By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer
In the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls on his followers to visit those in prison, proclaiming “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
A group of volunteers from parishes in Central Kentucky have taken that call seriously.
The volunteers, including, priests, a deacon and several lay Catholics, provide an opportunity for inmates to attend Mass, go to confession and, for some, to become Catholic.
One of those volunteers, Nancy Lyon, a member of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Loretto, Ky., has been visiting with inmates at the Marion Adjustment Center in St. Mary, Ky., for 13 years.
“I just think visiting them makes them think somebody cares enough to come and help them,” Lyon said. “They still are human beings. I try not to judge anybody.”
The minimum and maximum security prison, located between Lebanon and Loretto, is housed in the former St. Mary’s College, which closed in 1976.
Lyon became involved with the prison ministry when a Protestant minister called her out of the blue to ask if she was interested.
She said she had been feeling God calling her “to do something more” but wasn’t sure if prison ministry was for her.
Lyon said as soon as she got off the phone with the minister she entered prayer and “gave the Lord a fussing.”
“I was just a housewife and raised kids all my life,” she said. “I wouldn’t miss Mass for anything but I had not been a teacher. I didn’t know the Bible that well.”
Lyon said she felt God say to her, “ ‘I have taken you all over the world. Share that with them. Share your faith.’ ”
Lyon has traveled to numerous religious sites all over the world with pilgrimage groups and friends, including the shrines of Medjugorje, Fatima and Guadalupe. She also visited Italy, Poland, Spain and the Holy Land.
During her first visit with inmates, Lyon recalled her trip to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and told them the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in place of a stranger at the Nazi death camp. Lyon said she told the men that’s what Jesus did, “ ‘He died for all of us to save us.’ ”
Lyon said that at the time she starting visiting the prison, inmates rarely received visits from Catholic clergy or lay people and didn’t have the opportunity to go to Mass.
Now Lyon visits the Marion Adjustment Center twice a week for several hours where she leads a group of about eight to 10 men in prayer.
“The rosary is at the center of it,” she said. “I’ve tried to teach them to tune out the noise (of the prison) for just a few minutes of quiet time” for prayer.
She also has served as a Godmother and sponsor for 26 inmates who have been baptized and confirmed while in prison.
Earlier this year, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz celebrated Mass at the detention center, where he confirmed one man. He also visited with inmates in solitary confinement, through small glass windows.
Lyon, who has seven children, 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, enjoys her work at the prison and says the ministry has strengthened her faith.
“I say to the Lord ‘I’m getting old but if you keep me well, I’ll do what I can,’ ” she said.
Another volunteer, Deacon Dennis May, who serves at St. Augustine Church in Lebanon, Ky., and Holy Name of Mary Church in Calvary, Ky., said he felt “a clear calling” to become involved in the prison ministry.
Deacon May visits five different jails and detention centers in Marion and Nelson counties each week where he leads Communion Services and Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest.
“It’s important because everyone needs ministered to in some form or fashion,” he said.
Deacon May said he tries to spread the Good News of the Gospel when he visits with inmates and encourages them to attend Mass or other church services.
“Church is where you hear the Word of God. He is the healer, not me. If you are talking to God and you are listening to him, he will heal you,” Deacon May said.
Mike Luescher, the director of religious education at St. Augustine in Lebanon, also volunteers with inmates. He wants the men and women incarcerated to feel the love of the church.
“In this situation, it really appears as though everyone has deserted them. To be there and to let them know they are loved by the church community, by God, is just something we are called to do,” Luescher said.
Luescher, who is a member of the diaconate class of 2016, said his work with the prison ministry prompted him to discern a vocation to the diaconate.
Anyone interested in learning more about the prison ministry at the Marion Adjustment Center should call Nancy Lyon at 270-865-4151.