BR. ZACHARY WILBERDING: When you serve somebody, when you do something good for somebody, you are doing it for God.
BR. JOEL BLAIZE: I’m Br. Joel.
BR. KOLBE WOLNIAKOWSKI: And I’m Br. Kolbe. You’re listening to Echoes from the Bell Tower, stories of wit and wisdom from Benedictine monks who live, work and pray in southern Indiana.
BR. JOEL: Our last episode was about the seminary’s pastoral formation program. We talked a lot about student ministry experiences. In today’s episode, we are going to switch over to the monastery and talk about Saint Meinrad’s involvement with ministry at Branchville Correctional Facility. The Catholic prison ministry at Branchville has become the passion of one monk in particular.
BR. ZACHARY: Yes, I am Br. Zachary Wilberding and I am a Benedictine monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey.
BR. KOLBE: Br. Zachary was a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, for 11 years. Then he transferred to Saint Meinrad in 2008. So, he has been a monk for 24 years.
BR. ZACHARY: And currently, I am the Director of Vocations for the monastery, helping young people who think they’re interested in a monastic vocation, helping them to work that out and discern whether that’s appropriate for them. Then I also work in prison ministry, and have several side jobs along the way, so I keep fairly busy.
BR. JOEL: Saint Meinrad’s main ministry or outreach is our daily prayer. We gather in the Archabbey Church five times a day to pray on behalf of the whole world. For monasteries that are more contemplative, that may be the extent of their ministry.
BR. ZACHARY: For us, it’s been part of our tradition as monks to go out – indeed, to have outreach to the world. So our community has had monks who work beyond the monastery as teachers, as pastors of parishes, as chaplains. The prison ministry is just another one of those outreach things.
BR. KOLBE: Br. Zachary has been involved with prison ministry at Branchville Correctional Facility for about 12 years. Branchville is a medium-security state prison for men and, on a usual day, the number of offenders there is around 1,200 to 1,400.
BR. ZACHARY: Most of the men are there for a sentence of anywhere from one to eight years, so this generally includes things that are not capital crimes, but generally, lots of drug dealing, drug possession, fraud, bad check writing, assault, and so some violent crimes.
BR. JOEL: The Catholic ministry at Branchville has grown since Br. Zachary first started going there. He originally got involved there because he was working on a degree in ministry and needed more practical experience. So he talked with the chaplain and arranged an internship.
BR. ZACHARY: In the end, there was not a lot to do in that internship, but the chaplain, who was a Protestant minister, came to me and said, “You know, we have Catholic offenders who would like to know more about their faith and I think you could probably help them with that.”
BR. KOLBE: Br. Zachary began a Catholic Faith Information Group that would meet every Friday. When the group met for the first time, three men showed up, and they sat down and talked about what the men wanted to learn and slowly the group began to grow.
BR. ZACHARY: If I were to talk about my approach to this, I do a couple of things, and they're a little bit different. In the prison, everybody goes by their last name. It’s Smith, Jones, or it’s Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones. I use people’s first names, and the point being, you’re not just Smith or Jones, there’s more to you. So, I started doing that right off the bat and I think that made kind of an impression on them.
Then, we just picked out and developed sort of a scheme of topics that we would talk about on these Friday nights, and gradually, very gradually, the number began to grow, and I would say that within a year, we probably had anywhere from 10 to 15 men attending the group.
BR. JOEL: Br. Zachary’s internship was only for a semester. When it ended, he was ready to move on, but the men wanted to continue to meet. Br. Zachary met with the abbot and checked with the prison and both said it was OK for the group to continue.
BR. ZACHARY: So we just kept on going. And that’s when it kind of became something other than an internship. Because it wasn’t too long after that, that the priest, who had been celebrating Mass with the inmates on Sundays for a number of years, had to go out of the country for a while, and so I took that on and I began organizing priests from the monastery and from parishes to come in and celebrate Mass on Sundays with the men.
BR. KOLBE: Within the first year of Br. Zachary getting involved at Branchville, he had the Friday night Catholic information group and the Sunday Mass going. Br. Zachary’s goal was to get the men involved in the Mass. He had white vestments made so an offender could be the server at the altar with the priest. They started to do the offertory procession and two offenders would bring up the bread and wine. An offender would do the Scripture readings during Mass.
BR. ZACHARY: Pretty soon, there were all of these different ways that I hoped they were kind of taking ownership for the Mass, and they were doing things that we could affirm. They’ve done a lot of things that people can’t affirm, but they were doing things here that you could say, “Wow, that’s great, thank you, you did a good job,” and helped them develop some self-esteem through that. They’re small things, but that’s where you start.
BR. JOEL: Then the prison chaplain suggested starting a rosary devotion for the men. Br. Zachary thought that was a good idea, so the chaplain gave him a time on Monday afternoons. At the same time, there were some lay men who were wanting to get involved with the Catholic ministry at Branchville. Br. Zachary was able to arrange for these men to lead the rosary devotion.
BR. KOLBE: At one point, Br. Zachary led a Bible study during the Friday night faith formation group. The men liked it so much that they asked for a separate evening just for Bible study. That takes place on Mondays.
BR. ZACHARY: So, to kind of recap what we have going there. We have Sunday Mass, which I am present for; I coordinate that. We have Monday rosary devotion, led by lay Catholics. We have Monday night Bible study, led by me. Friday night Catholic Faith Information Group, led by me. We have a pretty full scheme of activities, yes.
BR. JOEL: Br. Zachary says one of the strengths of the Catholic programs offered at Branchville is that he is not the only person involved. There are a lot of people who volunteer to help.
BR. ZACHARY: There are lots of people from Saint Meinrad and from the wider community, lay people, as well as monks, and even some other priests as well. So, we’ve got a big involvement of people here, which I think is good. And this way, the men hear a number of voices, but all of them witnessing to what their faith can offer them.
BR. KOLBE: Seminarians have also been involved with the prison ministry at Branchville. Br. Zachary says it is important for seminarians to see beyond the parish church world. Prison ministry puts them in touch with people they wouldn’t ordinarily meet.
BR. ZACHARY: The seminarians may think that this is a rare world, and it may not even occur to them that this is a place where the Church is called to ministry. So for them to come into the prison and meet this population and realize that many of these are men with real faith, who have a real desire to know God and to serve God, and so this is a part of society that we can’t overlook, in terms of ministering to people.
BR. JOEL: One seminarian who was involved with the prison ministry at Branchville was Fr. Vinny Gillmore. He graduated from Saint Meinrad and was ordained in 2019 for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. When he was in his first year of theology studies, he was assigned to help Br. Zachary with the Bible study at Branchville.
FR. VINNY GILLMORE: That taught me so much about what a good Bible study can look like. One of the things I think I learned was just taking as much time as is needed. He had a lesson plan and he had a calendar planned out, but he didn’t mind getting behind on that. He just encouraged the discussion and fielding the questions from the guys. They were really, really invested in it. It was awesome to see that.
BR. KOLBE: Fr. Vinny enjoyed the real, honest conversations that they would have during the Bible studies. He says those kinds of conversations, especially among groups of men, are rare.
FR. VINNY: The vulnerability in their sharing, their ability to open up their heart and to hear Jesus on his terms, which is something very rarely accomplished with anybody these days because we’re too rushed, we’re too unwilling to really open our hearts, we’re too distracted often, but they have a way of just kind of cutting through all of those excuses and getting to the heart of the Gospel and living very holy lives because of it.
BR. JOEL: The thing that surprised Fr. Vinny the most about his ministry at Branchville was how readily the men took to the Scriptures and made them a part of their lives.
FR. VINNY: That inspires me still to this day to really dig deeper into Scriptures, let them work on my heart and shape it and form it and keep working on it, to never give up on that. When I’m being strongly affected by the Scriptures, even when it’s painful, especially when it’s painful, that’s when God’s work is happening and it’s reason to rejoice.
BR. KOLBE: Fr. Vinny says the offenders were doing serious lectio divina throughout the week because they have enough spare time and many of the men suffer from insomnia.
FR. VINNY: Most men in that facility, this was even a bigger surprise for me, I think that they lived very good holy lives in there. Often the problem is they don’t have the kind of supports they need outside of prison to be able to keep living that holy life, to be able to not fall for the same people they were dependent on.
BR. JOEL: One of Br. Zachary’s goals with the Catholic ministry programs at Branchville is to establish a community for the men.
BR. ZACHARY: There are gang problems in prison, and there are gang problems in prison because there are gangs outside prisons. I am pretty sure that there are gangs because people don’t belong to anybody. People don’t have a community; they don’t have a reliable family structure. A gang gives you somebody to belong to.
If we can help them realize through faith the value of community as being the body of Christ, then I hope we’re going someplace that will help them go someplace better.
BR. KOLBE: During the 12 years Br. Zachary has been involved with the ministry at Branchville, over 20 men have been baptized. Several men have become Benedictine Oblates of Saint Meinrad.
BR. JOEL: Br. Zachary has received letters from parents that say their sons are more peaceful and seem happier and that they believe it’s because of the Catholic ministry programs their sons are involved in. Some men end up back in prison after being released and Br. Zachary is always there to give them another chance. There are also men who leave prison and things do work out.
BR. KOLBE: Several years ago, an offender wanted to be baptized, so Br. Zachary was helping him prepare for that. The offender ended up being released from prison and got advanced placement in the RCIA program at the Catholic parish in his hometown.
BR. ZACHARY: He is out of prison now five years. He is clean and sober. He works. He has a very good job, makes good money, has his own home, has a lady friend. And he comes here to Saint Meinrad once a year for a retreat with men from his parish and is also ... he’s now been out of prison long enough that he can begin volunteering and is hoping to volunteer at a facility near his hometown. So, yes, we can cite some success stories and some things where things are really working out for people. Well, sometimes they don’t work out. Okay, then we start again.
BR. JOEL: Br. Zachary continues to do prison ministry for practical reasons. He says it’s important for people to have a chance to grow as human beings and prison is a hard place to do that. He has seen the faith-based programs make a difference for offenders. He also really enjoys his ministry at Branchville.
BR. ZACHARY: This is a spiritual practice to go and visit people in prison. The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, talks about Jesus separating the sheep from the goats. The people who are going to come into his kingdom are the ones who, He says, visited Him in prison and cared for Him when He was sick and fed Him when He was hungry. And they say, “When did we do that?” And He said, “Well, you did it for the least of these brothers of mine, and therefore, you did it to me.” So, I figure, they’re all Jesus’ brothers, so let’s go do it.
CREDITS: BR. JOEL: We hope you enjoyed today’s episode on the Catholic prison ministry at Branchville Correctional Facility.
BR. KOLBE: This episode was edited and produced by Krista Hall, with the help of Br. Joel Blaize, Br. Kolbe Wolniakowski, Mary Jeanne Schumacher, Jim Paquette, Tammy Schuetter and Christian Mocek. The music for this podcast was written and produced by Br. Joel.
BR. JOEL: Thanks also to Br. Zachary Wilberding and Fr. Vinny Gillmore. If you are enjoying “Echoes from the Bell Tower,” tell your friends and subscribe to it on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher or your favorite listening platform.
BR. KOLBE: You can view some photos taken in 2013 of Sunday Mass at Branchville and listen to all of our past episodes on our website at saintmeinrad.edu/echoes.
FR. VINNY: But one of them went all sermon mode on him and he says, “Man, don’t you even be thinking about, don’t entertain those thoughts. You’ve got to leave, you snitch in a ditch.”