Bishop reaching out to prisoners

Bishop Frank J. Dewane has stressed the importance of prison outreach since his 2006 appointment as Episcopal leader of the Diocese of Venice, making a point to celebrate Mass at many prisons and jails each year while also conferring the Sacraments on numerous inmates.

Therefore, it was distressing for Bishop Dewane to learn that the prison outreach effort came to a halt when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) to close chapels and stop all programming and prohibited visitors. This extended to county jails and impacted some 150 volunteers, including 25 priests and 10 deacons, providing a variety of services, such as Bible study, religious education and assistance with receiving the Sacraments such as Baptism, First Holy Communion and Confirmation.

This screen grab of a televised Mass by Bishop Frank J. Dewane for the Prison Outreach from the Santa Maria Chapel in Venice on May 13.

This new reality motivated Diocese of Venice Prison Outreach volunteer and program coordinators Bob Hiniker and Joe Mallof to find a practical solution in a complicated and challenging situation. With the assistance and support of Bishop Dewane, Hiniker and Mallof developed a multi-pronged solution targeting the inmates in the state prisons. This effort was made with the encouragement and support of Father Severyn Kovalyshin, Region 3 Chaplain, and the State Chaplain Johnny Frambo.

The first part of the solution included, thanks in part to private assistance, donating televisions to the state prisons, Mallof explained.

“In return for donating the TVs, we were able to leverage this to get a guarantee from prison leadership that the TVs would be used on Sunday to show the Catholic Mass from the Diocese of Venice, and for any other religious programming at that time,” Mallof said. “The TVs would be another source of entertainment for inmates confined to their dorms at other times to keep them occupied. This was a good solution for the chaplains to get religious content to the inmates despite the chapel closures and other restrictions. And this was a huge concession by prison management, to mandate religious programming in the dorms on Sunday morning.”

The large TV donation also allowed the chaplains to leverage this with their prison management superiors, to get religious content put on JPAY, a program which provides each state inmate with a tablet with controlled access for content such as emails, video visitation and other services.

“This would be for all inmates state-wide, not just in the three prisons with the TVs,” Mallof explained. “I believe this is the first-time religious content other than the St. James Bible is on JPAY.”

The state chaplains chose to work with the Diocese of Venice because of the TV donation, and the great respect and trust they have in the Diocesan Prison Outreach program. This will provide the inmates additional religious content at a time when the chapel and its programs, including all ministry, were suspended.

That content will include the Mass celebrated by Bishop Dewane for the prisoners for the month of June, which are recorded in advance at Santa Maria Chapel at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice. This is needed because a month of recorded Masses are uploaded at one time, Hiniker said.

“This allows those who did not have an opportunity to watch on TV on a particular Sunday, or those who want to watch again, the chance to watch at their leisure,” Hiniker said.

Additional religious educational material is also being prepared to be loaded onto the tablets. This material will be available in English and Spanish and will be periodically updated. This part of the outreach is made possible through Anne Chzran, Diocesan Director of Religious Education, and Father Claudio Stewart, Diocesan Director of Hispanic Outreach.

The cataclysmic and sudden stoppage of spiritual efforts at the prisons, generated new opportunities as the Prison Outreach in the Diocese of Venice was correctly positioned to capitalize on, Mallof said.

“It is truly a win-win for the inmates, the chaplains, and our Diocese,” he said. “The relationship we have continues to build with the chaplains, by strengthening their position within the FDOC, and will bear additional future fruits in ways yet to be seen.”

If you are interested in learning more about the Diocesan Prison Outreach, please contact Bob Hiniker at or Joe Mallof at

Please check back with the Florida Catholic to learn more about the religious education aspect of the ongoing Prison Outreach effort.

Prison Ministry and Restorative Justice Enlightenment

Susan Laielli – Florida Catholic

Lakewood Ranch – Several Prison Ministry volunteers spoke from the heart on the many benefits of the power of Restorative Justice on Jan, 13 at Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Lakewood Ranch.

Our Lady of the Angels volunteers Margie Siler, Catherine Grzelak, Peggy Epstein, and featured guest speaker Father Timothy Harris, Third Order Regular Franciscan and Parochial Vicar of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Sarasota, addressed interested parishioners.

Dr. Janice Novello of the Diocese of Venice Peace and Justice Committee coordinated the event with Faith Formation and Evangelization Ministries at the Parish. The goal was to enlighten all on the Catholic Social Teachings of the Church, and the importance of life and dignity of the human person, regardless of where one might live.

Catholic Mobilizing Network defines Restorative Justice as a way of understanding crime in terms of the people and relationships that were harmed, rather than the law that was broken. Restorative Justice values human dignity, healing, accountability and the hope of redemption for all involved.

Answers to questions such as, “Does Prison Ministry change people?” were addressed by the volunteers, who each shared the rewards of donating their time once or twice a week to bring Communion and comfort to the inmates of prisons, jails, and work camps, and for the gift of appreciation shown back to them in return from the inmates, who thank them endlessly for the visits.

Father Harris shared the societal benefits of Restorative Justice, saying that there are three victims of any crime: the traditional victim, society and the perpetrator. He reminded parishioners that God wants all to know, love and serve Him, and that forgiveness and Restorative Justice is a key component to achieving the end goal.

For those interested in becoming a prison outreach volunteer, please contact

Robert Hiniker at 863-558-0407 or


Prison outreach volunteers recognized for compassion

Bob Reddy – Florida Catholic

The men and women who enter the jails and prisons scattered throughout the Diocese of Venice serve a crucial role to a segment of society that is too commonly dismissed and forgotten.

The nearly 150 prison outreach volunteers were recognized for their work by Bishop Frank J. Dewane during a Mass of Appreciation on Nov. 8 at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Port Charlotte. The outreach provides a variety of services, including Bible study, religious education and assistance with receiving the sacraments such as Baptism, First Holy Communion and Confirmation.

“Thank you for what you do,” Bishop Dewane said to the gathered volunteers. “Your service comes from the heart. You have the insight and the desire to see the need and to serve those who are on the margins – our brothers and sisters in Christ who are incarcerated.”

The volunteers in prison outreach have the foresight to help those they serve to focus on the future and not the past, the Bishop added. “You do not judge. You look into their eyes and see the humanity and share in the goodness that comes from within the person.”

Bishop Dewane, who himself celebrates Mass at jails and prisons within the Diocese of Venice more than a dozen times each year, said the volunteers who participate in prison outreach touch the heart of the incarcerated because they talk to them about the Lord. The Bishop, who admitted that his first prison visits, while working in Rome, caused so much nervousness, said his visits have impacted him in different ways.

When celebrating the Mass for the incarcerated, the Bishop said he knows he is bringing the forgiveness, mercy, compassion, peace, love and joy of the Lord to others. Since his appointment as Bishop of the Diocese in 2006, Bishop Dewane has conferred the Sacraments of Confirmation, First Communion and Baptism for numerous inmates.

Bob Hiniker, who helps to coordinate the prison outreach throughout the Diocese, stressed the importance to continue to expand the number of people who volunteer in the five state prisons, 10 county jails and one civil commitment program. There are approximately 15,000 incarcerated within the Diocese; meaning the need is great.

A program for the volunteers followed the Mass and encompassed a number of presentations, including updates on the process of implementing a new bereavement program into the facilities; the plan to expand a job readiness program; and a new restorative justice effort called “Bridges to Life.”

The group was also blessed to have two special guests, Florida Department of Corrections State Chaplaincy Administrator Johnny Frambo and Chaplain Father Severyn Kovalyshin of State Region 3 (which includes the entire Diocese).

Frambo said his sole job to ensure the continued access of volunteers to enter the state prisons and minister to the incarcerated and vowed that if they face any obstacle that they need only contact him directly. There are 95,000 inmates in the state prison system which are divided into four regions. Of the 95,000, nearly 10 percent are Catholic.

“Catholic volunteers do a wonderful job throughout the state,” Frambo said. “You are among them and when you are there you recognize Christ’s image in those who you visit… What we all do is to answer God’s call, who uses us to changes lives.”

Bishop Dewane was joined at the Mass by several concelebrating priests, many of who also serve in area jails and prisons. In all, 25 priests and 12 deacons serve in prison outreach.

For those interested in becoming a prison outreach volunteer, please contact Robert Hiniker at 863-558-0407 or

Former lawyer now visits prisoners to teach the Bible

Who’s Making it Happen

Susan Laielli – Florida Catholic

Retirement for many successful former Florida labor attorneys might encompass sunny days on the golf course and fancy lunches with his wife and friends, but not for Gene Tischer, who spends weekdays giving back to others in the name of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Most days Gene can be found teaching a Bible study at St. Patrick Parish in Sarasota, volunteering to gather food and supplies for a homeless mission in Bradenton or serving as a Diocese of Venice Prison Minister at the DeSoto Correctional Facility and the Florida Commitment Center in Arcadia.

Every Wednesday he awakes before dawn to prepare for the 135-mile round trip to the prison in Arcadia, where he holds Bible study classes for some of the most isolated people in our society – convicted felons.

He admits the men are so thankful for the teachings of the Bible and it becomes clear those in attendance want to repent for their mistakes, which is why Gene says he does this type of volunteerism.

“These are souls, and no soul shall be left behind,” he said, confidently shaking his head yes.

Since November 2016 he has been volunteering with the Diocese of Venice Prison Ministry first inside the Sarasota County Jail before being asked to join the DeSoto Correctional Facility in March of this year. He recalls how that happened.

“There wasn’t much to it. Father Russell (Wright, Parochial Vicar of St. Patrick) asked me to join the prison ministry team in Arcadia. Have you seen Father Russell?” Gene said, laughing. “It’s hard to say no to him!”

Father Wright is known to be persuasive when he believes in a cause such as sharing the Bible with prisoners.

Teaching the Bible is something Gene is not only passionate about but is skilled and trained to do. He entered St. Andrew Seminary in Rochester, N.Y., as a junior in high school, followed by four years at St. Bernard College Seminary. He attended Gregorian University in Rome for one year before deciding to study law at Georgetown University, where he met his wife Bobby.

The pair would adopt two sons, Jason and Tanner, just like his parents did when they thought they couldn’t have children.

“I was quite a surprise for my parents,” Gene recalls, being the youngest and only biological child of his parents, who raised all three children in Victor, N.Y.

When talking with the prisoners in the Bible Study class he tries to instill a better thought process in the men to have improved judgement in the future.

“I feel terrible sympathy for what some of these guys did. I feel much sympathy for the victim’s families too,” Gene said. “I tell these guys, it’s a horrible thing that you did, but Jesus died for your soul, He was on that cross and sees your face. He knew you were going to kill that guy, and He still wants you to live with Him in heaven – now do the work to get there.”

He exudes joy and confidence, which must be difficult these days as his wife battles chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and is now taking oral chemotherapy. But in typical Gene style he changes the subject to someone else’s misfortune.

“Please pray for our friend’s 16-year old child who is now battling an aggressive tumor.”

How to volunteer

There are approximately 15,000 people incarcerated within the 10-county Diocese of Venice on any given day. These individuals populate 10 county jails and seven state prisons across the region. To minster to the spiritual needs of these inmates, there are about 150 volunteers who are actively involved in prison ministry. This includes 25 priests and 10 deacons. That is not nearly enough. For information about how to volunteer for Prison Outreach in your area, please contact Robert Hiniker at 863-558-0407 or