What started as a penance after confession has blossomed into long-term labor of love for a husband and wife who hope others will join their efforts. "To whom much is given, much is expected," said Walter Seibert, by way of explaining why he and his wife Gesuina make up the Prison Ministry of Northern Connecticut.
For the past 15 years, the Seiberts, both septuagenarians, have been involved in prison ministry, which brings prisoners of different faiths together with volunteers. They travel to correctional facilities in Suffield and Enfield three times a week to share their faith with inmates.
Both products of Catholic education, Walter and Ges, as she is known, say the ministry has fortified their faith. Although they describe their sharing of the faith as "Catechism 101," they are challenged by the questions inmates ask.
"We’ve had to answer questions that we never had to look at before because we just took things on faith. But a lot of these guys say, ‘I don’t want to know based upon faith, I want an answer to that,’" Walter said. "So we go back and look up the Church’s teaching."
The Seiberts’ ministry is funded entirely by the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal.
"Last year we got a $2,500 grant from that, and thank God," said Walter, adding that the money is used primarily to buy Bibles and catechisms in English and Spanish.
"We are so blessed," said Ges. "If somebody had told me, ‘One day, you’re going to enjoy going to prison,’ I would have said, ‘You’re out of your mind.’"The Seiberts, who have been married for 55 years, live at St. Joseph’s Residence, a home for the elderly run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.
They met on a blind date in college in the 1950s, were married in New York during a hurricane and "have done everything together ever since," said Ges with an infectious laugh.
Walter said when he was in business as a certified public accountant and Ges was raising their three children, they often thought, "God wants us to do something with our faith because we had been given so much, and we kept asking, ‘Lord, what do you want us to do?’ And no matter what we put our hands to," such as teaching religious education and other volunteerism, "nothing seemed to gel."
In 1996, Deacon Rene Kieda, then the Catholic chaplain at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, put a notice into the St. Martha Parish bulletin for people to help with the prison ministries program
Walter said he thanked God for not calling him to that ministry.
Two weeks later, when the Walter and Ges were at Mass, Deacon Robert Bernd talked about his involvement with the ministry.
Walter said he again thanked God for not calling him to that ministry.
Shortly after that, Walter said, when he went to confession, the priest told him to read Matthew 25 as a penance. It was the line "[For I was] in prison and you visited me" that shaped the couple’s future.
They started by visiting MacDougall-Walker and Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield every two weeks.
Now, they visit MacDougall-Walker twice a week and Carl Robinson weekly. They are there for about two hours, and their visits attract anywhere from several to 30 inmates. They show the men videos about the saints or the faith, talk about whatever topics the men raise, and are on hand for regular holy hours, eucharistic services (both are extraordinary ministers of holy Communion) and inmate-led Rosaries and Divine Mercy Chaplets.
"The basic attitude we’re going in with is that Jesus is love, and we want to be vessels of his love," said Walter. "We want to restore their God-given dignity and let them know that the Lord loves them unconditionally.
"We have found so many men who are trying to turn their lives around," said Walter. They aim to make the Catholic faith a vital part of the men’s lives.
Walter and Ges have witnessed conversions to the faith. Ges also participated in several baptisms as the godmother of several inmates.
They shared parts of notes, cards and letters they have received from inmates over the years.
"My reason for writing is … to say thank you for being such caring and loving people. You and your wife show me how love can make people live a happy life, and how Christ works through people who believe," wrote one man.
Another wrote, "The prison system can’t change who you are. You must do that for yourself, and through programs like this one, it can be possible to make a change in each of our lives."
"I am in a six-month addiction program. I have a room all to myself where I can work on myself and pray and read," wrote another. "I am so blessed, I cannot begin to tell you how grateful I am for turning my will over to the care of God."
Walter confessed that there are times that they are tempted to skip a visit. "But, it’s very fulfilling work. They come out better and we come out better. When we come out, we’re walking on air," he said.
The couple said more lay Catholics should get involved in prison ministries. Again borrowing from the Bible, Walter said, "The laborers are few and the harvest is so ripe."
Printed with permission from the Catholic Transcript, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn.