Contributing writer

Due to COVID-19 restrictions in March 2020, the Illinois Department of Corrections closed all prisons, jails and work camp access to clergy and lay volunteers who were providing Catholic service ministry to detainees and those incarcerated.

On August 24, 2021, Father Nick Junker, pastor at St. Mary the Immaculate Conception in Mt. Vernon, enthusiastically posted on Facebook that he celebrated Mass at the Big Muddy River Correctional Center in Ina. This was the first time in more than 18 months that the men at Big Muddy could receive the sacraments.

“The men were so grateful to be able to celebrate the Eucharist after such a long time without it,” Father Junker says. “They were reverent, lively, attentive and engaged.”

During the time when Mass couldn’t be held, the men would watch the “Word on Fire” series by Bishop Robert Barron and pray among themselves.

“Though they couldn’t receive Eucharist, this would still practice their faith and grow in faith. I find that inspiring,” Father Junker says.

Father Junker; Father Joel Seipp, the parochial vicar at St. Mary; and Father Urban Osuji, pastor at St. Joseph in Benton, will rotate visiting the prison.

There are four houses in the prison. Because of COVID-19 precautions, the prisoners cannot interact with the men from the other houses. For now, each group may attend Mass once a month. Mass will be held weekly with one group at a time, until it is determined that they can attend as a larger group.

Prison and Reentry Ministry in the Diocese of Belleville has the mission of bringing Catholic service and perspective to all men and women detainees, the incarcerated and returning citizens in the 28 counties of southern Illinois.

This includes not only those confined or released from federal, state and local correctional institutions, but it also reaches out to their families, their victims, and the entire community.

The mission is based on the principles of restorative justice to respect and restore each as individuals, repair broken relationships, and contribute to the common good.

“It’s important for us to be reminded that these men are members of our parish family even though we’ve never met them and likely never will,” Father Junker says.

“In the same way, we consider the people who are in hospitals, assisted living facilities and homebound parishioners and do what we can to be inclusive and support them, spiritually and otherwise.”

In 2007, the Catholic Conference of Illinois brought together the individuals responsible for prison ministry in the six dioceses of Illinois: Chicago, Rockford, Peoria, Joliet, Springfield and Belleville.

This discussion led to the formation in 2008 of the Illinois Prison and Jail Ministry Network, which embraces all Church members and agencies whose ministries are related to all aspects of incarceration and returning citizens back into the community.

Each of the six dioceses has a coordinator of prison ministry appointed by their respective Bishop and meet frequently via conference calls, ZOOM and in-person sessions. Louis Slapshak is the associate coordinator for the Diocese of Belleville.

Father Junker says even though it’s been a long time for them without attending Mass, the 12 men who attended picked up right where they left off.

“One inmate played the organ, another worked as a sacristan to help set up and take down, and one coordinated liturgical ministry, inviting the men who were present to offer readings,” he says.

“I was moved when one inmate, who only speaks English, approached me and asked that the second reading be read in Spanish for the benefit of the Spanish-speaking worshipers who were present. The charity they showed not only to me but to one another was inspiring.”

During the prayers of the faithful, Father Junker opened the floor for them to vocalize their intentions. One of the men prayed for the people of St. Mary parish.

Father Junker offered time for confession prior to Mass. He also brought prayer resources for the men, some of which were donated by parishioners.

Father Junker shared the news that Father John Iffert had been named Bishop-elect of Covington in Kentucky.

“When I told them he had been named a Bishop and suggested we pray for him, they were incredulous and delighted! They remembered him fondly,” he says.

Father Junker says he is inspired by the older priests who have been prison chaplains for a long time. He specifically mentions Father Leo Hayes, who became a prison chaplain at Menard Correctional Facility in Chester in 1974. He retired in 1999 as a senior chaplain after 25 years.

“Their dedication speaks of them being fulfilled by this ministry,” he says.

The vision of Prison and Reentry Ministry is to see that Catholic prisoners are provided the ordinary sacramental, catechetical and other ministries of the Church, as well as put into practice Catholic Social Teachings in terms of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Father Junker ended his Facebook post by saying, “Let us remember the incarcerated in prayer and be open to the possibility of change in our lives and in the lives of all redeemed sinners. God is the source of all goodness, and love is the source of all conversion. As Pope Saint John Paul II said: ‘The worst prison would be a closed heart.’”