Faith incarcerated

Not for everybody, say volunteers, but ministry behind bars is touched by grace


by Shelia Myers

TOPEKA — As female inmates at the Topeka Correctional Facility (TCF) gathered for Mass celebrated by Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher on Dec. 19, a prayerful intensity filled the room.

That intensity has drawn volunteers Mike and Carol Glotzbach, parishioners of Mother Teresa of Calcutta Church in Topeka, to prison ministry for nearly 25 years.

“If you want to pray, pray with prisoners,” said Mike Glotzbach. “If you had the intensity those 10 ladies bring, multiplied by 800 people in your average parish, you’d blow the roof off.”

It’s an ardency you have to experience to believe, said volunteer Betty Henderson, of St. Matthew Parish, Topeka. Henderson and her husband John have worked with the women of TCF for seven years.

“I invited [a seminarian] to attend a service once and he could not believe the presence of the Holy Spirit with these ladies,” she said.

One of the corporal works of mercy, prison ministry can be a source of abundant grace for those involved, said the volunteers. But it’s not for everyone. The Glotzbachs, the Hendersons and a handful of other prison ministers do it because they feel the presence of the Holy Spirit, a sliver of light in the shadows of prison.

TCF, also known as “Central,” houses about 450 minimum- and medium- security female prisoners. Prison ministers offer a range of religious activities to serve the spiritual needs of inmates, including Communion services, religious education classes and Bible study.

They also direct programs that serve the emotional needs of the women.

Crafting a future

Many of the women who arrive at TCF bring with them loads of emotional baggage, including the pain that comes from abuse.

“Eighty-five to 90 percent of [the women] have been abused at some time in their life by a male,” said Mike Glotzbach. “Many grew up in dysfunctional homes. When you grow up in a dysfunctional home and you leave, you make another one for yourself.”

The abuse has eviscerated the women’s self-confidence and convinced them their only value is tied to their sexuality.

To improve the women’s self-esteem, Carroll Glotzbach and other volunteers teach the women crafting skills, using donated materials.

Through the program, called “No Strings Attached,” inmates have created hundreds of items for the community — sewing “burden” blankets and crocheting stuffed animals for the children of the incarcerated; stitching lap blankets for nursing home residents; knitting hats and scarves for breast cancer patients, and preemie hats for newborns; and making slippers for inmates on Mother’s and Father’s Day. They also make greet- ing cards and scrapbooks.

“They are redefining who they are through crafting,” said Carroll Glotzbach. “They want to give back. They’re givers, not takers.”

Learning to let go

While crafting helps inmates build their self-esteem, another prison ministry program delves into deeper emotional territory.

Frank Werder, 83, the “unofficial” head of the TCF prison ministry, and social worker Sharon Highberger hold grief counseling sessions for the inmates.

Through journaling and group therapy, the “Growing through Loss” program helps women let go of the paralyzing grief they have harbored for decades. “To be honest, you hear about the most cruel, awful treatment of people you’ve ever heard,” said Werder. “[The women] start coming because their grandma died, but then they talk about the loss of children, the loss of spouses, the loss of innocence. It’s very difficult and traumatizing.”

So traumatizing, in fact, that Werder and Highberger cut back from three to two 12-week sessions a year to give themselves a reprieve.

Werder, a certified chaplain with experience in mental health, credits the Holy Spirit with steering him toward prison ministry 20 years ago. It’s the small miracles he sees repeatedly that inspire him, things others would call co- incidences.

“There are no coincidences,” said Werder. “Coincidences are small miracles where God wishes to remain anonymous.”

On fire for the Lord

Nelda Woolverton, 53, might be one of those miracles. An inmate at TCF since 1991, Woolverton is serving two sentences: a life sentence for killing her boyfriend and 15-to-life for attempting to kill the woman she caught him with.

Woolverton converted to Catholicism in 2005, years after experiencing God’s presence at a Communion service.

The daughter of a Nazarene minister, Woolverton had attended Protestant services at TCF for a long time, but the services became distressing for her.

“I got tired of hearing doctrines preached with a lot of pressure I didn’t believe in,” she said. “So I quit going for awhile and had personal devotions in my room.”

When a good friend of Woolverton’s was killed in a car crash, someone Woolverton had sponsored through Alcoholics Anonymous in prison, she felt the need to attend services. It was the first Sunday after New Year’s Day.

“I thought that would be a good way to start the new year,” Woolverton said.

She ended up attending the Catholic service and was warmly welcomed.

“I felt very at home there,” she said. “When we knelt after the Eucharist to pray, I felt God. I felt like I had come home and I have not missed a Sunday since. I immediately began religious education classes with Betty Henderson.”

Archbishop Keleher confirmed Woolverton in 2007.

Next July, Woolverton will go before the parole board for the first time since arriving at TCF.

“We’re praying really hard she is released,” said Henderson. “She’s a poster child for what every prisoner should become.”

Indeed, the list of Woolverton’s attributes is impressive.

She serves as a sacristan, arriving 20 to 30 minutes before the service to set up the table used for Mass. She has a beautiful singing voice and participates wholeheartedly. She started a weekly rosary prayer circle for inmates. The staff frequently calls on her to comfort other inmates during a crisis.

In summary, she’s been a positive influence on the Catholic community at TCF.

“There’s something about her that’s just special,” said Henderson. “She’s on fire for the Lord. She loves Jesus.”

Woolverton credits the prison ministry for lighting that fire and for giving her the strength to serve each day of her sentence.

“It takes a lot of spiritual strength to live here peacefully,” said Woolverton. “My faith and the volunteers who bring our Communion services bring me peace and strength.”

Risk and reward

Inmates like Woolverton who keep coming to services are rare. In prison ministry, you’re dealing with a very transient population.

“It’s terrible to spend five or six years getting to know someone, and then say, ‘See ya!’” Henderson said.

Worse still, when prisoners are released on parole, the prison ministers are prohibited from contacting them for two years. By that time, they’ve lost touch. It’s the nature of prison ministry.

“It isn’t fair; it isn’t right,” Henderson explained, repeating something Werder told her years ago.

“It’s prison.”

Leave a Reply