Diocese receives grant for Benedictine Oblate in Prison Program

Logo Year of MercyThanks to a generous donation from Catholic Extension, the Diocese of Pueblo was able to breathe new life into a longtime prison ministry offering, the Benedictine Oblate in Prison Program.

The $10,000 came as a part of Catholic Extension's "Year of Mercy" grant. This special initiative offered in this Jubilee Year of Mercy aimed to provide 10 dioceses with the opportunity to better serve the poor, displaced, and vulnerable. The Diocese of Pueblo was chosen as one of the ten for its revival of this prison ministry program.

"I think that speaks to the strength of the program and how well it fit with Pope Francis' directive to 'Go out the peripheries,' " said Michelle Sandoval, grant writer for the diocese. "I also continue to hear from those involved that the Benedictine Oblate community is a 'perfect fit' for those who are incarcerated."

The diocese has a long history with the Benedictine tradition and through monks living in the former Holy Cross Abbey in Canon City, they were  once able to minister to inmates in several of the diocese's 19 prisons. One monk in particular, Fr. Louis Kirby, OSB, developed a special program for prisoners: the Benedictine Oblates in Prison.  After Holy Cross closed, Fr. Louis and others transferred their vows  to St. Benedict Abbey in Atchison, Kansas. Since then, the program continued on a limited basis and solely through correspondence. Fr. Louis has since passed away and another Benedictine, Father Matthew Habiger, OSB has continued with this program.

Father Matthew, a monk also from St. Benedict's Abbey has ministered in a variety of settings during his priesthood: parish priest, college chaplain, moral theology instructor, to name a few. "Eventually I was drawn more and more into this apostolate," he said.

Deacon Dan Leetch, the director of pastoral services for the diocese, oversees prison ministry in the all the prisons within the diocese's boundaries. He put together a program, made possible by the grant funds, to bring Father Matthew to the diocese for four retreats in four of these prisons.

Deacon Dan worked to get proper clearances at each of the four prisons and purchased resources to be used such as the Rule of St. Benedict, the Liturgy of the Hours, a commentary on the Rule, and the manual for Oblates.  He also arranged for food  on Friday evening and for Saturday's activities.  Father Matthew said  prisoners enjoyed access to pizzas, deli sandwiches, chips and cookies, fresh fruit, cold drinks and hot coffee, as he explained "hospitality is a Benedictine charism."

Father Matthew prepared eight conferences, based upon the Rule of St. Benedict, followed by a time for comments and questions after each conference. He said it appeared that the men and women appreciated the opportunity to raise some of their real concerns related to living the faith and building a sense of community among themselves. 

"As the retreat progressed, there was a palpable sense of growing trust and a desire to build a relationship with God through a regular prayer life, reading Scripture, and drawing upon the principles of the Rule," he said. "By the end of the retreat 100 percent of the participants signed up become an oblate." These new oblates now join men and women from around the world who have made the commitment to live their lives according to the Benedictine spirituality.

Father Matthew said the oblate program is a natural fit with prison life. "St. Benedict wrote his Rule in the 6th Century for a group of men who were dedicated to their search for God as a community. The Rule sets up regular times for prayer and work, spiritual reading, meals, recreation.  It stresses obedience to legitimate authority, humility, and growth in all the virtues.  Granted the many differences, there are many similarities between a monastery (monastic life) and a prison."

He went on to say that once an inmate becomes an oblate,  it gives meaning and purpose to their lives.  "Many express their pleasure in discovering a regular prayer life, using the Liturgy of the Hours," Father Matthew said.  "Oblates who are on death row, or have a lifetime sentence, find new motivation for making the most use of their time in prison."

Father Matthew says the inmates deeply appreciate the fact that he and others take a personal interest in them, since so often they feel abandoned. "Many prisoners feel that they are forgotten, carry a stigma, and are being warehoused ." He continues, "They want a normal life, to be free from addictions, to have contact with their spouses and children, and to have freedom to pursue their normal destiny.  They are open to guidance, since they know their past choices have not been well placed."

"My hope for these oblate men and women is that they will find the guidance and encouragement they need to serve their time in prison well," Father Matthew said.  Deacon Dan adds, "It remains true that about 90 percent of all the incarcerated will leave prison, and so intervention and skills development remain the key to re-entry success."

Deacon Dan Leetch explained that after the initial retreat, the inmates will have monthly follow-up meetings, where the Rule of St Benedict will be discussed, the gathered group will pray the Liturgy of the Hours (Breviary), and exchange support to one another in the struggle to remain faithful in their walk with Jesus behind bars. 

Deacon Dan said he was pleased with the  direction the program was heading."Fr. Matthew has expanded the outreach, and taken a multi-disciplinary approach to staying in contact with those ‘on the inside.'  Through a monthly newsletter, as well as suggested readings, some free materials for use, and most importantly a pen pal program, Fr. Matthew has taken a strong program and improved it," he said.

Father Matthew sends the oblates 12 newsletters a year and the quarterly magazine, Kansas Monks. On average he receives 30 to 40 letters each week from the roughly 200 oblates in the 25 prisons he serves around the country.

The Diocese of Pueblo has 19 prisons within its diocesan boundaries. There are four federal prisons in Florence, two private prisons, and 13 State of Colorado DOC facilities.  In this total there are six minimum security facilities, eight medium security facilities, four close custody (the preferred term over maximum) facilities, and one super max (ADX in the Federal Complex) in Florence. 

"The Benedictine Oblate in Prison program fits easily into the goals for the prison ministry vision in our diocese," Deacon Dan said.  The main goal is to assist the inmates in maintaining and growing their prayer life and in seeing how to make the time spent in prison a blessing rather than a curse.  There is plenty of time in the prison setting to deepen one’s prayer life, to discover that if we cannot find God in the midst of our daily life (even in the prison setting) how will we ever expect to encounter God anywhere?  God can only be present to us in the here and now, and we must open our eyes to see God in the present moment. "

Father Matthew Habiger encourages parishioners to get involved with prison ministry if they feel called to do so. He encourages something as simple as a being a pen pal or for those who have more time to commit, to do something more involved like serving as a regular volunteer.  "We find that oblates in prison are very appreciative of whatever you do for them." 

If you are interested in finding out more about prison ministry, please contact Deacon Dan Leetch at (719) 544-9861 ext. 1117 or dleetch@dioceseofpueblo.org.