Image: Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago gives Communion to detainees during Mass at the Cook County Department of Corrections in Chicago on Christmas Day in 2008. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)
Seventeen-year-old Jaime Chavez swaggers into the agency living room like he owns it. Wearing a bulky jacket and a loose-fitting shirt, he moves with a confidence indicative of a modern teenager. With a wide smile and a shiny earring, Jaime’s trendy exterior is belied by his reserved, humble voice. He is, in many ways, the typical American teenager.
But Jaime has lived in a place that is miles from typical. On two different occasions, Jaime spent a month in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago, Illinois, for gun possession.
Stripped of his belongings, separated from his family and sharing space with strangers, Jaime edged dangerously close to being a seasoned regular at the Cook County Detention Center.
“It’s definitely not cool,” he says, “knowing that you won’t be going home the next day. The first time I went in there, it was bad. The second time I figured, ‘What am I doing here?’ I saw myself coming in and out of places like that. I didn’t want to end up in jail.”
Sustaining Jaime through his ordeals were a rejuvenated faith, a flair for poetic self-expression and hope for a life better than the one he was living. Backing him were the people of Kolbe House—the Chicago Archdiocese’s prison and jail ministry.
The Healing House
Jaime is just one of thousands, on both sides of the prison walls, who have been rescued by the workers and volunteers of Kolbe House. Located just two blocks from Cook County Jail, Kolbe House is an inconspicuous building that rests in the heart of a restless neighborhood.
Dangerous and diverse, manic and multicultural, this busy area seems anchored by Assumption Parish, headquarters of Kolbe House and its prison missionaries. It’s an engaging place. Though it is not a halfway house, it has the feel of a well-lived-in home. And like many homes, it’s bustling with footsteps and voices of workers breezing in and out of assorted rooms. This is a home with a frenzied family-staff. This is an agency on a mission.
It was named after St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Conventual Franciscan who was imprisoned in Auschwitz and murdered in 1941. Kolbe House started in 1983 to reach people whose lives have been damaged by crime. The agency and its workers labor with the same drive and selfless abandon as the martyred saint.
It’s been an uphill battle from day one. Starting with no operating budget and existing primarily through donations, Kolbe House has stayed afloat even when financial cutbacks and wavering fiscal support threatened to sink it. Kolbe House workers have pressed on in their mission to offer spiritual liberation to the physically captive and help to restore their beleaguered humanity.
By offering Masses, religious services, spiritual counseling, and Bible study, workers and volunteers offer a refuge to the incarcerated and a level of mercy to their lives. Simply being present in the jails affords inmates a much needed—and often missing—lifeline.
Father Arturo Pérez-Rodríguez, who recently retired from Kolbe House, believes that providing these essentials is vital to inmates’ lives and to their faith journeys. “I love this because it’s direct ministry. It’s important to just be with these people without judgment of them,” he says. “We take these people for who they are and where they are at. We offer a spiritual grounding for their lives.”
Father Arturo has experienced divine moments inside Cook County Jail. God’s grace, he believes, is found in all corners of the facility. “There’s a real sense of the presence of God in their lives,” he says. “It’s exciting for me in the way that they talk so openly about faith. For me it’s quite inspiring.”
Befriending the Friendless
Comfort is a luxury rarely afforded anyone rocked by crime and punishment. Perhaps the place where comfort is most needed is death row. The long arm of Kolbe House extends there, too.
Image: Rogelio Ibarra and Antonio Garcia, inmates at the Chihuahua state prison in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, participate in the prison ministry conducted by Father Alberto Melendez. (CNS photo/David Maung)
Charles Walker was a murderer. In the summer of 1983, Walker—drunk and in search of cash—approached Kevin Paule and Sharon Winker as they fished at Silver Creek near Mascoutah, Illinois. Tying the couple to a tree, Walker shot them both in the head and walked away with $40.
Convicted and sentenced to death, Walker came to know Deacon Ron DeRose from Kolbe House. Deacon Ron—a volunteer since 1988 and full-time chaplain since 1995—began a spiritual mentorship with Walker. In his jovial voice, Deacon Ron remembers fondly his experiences with the death-row inmate.
“It was wonderful to be able to pray with him, to be able to hold his hand as the last hours, the last minutes of his life ticked away,” he says. “We laughed, we cried, we prayed. Charles had made his peace with God.”
After refusing to move forward with his appeals, Walker welcomed death. On September 12, 1990, he was executed at Stateville Correctional Center. Deacon Ron has seen the range of grief that haunts the inmates of death row. Weathered by the memories, Ron still looks back on his experiences with a peace-filled heart.
“All I can say is that there were holy moments. It’s been a wonderful journey through the last 10 years. I’ve had some wonderful, colorful, spiritually moving experiences,” the deacon says.
“Being with people at that moment when they, in their brokenness, reach up a hand to God—it’s been awesome. I found people who were truly repentant for what they had done.”
What Deacon Ron has kept close to his mind and heart is something many cannot acknowledge: These jailed men and women, guilty or innocent, are still of value. “These inmates are in a system that takes away their dignity, their sense of self,” he says. “We help them to understand that they still are somebody.”
Jaime Chavez is proof of that. While serving time in the Juvenile Detention Center, Jaime happened across Making Choices—a Kolbe House published newsletter of poetry and artwork created by those in and out of jail. Filled with candid prose and illustrations, the publication was a creative endeavor that guided the young poet out of a shadowy place. Unbeknownst to Jaime, salvation lay hidden in the pages.
“I read the Making Choices newsletter on the inside, and it got me interested in what Kolbe House was doing,” he says. Jaime began attending Masses and poetry workshops while serving time in the detention center. After he was released for the second time, Jaime saw an opportunity to begin again.
“I came to the Making Choices group once I was released,” he says. “Kolbe House got me interested in school and then helped me to enroll. Now I am in my first year of college.”
Jaime Chavez, once a high school dropout with a criminal past, has reinvented himself. The people of Kolbe House—who helped Jaime obtain his G.E.D.—were a main ingredient in that reinvention. But his work with them isn’t over. For this young student, an ongoing involvement with the agency is an essential factor to his success.
“They help keep me motivated,” he says, “and gives me people to talk to. Also I feel I can’t do things wrong because if I do, I’ll disappoint them. They care.”
To Rescue and Heal
It may seem like thankless work: counseling criminals, advocating for those condemned to die, helping their families. On the contrary, for the workers of Kolbe House, this is their calling: a grace-filled opportunity to rescue and heal. And they have learned as many lessons as they have imparted.
Father Arturo is still astounded at the inner strength that many prisoners have.
“I’m amazed at the peace that some people are able to have at spending 30 years in jail,” he says. “They know what they’re going to confront. They’re fearful about what they are going to confront but they’re grounded.” Deacon Ron has been equally moved by those he has encountered in his ministry. Even in the most desolate of places, grace abounds.
“I find God is working very powerfully behind those walls. The strength of faith that I see in some of these people is genuine,” the deacon says. “Anytime a person’s life is in crisis, the future is uncertain and the present seems unbearable—those are the times when people reach out to God.”
In the heart of an often depraved environment like a maximum-security prison, thousands of inmates over the last two decades have sought healing and forgiveness, companionship and compassion. Kolbe House workers have been there to witness it all.
What began as a dream in the spring of 1982 is now a blessing to the many who toil behind bars. The people of Kolbe House journey into the darkest of places—armed with patience and eager hearts—all working in the spirit of the biblical passage: “When I was in prison, you visited me.”