Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Br. Zachary: In the Lord's Service

by Krista Hall


Saint Meinrad's first outreach in the world is the daily prayer of the monastic community. It has also been the tradition for monks to go out and work beyond the monastery.

To do that, monks serve as teachers, pastors of parishes, and chaplains. For the last 10 years, Br. Zachary Wilberding, OSB, has been the coordinator of the Catholic prison ministry at Branchville Correctional Facility, an all-male, medium-security prison about 20 miles from Saint Meinrad Archabbey.

"Prayer is our first ministry, but that prayer then grows and moves us out of the monastery to work with people outside," says Br. Zachary. "The prison ministry is just a natural extension of that."

Br. Zachary became involved with prison ministry while he was pursuing a degree in ministry. He needed some practical experience, so he contacted the chaplain at Branchville and setup an internship.

The chaplain was a Protestant minister, and he asked Br. Zachary to create a program to help Catholic offenders learn more about their faith.

He started the Catholic Faith Information Group that meets on Friday evenings. At the first meeting, there were three men, but within a year the group had grown to 10-15 men.

Br. Zachary aims to humanize the offenders. At Branchville, everyone goes by his last name, like Smith or Jones. Br. Zachary began using first names and it made an impression on the men right off the bat.

"The point being, you're not just Smith or Jones. There's more to you," says Br. Zachary.

"It's important for people to have a chance to become more human and to grow as human beings, and prison is a hard place for them to do that."

About six months after starting the Catholic Faith Information Group, Br. Zachary's internship ended. The offenders felt the group was valuable, so he asked permission from the abbot to continue his work at Branchville. That's when it became something more than an internship.

Fr. Sean Hoppe, OSB, a monk of Saint Meinrad, had been celebrating Mass with the offenders on Sundays, but he went out of the country for a couple months. Br. Zachary took on organizing priests from the monastery and local parishes to celebrate Mass with the men. He hoped the Mass would become something the men could actively participate in.

He would ask offenders do the Scripture readings and bring up the gifts of bread and wine. Br. Zachary had white vestments made so another offender could be the server for the priest at the altar.

"There were all of these different ways I hoped they were taking ownership of the Mass, and they were doing things that we could affirm," explains Br. Zachary. "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 help them develop self-esteem through that."

Over the last decade, Br. Zachary has helped organize other programs. He started a rosary devotion on Monday afternoons that a couple of lay men volunteer to lead and a Bible study on Monday evenings. Saint Meinrad seminarians began going to Branchville weekly as part of their pastoral formation. Fr. Jeremy King, OSB, also became involved with the prison ministry, meeting with the men one-on-one or in small groups. 

"One of the strengths of this is that it isn't just me. There are a lot of people from Saint Meinrad and from the wider community, lay people as well as monks and other local priests," explains Br. Zachary. "This way, the men hear a number of voices, but all of them witnessing to what their faith can offer them."

The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, inspires Br. Zachary's ministry. It talks about separating the sheep from the goats. Jesus says the people who will come into his kingdom are the ones who visited him in prison, cared for him when he was sick, and fed him when he was hungry.

It is a spiritual practice for Br. Zachary to visit people in prison. Jesus says if you do these services for the least of his brothers, you do it for him.

"I was a nurse for 20 years before becoming a monk, and that was caring for Jesus when he was sick, so I'm still doing that," says Br. Zachary. "I think when you serve somebody, when you do something good for somebody, you are doing it for God. I figure they're all Jesus' brothers, so let's go do it."

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.