Team effort seeks to expand jail ministry

Jonathan Detwiler knelt as Deacon Stephen Marks poured holy water over his head during baptism at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections in downtown Louisville. Nov. 17. (Photo Special to The Record)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer

Members of the clergy and faithful in the Archdiocese of Louisville have ministered to inmates in local jails for three decades, despite there being no formal program to support their service.

In an effort to expand that ministry and provide support to those who are already serving, several Archdiocese of Louisville agencies are working together to bring structure to jail ministry.

Catholic Charities and the Office of Family Ministries will offer a jail-ministry training program from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 28 at the Maloney Center, 1200 S. Shelby St. Individuals who are already serving and those interested in the ministry are invited to attend the free event. Participants are asked to pre-register by contacting Deacon Stephen Marks at 964-6966 or

Deacon Lucio Caruso of Catholic Charities said in an interview last month that “a lot has been done out of faith and goodwill,” but in order to  “support and affirm this work and to get more help,” there needs to be more organization and structure.

The training program — created by the Office of Family Ministries and led by Deacon Stephen Bowling — will cover various topics, including:

n An overview of jail ministry will be presented by Deacon Stephen Marks, a permanent deacon at St. Albert the Great Church. This session will focus on “boundaries and the jail as a system,” according to Deacon Bowling.

n Awareness of addictive behavior will be presented by Deacon Walton Jones, a permanent deacon at Holy Trinity Church, and Russ Read, director of the Beacon House, a residential center for men recovering from drug addiction.

n Dr. Karen Shadle, director of the Office of Worship, will present a session on how to lead a Communion service and Deacon Bowling will present “how to offer a reflection on Scripture.”

Deacon Caruso noted that jail ministry in the Archdiocese of Louisville began about three decades ago with a few individuals responding to the Gospel commission to visit the imprisoned.

Those who’ve led the effort included Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Barbara Dwyer and Margaret Hohman, both of whom have since died; Deacon Philip Hettich, a senior deacon at St. Bernard Church; and Cheri Hall, who now serves as a prison, jail and re-entry coordinator for Catholic Charities.

Currently, there are six people — including Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Marian Stenken and Kitty Wilson — ministering in Louisville jails, said Deacon Marks.

About a year ago, the archdiocese formed a steering committee to better coordinate jail ministry, a collaboration between  Catholic Charities, the Diaconate Office, the Office of Worship and the Office of Family Ministries.  And Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz has asked Catholic Charities to lead jail ministry in the future. Catholic Charities will provide social service support to the inmates and their families, said Deacon Caruso.

There are four buildings in the city where about 2,000 individuals are incarcerated, but because of the small number of volunteers, ministry is only provided in two of those buildings, said Deacon Marks.

Volunteers, working in teams of two, visit the jails twice a month, where they hold a Communion service.

Deacon Marks said he’d like to increase that number to between 25 to 30 volunteers, which would allow them to hold more services.

A Communion service in the jails consists of songs, the Sunday Scripture reading, Communion for those who are Catholic and discussion of the reading, said Deacon Marks.

He baptized two men in November and one more has asked to be prepared for baptism, he said. He noted that the individuals who attend the services usually share the Gospel with others in the jail.

“For people who think they’d like to evangelize in the jails, there’s a real opportunity to do that,” said Deacon Marks.

Sister of Charity of Nazareth Marian Stenken visits women at one of the jails twice a month and finds it rewarding, she said in an interview April 13.

“I feel that I receive more than I give. The women are very open about sharing,” said Sister Stenken. “It’s important to reach out to them and let them know God loves them no matter what they’ve done.”

The jail ministry training program will be an ongoing effort. Deacon Bowling said the jail ministry training will be offered to individuals in other counties interested in the ministry. His office is currently planning a training event in Nelson and Marion counties, he said. The training will also become a part of the Diaconate Office’s formation program.

Ministering to incarcerated individuals lets them know “the church is with them,” Deacon Caruso added.

When people behind bars “connect with faith” it helps them while they are in jail, but it also helps in their “recovery,” and in their return to society and their families, noted Deacon Caruso.

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