This congregation worships in prison


By Barb Arland-Fye

Inmates at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison pose for a photo after Mass in the prison chapel with Father Gary Beckman (far right), pastor of St. John Parish in Houghton and St. James Parish in St. Paul; deacon candidate Dave Sallen, far left, and Ruth Coffey (third from left, first row), who are members of Holy Family Parish in Fort Madison. Their pastor, Father David Wilkening, and other priests of the Keokuk Deanery also celebrate Mass at the prison on a rotating basis

FORT MADISON — Some members of Holy Family Parish may be absent from weekend Masses, but they’re part of the congregation just the same from their residence inside the Iowa State Penitentiary.
Several Catholics from Holy Family, its pastor, and other priests in the Keokuk Deanery (which includes Fort Madison), minster to prison inmates on a regular basis and are grateful for the privilege.
“They are my parishioners,” said Father David Wilkening, Holy Family’s pastor. “It’s unfortunate there is not full-time pastoral ministry there.” State budget cuts eli­m­inated the position of a Catholic chaplain who had ministered for years at the prison.
While Fr. Wilkening isn’t privy to the crimes the prisoners have committed, he acknowledges the gravity of wrongdoing. Some are serving life terms. Nonetheless, “there’s a hunger for the Lord there.”
He and other priests from the deanery take turns celebrating Mass for prisoners on the second Wednesday of the month; Deacon Candidate Dave Sallen leads a Communion service for the prisoners on the fourth Wednesday of the month.
“I don’t think people realize they are a Catholic congregation. I’m glad we can open up this avenue for them, so that they can participate more fully in the life of the Church,” Sallen said.
In the two years since he has been ministering at the prison, the number of inmates participating in Mass and Communion services has doubled, with about 25 in attendance, he said. “Seeing their faith affects my faith. They’re so eager for the Mass.”
Sallen said his interest in prison ministry grew after he retired from a 30-year career as chief public defender for Lee, Henry, Louisa and Des Moines counties.
Sallen was familiar with the Fort Madison prison and a number of professionals employed there. “It’s a natural for me. Doors opened when I retired.”
Fr. Wilkening thinks prison ministry is something God is calling Sallen to, but it is up to Bishop Martin Amos to decide how best to make use of the Fort Madison man’s gifts. Sallen is one of 12 deacon candidates anticipating ordination to the diaconate next summer.
Sallen is thankful for the support of his pastor and the other priests to make this ministry possible. He’s also grateful that Ruth Coffey, another Holy Family parishioner, accepted his offer to join him in prison ministry. Coffey is the sister of the late Father Gerald Hoenig, who previously served more than 30 years as chaplain at the Fort Madison prison. “It’s a nice continuity,” Sallen said.
Coffey serves as a lector and as a listener for the men after services. Sometimes they just need someone to talk to, she explained. Before her brother died earlier this year, he told her, “I’m so happy you’re up there,” Coffey said.
“I feel like a mother and a grandmother to these fellows … I’m honored that I got asked to do that,” she added. “All of these guys who come to (services) have adjusted to where they are; they’re making the best of it. They support one another. They look like my kids and my grandkids.”

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