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Deacon Cliff Donnelly discovered his vocation through prison ministry

By DEACON CLIFF DONNELLY
10/02/2020 | Comments

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a monthly series featuring a priest or deacon serving in the Diocese of Colorado Springs. This month, the Herald profiles Deacon Cliff Donnelly, who since being ordained in 2016 has served at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. Deacon Donnelly recently joined the Catholic Pastoral Center staff as diocesan Director of Prison and Jail Ministry. He will also work with ministry to the homebound and those at care facilities.

I was born in Wyoming and have lived most of my life in Colorado Springs. After I graduated from the University of Northern Colorado, I joined the Peace Corps and served 2 1/2 years in Southern Chile where I taught at the Technical University of Chile. While serving in the Peace Corps, I met my wife Cecilia. We now have three children and one grandchild.

After my service in the Peace Corps was completed, we moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where I began a more than 30-year career in telecommunications. While living in Cheyenne, I completed a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Wyoming. I worked primarily in sales and marketing, leading both regional and national sales teams in this once high- growth industry.

I took a four-year break from telecom and worked fulltime as a faculty member in the business division at Pikes Peak Community College, where I focused on internationalizing the curriculum and teaching courses such as statistics, business law and business math. 

I am a convert to the Catholic Church. I entered into the faith at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Colorado Springs in the late 1980s. My family and I were members of St. Paul Parish for more than 30 years until my diaconate ordination.

My vocation as a permanent deacon actually had its roots in a family tragedy. On a Sunday evening in December 2000, my sister called to tell me that my nephew was sitting in the Colorado Springs police department and had been charged with first-degree murder.  This led to him receiving a 30-year prison sentence. 

My sister lives in Arizona, so I committed to visiting my nephew at least once per quarter.  And I did.  I began meeting with him weekly while he was going through the adjudication process in El Paso County and then once a quarter at the correctional facility in Buena Vista. For the first two years, my nephew was very angry and bitter and felt like he was a victim and not the guilty one. 

And, then he found Christ.  His entire life changed. Instead of bitterness and anger, he experienced acceptance of what he had done and worked to make amends.  It was a total change — a dying to self and a rebirth in Christ.

Witnessing this transformation was a real blessing.  Over the 14 years of visiting, I experienced my nephew’s faith grow and saw him transformed from a drug addict to a contributing citizen in our community. 

I felt compelled to see if I could help others find this path, and I believed that being a deacon would be one way to work with offenders and help them find Christ in their life. I was accepted into the diaconate formation program in 2010. At work, I became an account manager, which allowed me not to travel so I could focus on formation.

I have had one parish assignment as a deacon — Our Lady of Guadalupe.  I work with Capuchin Father John Toepfer and Father Mark Zacker, as well as Deacon Juan Moreno, at Our Lady of Guadalupe.  We all have been blessed with the ability to speak Spanish, and this is very useful as the parish is predominantly Spanish-speaking. I am involved with Movimiento Familiar Cristiano and the Cursillo movement. Our Lady of Guadalupe is a wonderful parish, and the parishioners have been very welcoming to my wife and me.

 I am the director of prison and jail ministry for our diocese.  I am also two-thirds of the way through the spiritual direction program at the Lanteri Center in Denver and am qualified to lead people through the Ignatian spiritual exercises. 

In my free time,  I love to hike. I have climbed the 101 highest mountains in Colorado as well as completed both the Colorado Trail and the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I find much peace in nature.

My favorite thing about being a deacon is being present with people during critical times in their life.  It is a real joy!

I have not been disappointed.  It is a real joy and blessing to be able to work with those behind bars as they live their journey with Christ.

(Those who feel that they might be called to a vocation as a priest or permanent deacon can contact Father Kyle Ingels at kingels@diocs.org or Deacon Chris Kennedy at ckennedy@diocs.org for more information.)


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