Oblates Bring Faith and an Experience of Being Human to the Incarcerated in Southern Illinois

By Will Shaw with Fr. Salvador Gonzalez, OMI

Fr. Salvador Gonzalez, OMI stands outside the old main building at the Menard Correctional Facility

People from around the St. Louis area come to King’s House Retreat and Renewal Center in Belleville to experience faith renewal through retreats preached by Oblate Fathers, Salvador Gonzalez and Mark Dean. For some who are most in need of spiritual renewal however, coming to King’s House isn’t possible, which is why the Fathers each participate in one four-day weekend per year at Menard Correctional Facility outside Chester, Illinois.

Fr. Mark Dean, OMI

Menard is the second-oldest prison in the state, a maximum security facility housing some 3,700 inmates.  Originally opened in 1878, the newer structures sprinkled among the old brownstone buildings and walls can’t overcome the atmosphere of an ancient fortress. The notion of “country club” prison does not apply to Menard.

The prison allows the Kairos two retreats per year, and each attracts 42 residents, which is the most the prison allows to attend one retreat. Fathers Dean and Gonzalez each do one of the retreats. Fr. Gonzalez led the most recent held April 26-29. “Fr. Sal” was joined by an ecumenical team of 30 men who presented the four-day “Kairos in Prison” Retreat which consists of 12 presentations by the team, discussion and faith-sharing sessions, time for prayer, community meals and other activities.

The Kairos in Prison Retreat was developed out of the Cursillo movement and is a Christian-based Retreat specifically designed to help the incarcerated meet other Christians in the same situation, share their faith, and grow their relationship with Christ and each other.

While there are many goals for the four-day retreat, according to Fr. Sal, “Our very first hope is to bring them an experience of being human, just talking, sharing, meeting face-to-face. To give them an experience of really relating to another human being on a different level.  Second, would be to bring them to an encounter with Christ. And finally, to help them relate to each other in a new way: help them develop skills to form small Christian communities as best they can in the facility they’re in, so they will be able to continue to share and grow their faith where they are.”

The experience can be very meaningful for the men.  “People in prison desperately want an opportunity to find Christ, to experience something new in their life,” said Fr. Sal. “I know one gentleman who was on a waiting list for the retreat for eight years. When he finally got his turn, he was so grateful for the opportunity to experience Jesus, and to the team. He walked out with new hope, a new view of life, even though life for them doesn’t change very much on the outside, but on the inside he came out a different man.”

Prior to the beginning of the retreat, the whole team joins hands in prayer

People who spend years in the harsh confines of a prison are unaccustomed to contact with people who truly care and relate to them as worthy human beings. Their response to the retreat team members stands out in Fr. Sal’s mind: “Just the fact that we go and spend time with them as human beings, getting to know who they are in the present moment, and show genuine interest in their story today, just the experience of being listened to – their life changes.”

These twice-per-year retreats are not the only prison ministry in which Fathers Gonzalez and Dean are involved: Fr. Mark makes weekly pastoral visits to the Southwestern Illinois Correctional Facility near East St. Louis, and Fr. Sal does the same at the state correctional facility in Pinckneyville, about 50 miles from Belleville.

These visits are limited to just under 90 minutes. In the time allowed the priests hear confessions, celebrate Mass, and spend as much of the remaining time as possible with residents discussing personal issues, special needs, etc.

At Pinckneyville, about half of the thirty men who attend the pastoral sessions speak Spanish, so Fr. Sal makes the sessions bi-lingual. These visits are all the more important to the men of faith in the facility because without the visits by Oblate priests, there would be no Catholic Masses or services at Pinckneyville.

From his earliest days as a priest, St. Eugene de Mazenod, Founder of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, made prison ministry one of his priorities. Fathers Dean, Gonzalez and many others continue to follow in his footsteps with active outreach to the incarcerated. Fr. Sal summed it up this way, “We go there not only because Jesus told us to in the Gospel of Matthew: “I was in prison and you visited me.” We also go because St Eugene made it very clear that people who are incarcerated are preferred by our ministry, they are people who need to experience the saving love of Christ. We’re just happy that we can do that kind of Oblate ministry from King’s House.”