By Annette Alleva
The North Star Catholic
“I was in prison and you visited me.” These words of Jesus are a call to action for a number of folks in the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau, who minister to men and women in several area jails and prisons. This ministry of presence, primarily, has suffered a tremendous decline in this year of COVID-19 and its restrictions. Those who are called to serve in this way remain connected to the incarcerated, holding in prayer and concern those with whom they have established deep relationships of friendship and trust.
The North Star Catholic caught up with Deacon Dave Van Tuyl of Holy Family parish, who was on his way to deliver Christmas cards and rosaries to Chaplain Gerald Silliman, who works at the Anchorage Jail and the adjacent pre-trial facility. “We are very limited in what we can do,” Van Tuyl said, and noted there has been an increased demand for rosaries from the inmates since the mandated shut-downs.
Van Tuyl, and several volunteers from Holy Family have found creative ways to continue to support the incarcerated who formerly took part in weekly bible study, communion services and Mass at the jail, with a variable number of participants ranging from one or two to a dozen or more. Numbers are restricted for security reasons.
They have been assisted in this by the national organization, Dismas Ministry. According to its website, “Dismas Ministry focuses primarily on a spiritual approach with prisoners who want to understand and strengthen their relationship with God.” Named for the repentant thief who was crucified with Jesus, the organization provides resources for those working with prisoners in all 50 states.
Through correspondence, spiritually inclined inmates have continued growing in faith, but according to Holy Family prison ministry volunteer John Hallinan, it just isn’t the same as face-to-face interaction. In the recent past, Hallinan assisted one baptized prisoner who sought full communion with the Catholic Church by completing the RCIA program—a first at the jail. Now, no priests can come to hear confessions or to celebrate Mass, he said.
Hallinan, who called his work an apostolate, said, “Any time we have a chance to help someone, it is incumbent on us to do so.” Reflecting on four years of volunteer work at the jail, he said of the inmates, “They just want to talk. They don’t get a lot of that.” The “shifting of gears,” as he called it, in light of COVID-19 has given him hope that those seeking a deeper relationship with God will find it through the correspondence courses with Dismas Ministry and the cards, letters, and prayers of the furloughed volunteers. After all, Hallinan said, “The Holy Spirit makes this happen.”
Hallinan added, “We want very much to keep a Catholic presence in that jail. We want them not to feel forgotten.”
For Chaplain Gerald Silliman, who works at the Anchorage Correctional Complex and is normally assisted by approximately 40 volunteers from many denominations, COVID restrictions have markedly changed the jail’s spiritual dimension. He continues to pass out rosaries, written materials, missals, and missalettes for those who request them.
As one of the Corporal Works of Mercy, visiting the imprisoned often seems a daunting and perhaps frightening task for the average Christian. Chaplain Silliman, who is part of a non-denominational congregation, assured that training and security protocols are strictly followed. “No one has ever been threatened,” Silliman said.
A background check for volunteers is required, as is a character reference from clergy they are working under, he added. Training is required, and volunteers are encouraged to voice their concerns and seek help in any situation where they are uncomfortable or unsure of their actions. “Any issues are dealt with,” Silliman said, and noted that only men minister to male prisoners and women to the female ones.
“We go through a lot of people,” Silliman noted, and added that an ideal situation would be to have at least two or three volunteers visiting regularly. Consistency is vital for the prisoners with whom the volunteers build a relationship. “A lot of people have never had that.”
The ministry does not end, however, when a prisoner is released. “They need a home church when they get out, as well as therapy, aftercare and follow-up,” Silliman said, and added, “Our responsibility is to take care of the sheep.”
Beth Konkol, a relative newcomer to Alaska but not to prison ministry, has spent the last few weeks writing out many Christmas cards to the women she serves at Highland Correctional Facility in Eagle River. Sidelined by COVID-19, she misses the women to whom she ministers. “We have ladies that come every single week and we look forward to seeing them, just to see how their week was,” she said. The inmates make friends with one another; they don’t talk to many outside people, Konkol said.
What breaks her heart now, she added, “They don’t get to see their kids. That’s like the worst part.”
Konkol, who describes herself as a gregarious person, said the women’s interactions have led to some deep conversations, foremost, the subject of forgiveness.“There have been times where I have had to dig deep and pray to forgive. I feel comfortable sharing that with the ladies by saying, ‘my experience with forgiveness is this…,’” she said.
A volunteer who also serves at Highland (and requested anonymity) said, “This is where we are called, where God wants us to be.” Her experience, like that of every volunteer contacted for this article, has been the surprising acknowledgment and gratitude on the part of the prisoners. It has been both humbling and encouraging.
Said Van Tuyl, “I was ministered to more than I ministered.” Hallinan echoed these sentiments and said, “I can’t explain how grace flows from this; it flows both directions,” and added, “this is the best thing going on.”
This “best thing” appears to be going on all over the archdiocese. Deacon Wally Corrigan served for 20 years in the ministry at the maximum-security prison in Seward, where “12 to 14 attendees at the Saturday Mass was a pretty good crowd for us,” he said. Others now carry on the work in whatever way they can in a post-COVID world.
Deacon Curt Luenberger at Saint Michael Parish has ministered for over 12 years at the now-closed Palmer Correctional Facility. His work continued with Father Mike Shields, at the minimum-security facility, “The Farm,” in Knik-Goose Bay. He now sends copies of “The Word Among Us” to a couple of inmates there, he said.
“Hopefully, we will be able to get back into this soon,” he added and noted that the Palmer facility is scheduled to reopen in the near future.
In light of the heartbreaking restrictions that have severely impacted in-person ministries in all areas, John Hallinan noted, “The world hasn’t stopped—it has slowed. Needs still go on.” Deacon Van Tuyl addressed the pain that so many have felt in missing folks with whom they had built relationships over time: “It is good that it hurts because that means that it matters.”