Naples Parish continues to help in Panhandle recovery

The faithful of St. Agnes Parish in Naples remember well the kindness and generosity of strangers who lent a helping hand in 2017 following the devastating impacts of Hurricane Irma.

So, it was natural for the parishioners to rally together and help when Hurricane Michael struck the Florida Panhandle in October 2018. That help continues to this day.

The initial efforts included teams from the Parish making several trips with collected relief supplies, to assist in Panama City where nearly every structure in the community had major damage. Those supplies included thousands of emergency supplies collected from a Diocese of Venice initiative, then additional recovery supplies as the needs changed for those impacted.

During a period of several months, teams from St. Agnes served in relays to help transport and then distribute donated items. While the number of trips lessened as time passed, the people of Panama City were never far from the mind of the people at St. Agnes.

This is why a small group, led by Deacon Henry deMena, passed on a traditional Thanksgiving to help the Panama City offices of Catholic Charities of Northwestern Florida continue in its recovery.

During their time, the team cleaned up the property around the Catholic Charities offices as well as at St. Barnabas House, a transitional housing program for homeless families which has been closed since the storm struck. They even helped to start the Catholic Charities Christmas toys giving program.

“The people of Catholic Charities have been so busy helping others that they had never had the opportunity to clean up their own property,” Deacon deMena explained. “We cut down dead trees, cleaned up brush and mowed their lawns.”

While it’s been more than a year, the visible impacts of the storm remain apparent. Dana and Monte Hilmoe commented, “You can’t (understand) the devastation, even now, unless you see it in person.”

Before returning to Naples, the group attended Mass at St. Dominic Parish, which is where the relief supplies from St. Agnes and the Diocese of Venice were distributed. The Mass was held under a tent as the church continues to be rebuilt.

“As with Catholic Charities, St. Dominic too spent most of their efforts on the public and put their own needs second.” Deacon deMena explained.

In addition to Deacon deMena and the Hilmoe’s, the group included Paul and Heather Unsworth, as well as Rich and Lisa Dahn.

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

Who’s Making it Happen – New Catholic makes a difference

Susan Laielli – Naples –

No one wants to get up early enough to make the donuts, but Marcia McShane will gladly hand you one with a warm smile after Sunday morning Masses at St. Ann Parish in Naples, as part of her new duties as an assistant on the social committee.

Marcia McShane, right, is a volunteer at St. Ann Parish in Naples and she is ‘Making it Happen’ seen getting donuts ready on Oct. 6. She is seen with Laura Kowal, left, and Ashley Biffer, center.

When asking around the Parish which volunteers are making it happen for the large Southwest Florida Church, you’ll get plenty of names, almost too many to choose only one.

Before her new duties on the social committee, Marcia was mostly behind the scenes, setting up or cleaning up after the St. Patrick’s Day Party or the Back-to-School Picnic.  Often, she can be found moving books for the Director of Religious Education at the beginning and end of a year, understanding the many needs of educators, since she is a retired kindergarten teacher.

It’s not simply what Marcia does at St. Ann that makes her a standout, but it’s how she came to join the Parish and volunteer there, before eventually becoming a Catholic; that is frankly just as interesting.

Both Marcia and her husband Paul are admittedly children of inter-faith marriages from the 1940’s and 50’s, and when they married that history would continue, but the animosities did not.

“I learned early on love is about the person – my husband was Catholic, and I was not,” said Marcia.  “I grew up on military bases in several states and attended all types of churches and chapels, including one in Maryland where Annie Glenn, the wife of astronaut John Glenn, was my Bible School teacher.”

Before they would become world renowned astronauts John Glenn, Alan Shepard, and Gus Grissom would train at a Navy test pilot school with Marcia’s father, and the group would eventually become golfing buddies.

During their 38 year marriage, Marcia and Paul would be blessed with two sons and continued to attend various Churches of all denominations in the north to worship our Lord.  It wasn’t until moving to Naples fulltime after retiring that the couple again began searching for a Church, when something really clicked for Marcia at St. Ann Parish.

“The people are very welcoming, and I love the family values, the history, and traditions of the Catholic Church,” said Marcia smiling.

After volunteering for quite some time in the Parish, Marcia decided it was time to take the next step and become Catholic, which almost did not happen at this year’s Easter Vigil.

On Good Friday, just one day before the Easter Vigil, Marcia’s father would suffer a heart attack and need to be rushed to a Naples hospital.  She would spend the next 24 hours unsure of his outcome, and uncertain if she would become Catholic.

“I almost became a three-year Catholic student of the faith, and one of Ms. Cybil’s eternal students,” she recalls, referring to the Director of Religious Education.

The doctor told her moments before the Easter Vigil started that her father was stable, offering her the comfort to leave and try to make the Mass.  She would make it just in time.

Volunteers in Diocese of Venice Catholic Churches are special people, acting on their faith, offering their time and resources to get a job done, and expecting nothing in return.

When asked what her motto would be if she had one, Marcia responded in perfect kindergarten teacher fashion, “Remember the book by Watty Piper, “The Little Engine that Could” – my motto would be, ‘I think I can!’”

Bishop Dewane Extends Appreciation to all volunteers

Susan Laielli – Special to the Florida Catholic

For the nearly 400 people who joined Bishop Frank J. Dewane at February 23 Mass in Appreciation of Volunteers at Our Lady of Light Parish in Fort Myers, it was a day to celebrate their work in the Diocese of Venice Parishes, Missions and other entities.

For one St. Ann Parish volunteer, retired nurse Denise Delaney, who now serves as an Extraordinary Eucharistic Minister at a hospital in Naples, she admits it took some prompting from both the Holy Spirit and her husband to return to the hospital setting, but she is very grateful for the nudge.

“I wasn’t sure if I could transition from the nursing side of the hospital to being in ministry, but my husband said, ‘How long are you going to wait before you do this?’ – then I saw a St. Ann bulletin ad with heartfelt encouragement expressing the need for Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers at the hospital,” Delaney said.

Delaney said bringing the Eucharist to the hospital is ‘humbling’, , who admits to finding the work very rewarding to be included with families during very sensitive times.

Bishop Dewane was the Principal Celebrant of the Mass, and he was joined by priests from across the region who were there to support the volunteers.

During the Mass Bishop Dewane acknowledged all the various roles making up a Church family and encouraged each to continue working as a Missionary Disciple, saying the work is symbolic of a deeper meaning and message. Those roles can vary dramatically from helping at a soup kitchen to teaching a young person learn how to read. Each volunteer’s contribution is valued for their presence; not only by the Universal Church, but by those who they assist.

“The Holy Father reminds us that Volunteers are like John the Baptist – by reaching out, going out to those in need, you prepare the way of the Lord for them,” Bishop Dewane said. “As volunteers, you act without personal interest being prompted by the Holy Spirit, and it is truly humbling to stand before you.”

Members of the Our Lady of Light Parish Choir sang beautifully during the Mass. By the way, they are all volunteers themselves. One chorister was Colleen Miley, who started singing in the Parish in 1993 when her husband passed away.

“It’s important for people to be engaged in something that’s not only good for you, but good for others as well,” Miley said.

Before the afternoon luncheon in the Parish Hall where a slideshow played featuring volunteers from across the Diocese, Bishop Dewane took photographs with each of the Parish groups in attendance.