Deacon candidates plan summer retreats for inmates
by William J. Dagendesh
COLORADO SPRINGS. Two weekend retreats designed to provide an opportunity to share in the love and joy of knowing God and Catholicism are being offered to local prisoners.
Titled “Questionable Characters,” the retreats are being offered to local inmates. The first retreat will be held June 23-25 at the Limon Correctional Facility (LCF), and the second retreat will be held from July 7-9 at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility (BVCF).
Approximately 20 to 25 men per retreat will gather to discuss several Christian-themed topics. Inmate retreats are brought to these units to help offenders enter into a spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ. Participants are given the opportunity to share in the love and joy of learning about God and entering into a relationship with him.
The retreat seeks to educate inmates about the Catholic faith through Mass, prayer, group discussions, biblical re-enactments, videos and testimony. Several hands-on exercises are being planned and role playing may be included.
Food and refreshments will be provided, and the retreats will conclude with confessions, Mass and a barbecue. The retreats are free to offenders and an anonymous donor has covered food costs.
According to Deacon Cliff Donnelly, director of Prison and Jail Ministry, the retreats are being created and delivered by the current cohort of diaconate candidates that are scheduled for ordination in May 2024.
“Much like a confirmation service project, this can be considered as a pre-ordination service project,” Deacon Cliff said.
Deacon Cliff said this particular retreat will be limited to those Catholic offenders that have been regularly attending Catholic community activities within each facility. He believes this is the first time such retreats have been held for inmates. “To our knowledge, this is the first Catholic oriented retreat offered within either facility,” Deacon Cliff said.
Two teams, each made up of five to seven deacon candidates, are primarily responsible for leading the retreats, with support from Deacon Cliff and Deacon Russ Barrows with the Department of Corrections.
Candidates leading the Buena Vista retreat are Nolan Behr (team lead), Greg Morgan, Bob Marquez, Grove Higgins, Jeff Hanson and Jim Zielenski, with Father Jaimes Ponce as chaplain.
Candidates leading the Limon retreat are David Talafuse (team lead), Aaron Menke, Kevin Dunbaugh, Mike Dalton, Tom Resman, with Capuchin Father Bill Kraus as chaplain. Candidates Marc Wood and C.J. Johnson will provide logistical support.
Deacon Cliff said the retreats offer a second chance at hope, faith and redemption, and that he hopes the experience will inspire inmates to lay down their flags for Christ and embrace a Christian life.
The retreats are a powerful community building experience as inmates receive guidance to assist them in their faith journey. Holy Scripture and the teachings of the Catholic Church seve as blueprints for the retreats.
“The purpose of these retreats or to help develop the faith of Catholic offenders incarcerated within our diocese. Also, to expose future deacons to service on the periphery of society and the value of meeting people where they are,” Deacon Cliff said.
In an September 2019 article titled “How Adoration and Retreats Are Transforming Prisoners,” author Plinio Maria Solimeo wrote about the positive results of a similar program taking place in Texas.
“It is a striking testimony to the transformative power of the Church’s ministry. The experimental program in Texas encouraged inmates to participate in religious retreats. Many of the participants were ‘very troublesome’ prisoners embroiled in constant conflicts. But the program’s beneficial effects were quickly confirmed by the prison authorities,” Solimeo wrote.
However, for many people, “troublesome” might be an understatement. Twenty years ago, BVCF buildings were referred to as “Gladiator School” because most of Colorado’s younger gang members were sent there. During that time the fighting and violence was at a record high.
LCF is an all-male, Level IV facility with a capacity of 930 prisoners. Inmates are housed in one of six general population living units which hold between 154 and 160 inmates.
However, such numbers don’t deter Deacon Cliff, who believes everyone starves for Jesus.
“We are all working on our faith and this particular retreat will be focusing on four major biblical characters that have interesting pasts and more interesting conversions,” Deacon Cliff said.
“The four characters are Jacob, King David, Saint Peter, and Saint Paul. We will trace the life of each of these great characters and discuss their flaws and their conversions.”
Each offender is expected to conduct a deep dive on these four major biblical characters, understand their flaws, and understand their conversion and the great things that each man has accomplished, Deacon Cliff said.
“The goal is for the offender to understand that none of these men had perfect lives, far from it, and that they found redemption through Christ. We hope that they (inmates) can see themselves in these biblical characters and that through them they too can find salvation and redemption,” Deacon Cliff said.
No doubt the Catholic community within each facility will benefit from these retreats. According to Deacon Cliff, the goal is for the community to grow as a unit and continue to fledge and grow within each facility.
“We will continue with our weekly Catholic Community meetings and may schedule another retreat next year or repeat this retreat for other offenders. The goal is for these men to see the crimes that they’ve committed as behind them, that their future is in front of them and that Christ can be their path to both a better life on earth and eternal salvation,” Deacon Cliff said.