Local Ministries

Ministry behind bars

Archbishop Keleher delivers the sacraments to the women of the Topeka Correctional Facility

by Jessica Langdon

TOPEKA — On the day of the Chrism Mass in April 2011, Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher picked out of the crowd two faces he knew from a different place entirely — prison.

“You haven’t invited me back to prison lately,” Archbishop Keleher told Mike and Caroll Glotzbach. The Glotzbachs split their time between Christ the King Parish in Topeka, where Caroll is a charter member, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish, where Mike works.

For more than two decades, the Glotzbachs have been involved in women’s prison ministry at the Topeka Correctional Facility.

That’s where they got to know Archbishop Keleher, who, in retirement, has made his prison ministry work one of his priorities.

Mike Glotzbach was touched by the archbishop’s interest in returning to this facility in Topeka.

“He genuinely wanted to come back to Topeka to be with those ladies,” Mike Glotzbach said. “It’s awe-inspiring. It really is.”

And so they started making plans.

A special occasion

Archbishop Keleher arrived at the Topeka Correctional Facility on Dec. 20 to hear confessions, celebrate Mass, and to baptize and confirm.

Michael Rebout, a parishioner at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Kansas City, Kan., often travels with him to serve as an acolyte.

The facility houses women from across the state of Kansas. This particular building is considered minimum- to medium-security.

When Archbishop Keleher arrived, he discovered there had been a drill earlier in the day. So after he went through the required security measures, he learned there would be about an hour’s delay so the women could eat.

That didn’t turn out to be the case, however. To his surprise, women started arriving for the service right away.

“They skipped dinner so they wouldn’t be late, God bless them,” said Archbishop Keleher.

They told him they would have a snack when they finished.

Food for the soul was a more immediate concern.

Powerful voices praising God

Archbishop Keleher began the day by hearing confessions.

He found the women to be very sincere and serious about their faith.

After the sacrament of reconciliation came the baptism and confirmation of Vickie Lumley and Jamie Hernandez, followed by their first Eucharist. After Aleisha Gremmel was received into the church, confirmed and received her first Eucharist; Yvonne Ornelas Pando was also confirmed.

Other inmates joined the four for the Mass that followed, which took place in a prison meeting room. A simple table served as the altar, and a green chalkboard provided the backdrop.

Despite the rustic surroundings, the archbishop found the women’s faith humbling to witness.

They didn’t have a piano or organ, but you’d never miss one here, Archbishop Keleher noted. They used recorded music, and it perfectly complemented the moving sound of the women’s voices as they sang the hymns.

‘You can’t keep God out’

The archbishop sees women here who are trying to lead a devout life.

“If it’s a cave, if it’s a prison, if it’s barbed wire, if it’s a concentration camp, you can’t keep God out,” he said.

He praises the work of the volunteers who keep the ministries running here and at other prisons.

When Mike Glotzbach visits on Sundays for Communion services with the women, he picks up on a lot of power in the prayers.

“If there were the kind of intense prayer accompanying every aspect of the Mass in any given parish like we have from our dozen or so ladies that show up every Sunday, it would just be mind-boggling,” said Glotzbach. “They’re that intense in their prayer, — what they’re about, what they’re doing.”

Many of the women have jobs, whether inside the prison or somewhere else. They carve as much time out of their schedules as they can to pray and learn more about their faith.

The Glotzbachs see the women every other Sunday; they alternate with volunteer Frank Werder, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Valley Falls. One night a week, Betty Henderson, a member of St. Matthew Parish in Topeka, volunteers to go to the prison to lead a two-hour study session. Nelda Woolverton converted to the Catholic faith. An inmate here, she assists in the sessions and has served as a sponsor for other women.

The study sessions give the women a chance to update their knowledge of their faith.

“Sometimes they’ll bring a friend along,” said Mike Glotzbach. “And sometimes that friend will end up converting.”

Changing lives

Glotzbach still remembers what one inmate told him early on in his years of prison ministry.

“We didn’t get here by singing too loud in the choir,” she said.

Glotzbach knows some of the women who find themselves within these walls might never have known what many would consider a normal relationship. For some, drugs were a way of life.

One has told him she’s glad she’s here; if she had still been out on the streets living the life she had been, she would be dead.

“You can see the conversion of their life,” said Glotzbach. “You can see their dedication to their faith.”

For those with just a short time left in their sentences, leaders of the program encourage them to go through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program at their own parish once they’re released.

Archbishop Keleher urges the northeastern Kansas community to welcome men and women who are released from prison with an opportunity, if possible.

“The most important thing when a prisoner gets out is to be given a chance at a job,” he said.

Employment allows someone to provide for a family and to begin a new chapter of life with feet on a solid path.

Work of mercy

Archbishop Keleher sees his prison visits as a corporal work of mercy.

Knowing how busy their regular responsibilities keep parish priests, Archbishop Keleher proposed to Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann that he make visiting the prisons part of his ministry in retirement. His offer gladly accepted, Archbishop Keleher and several retired priests have been faithful to this challenging call.

Dealing with the prison bureaucracy isn’t always easy, and there is a lot of training involved. But Archbishop Keleher finds the ministry very rewarding.

In the years he has been visiting prisons, he has only experienced a few tense moments.

In fact, he enjoys his visits and knows the inmates need people who care about them.

The church emphasizes two things inmates need, said Archbishop Keleher.

They need education, which can serve them well beyond these walls one day.

And they need spiritual counseling.

“If they get those two things, there’s a good chance they won’t come back,” he said.

Glotzbach, too, finds the ministry a rewarding one — one in which you really feel as though you’re helping someone.

And the volunteers have a chance to witness a faith that is truly humbling.

“The idea is we go out there for them,” said Glotzbach.

“But we really end up getting as much out of it as they get from us,” he concluded.

About the author

Jessica Langdon

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