Leininger

Shortly after the closures were announced, Deacon Leininger, who serves at St. Andrew in Clemson, worked with the prison chaplain to set up livestreaming weekly Mass into Perry.

“While many of the churches in the diocese were still tweaking [livestreaming], my own included, the one thing we knew was that it really made a difference to our congregations,” Deacon Leininger said. “Perry would be no different in that regard.”

Unfortunately, an hour before the scheduled start, the state Department of Corrections head chaplain furloughed all chaplains assigned to state prisons. 

“It was time to look for alternatives to stay in touch with the men in Perry,” Deacon Leininger said.

Since mail is still being delivered at Perry, the ministry volunteers have been sending notes to all those who regularly attended the weekly Masses, he explained. A novena to pray for healing during the Coronavirus was included. The men were asked to find other Catholics in their cell blocks to pray together and they are joined by the ministry lay volunteers, who pray the Novena from outside the prison. 

Last month the volunteers wrote each inmate and included directions for the Divine Mercy Chaplet, plus a copy of a homily from Ascension Sunday. This month, they will receive another letter from volunteers. 

Notes and letters, both sent and received over the past few months range from words of love and encouragement, to more personal requests.

“One man was baptized in February and I needed his mother’s maiden name for his baptismal certificate,” Deacon Leininger said. “It took a bit of time to get a response from him because he had been in lockdown.”

The inmate wrote Deacon Leininger thanking him for the letter and for helping him grow in his faith. He ended the note saying that he prays for the deacon and his family.

In another letter, an inmate recently brought into the Church said, “We continue to keep all of the volunteers in our prayers, and look forward to the day that we can gather again.  Thank you for your very heartfelt letter. The brothers ask every week if we are going to have Mass yet.”

“We want them to know they have not been forgotten,” Deacon Leininger said.

As the restrictions continue, the ministry is focusing on ways to further strengthen the inmates’ relationship with God. 

“We have had to re-evaluate plans and are pushing back a statewide meeting for volunteers from November to the spring,” he said. He is also putting together their first Restorative Justice Ministry newsletter due out by the end of June. 

Several local volunteers recently participated in Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition webinars, he said, where nearly 100 people from around the country shared ideas on staying in contact with inmates.

Deacon Leininger said the prison chaplain expects to return by the end of June, with volunteers allowed back inside possibly sometime in July. He also hopes to resume livestreaming Masses on their regular Thursday meeting times. 

For more information on diocesan prison ministry call 803-772-7400.