Prison outreach does well during Pandemic

The Diocese of Venice is stepping up to provide a pre-recourded Catholic Mass at prisons throughout the State of Florida is helping incarcerated men and women gain spiritual strength during a time when they are isolated as never before.

This was the message given from Florida Department of Correction (FDOC) State Chaplain Johnny Frambo to Diocesan Prison Outreach Volunteers during a gathering on Oct. 30, 2020 at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Port Charlotte.

“Since the COVID began, you have done a great deal,” Frambo explained. “You didn’t get behind the fence; but you were behind the fence in so many other ways.”

Frambo explained how the Diocesan Prison Outreach, with the direct support of Bishop Frank J. Dewane, worked to provide a variety of resources to the FDOC to ensure that there was continued access to religious materials and programming that volunteers would normally provide.

The effort included the donation, from a member of the faith community, of televisions as well as the ability to create and upload programs to prison tablets through a program called JPAY. Each state inmate is provided with a tablet through JPAY which provides controlled access for content such as emails, video visitation and other services without wireless services.

This effort was facilitated by Diocesan Prison Outreach Co-Coordinators Bob Hiniker and Joe Mallof, with the assistance of Anne Chrzan, Diocese Director of Religious Education. Items for upload include the Mass and religious education programming and other materials which focused on the teachings of the four pillars of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This meant that the effort was developed from scratch and uploads to the tablets through the FDOC. This religious education programming is part of a larger effort to increase access to Catholic content for prisoners in the state facilities during the Pandemic and beyond.

“Thank you for all you have done and continue to do to help those men and woman to hear your spiritual voice and guidance during this time of inner discovery and self-improvement before they go back into the world and restart their lives as transformed individuals,” Frambo concluded.

Before the COVID-19 global Pandemic effectively shut down access by volunteers to prisons and jails, some 150 volunteers, including 26 priests and 11 deacons, assisted with religious education and formation at 10 jails, six state prisons and four work camps. These volunteers normally provide a variety of religious programs, such as Bible study, religious education and assistance with formation before receiving the Sacraments including as Baptism, First Holy Communion and Confirmation, as well as the Mass. Bishop Dewane regularly visits prisons for Mass and confers the Sacraments when possible.

Hiniker shared an update on how each prison and jail policy has evolved in recent months with some allowing limited volunteer access while others remain off limits.

“We have adapted many of our programs in the best way possible, but we are limited based on the restrictions each facility has,” Hiniker added.

Bishop Dewane, who celebrated Mass for the volunteers, praised the group for choosing to answer a specific call from God to serve the incarcerated, those who are often marginalized or forgotten by society.

“They are as much a part of this Diocese as anyone else and must have access to pastoral care, which you provide through your selfless dedication as volunteers,” Bishop Dewane said. “You do not go there to solve what put them there. It is not important why they are there. It is important that they are placed before us and we have to be that instrument of the Lord – the evidence of God’s love to others.”

Hiniker and Mallof also presented information about two different outreach programs that are starting to be introduced in the state prisons including grief sharing and an effort to help the incarcerated transition to life after prison.

The Grief Share program is a 13-week process designed to help the incarcerated deal with different types of grief they may face, such as for whatever crime they may have committed, for the loss of freedom, for the loss of connection to family, the death of loved ones and much more.

The Bridges to Life is a re-entry program which promotes healing for the incarcerated and for victims, aiding and placing them in the positive mindset that they will be able to succeed and become productive citizens again. This mentoring effort also helps to prepare those about to be released for the realities of the modern world of technology and transitioning back into society and the workforce. A key component of this effort is the prepare former inmates how to answer questions about their incarceration on job applications and then to handle job interviews.

If you are interested in learning more about the Diocesan Prison Outreach, or perhaps becoming a volunteer, please contact Bob Hiniker at hinbob5@hotmail.com or Joe Mallof at mallofjt@comcast.net.

Cape Coral honored as Diocesan Respect Life volunteers

A Cape Coral couple with a passion for promoting a culture of life was honored with the 2020 Diocese Respect Life Volunteers of the Year at the 34th Annual Culture of Life Statewide Conference on Oct. 24, 2020 which was livestreamed from the Diocese of Palm Beach.

Rick and Paula Hellenbrand from St. Andrew Parish in Cape Coral organized the first 40 Days for Life fall campaign in Fort Myers in 2011 and have been leading the campaign ever since. This year marks their 10th fall campaign. The award was presented to the Hellenbrand’s at the opening Vigil of the 40 Days for Life Fall Campaign on Sept. 22, 2020, in lieu of a personal presentation at the Conference.

In her nomination of the Hellenbrands, Jeanne Berdeaux, Diocese of Venice Respect Life Director, wrote: “It’s amazing that they have been able to run successful campaigns every year while operating a successful real estate business. Rick has also served as his Knights of Columbus Council’s Culture of Life Chairman and Grand Knight. We thank them for their hard work and continued dedication to promoting a greater respect for all human life.”

The couple expressed their deep gratitude in being recognized by the Diocese of Venice as the recipients of this award.

“Managing the 40 Days for Life Fall campaign over the past 10 years has been fruitful in protecting the lives of the innocent children,” Rick Hellenbrand stated. “As husband and wife, parents and now grandparents, to serve in such a lifesaving capacity is its own reward. None of which is possible without the many pro-life warriors who are equally engaged on the sidewalks throughout the Diocese to do the same to defend life in its earliest stages. We are humbled and filled with gratitude to receive such an honor.”

While the honor as Diocesan Volunteers of the Year was special for the couple, Rick Hellenbrand concluded by saying there is an ultimate goal to this effort. “It is with much appreciation that this award is received, and with hopes that the efforts of all volunteers together we will soon win this battle to end abortion forever.”

Sarasota Knights Council shines during pandemic

Knight of Columbus Council 15332 of Incarnation Parish in Sarasota has not let a pesky global pandemic cause the group to miss a step in fulfilling its obligation of service to the Church and community.

The Council was already actively using virtual meeting technology before the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the group went into “hyper-mode,” remaining ahead of the curve when everything shut down, explained Grand Knight Dr. Steven Wyer.

“We first worried about members having trouble adapting to the technology,” Wyer explained, “but these men embraced the new ‘toys’ and we now ‘meet’ several times each week.”

The virtual connection has been crucial for many members who have struggled with various impacts from the pandemic, Wyer said. This has included a “Leave no neighbor behind” initiative which directs those in need to resources which offer emotional and financial support.

Council meetings include a Saturday “Cocktail Hour” for socializing and Sunday praying the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. Most other meetings take place virtually while some small gatherings of less than 10 members are held in large dining areas to ensure social distancing.

Council 15332 recently received the distinction of Star Council, the international organization’s top award for local councils. The Star Council Award recognizes excellence in the areas of membership, fraternal insurance benefits, faith formation programs, and service-oriented activities. Council 15332 has received this award every year since its founding in July 2011.

Incarnation Administrator, Father Eric Scanlan, said the recognition as a Star Council is well deserved. “The Knights have been a great support to our Parish during the last few months of the pandemic. They were quick to adjust to the changing reality of the COVID limitations… It has been a real witness to their strong faith and concern for one another, our Parish and the local community.”

The Knights recently organized a contactless food drive which brought in 2,000 pounds of food to help support the efforts of the St. Vincent de Paul Society Incarnation Conference. Wyer said the success of the food drive has encouraged the Council to begin planning for more.

In addition to the Star Council Award, the Knights were recognized as the top council in the 10-county Diocese of Venice. Earlier in the summer, the Council received eight major awards from the Florida State Council.

To earn these honors, during the past year alone, the Council participated in national and local prayer vigils for life; undertook construction, painting, and/or cleaning projects around the Parish; hosted monthly bingo, pancake breakfasts and trivia; conducted youth activities for Incarnation Catholic School students; and awarded a graduating eighth-grade student a scholarship to Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School. In spite of the pandemic, the Knights have been able to contribute nearly $25,000 to charitable organizations, begin a raffle program focused on raising $10,000 for the Incarnation School STREAM Program, provide financial support to two Diocesan Seminarians, and much more. While fund raising events are not taking place, Wyer said members have stepped-up to donate monthly to meet demand.

To learn more about or to join Knights of Columbus Council 15332, please contact Council Chancellor Matt Dowell at 941-504-6418 or visit www.kofc15332.org.

Calling All Volunteers!

Each Thursday nearly 200 vehicles line up to receive food from the Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice Inc. Food Pantry at St. Margaret Parish in Clewiston.

Six dedicated volunteers worked with masks and gloves in the heat for about three hours on Aug. 6, 2020 to ensure every family left with food. Afterwards was the clean-up, which included: breaking up boxes, storing tables, reviewing paperwork, planning for the next week, etc. That is also the time when supplies are checked so orders can be placed to ensure there will be enough to meet demand and the food on hand is organized and prepared for distribution the following week.

The line of vehicles has remained consistently long since March when the COVID-19 Pandemic began, and families started to lose work. Clewiston is a rural community on the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee which relies heavily on farming for work. However, that work is seasonal, and the next planting won’t begin for several months.

The Aug. 6 distribution was made more challenging when a delivery truck arrived just as the cars were lining up. This split volunteers into separate groups.

Yolanda Placencia checked families in, handed out bags of food and got more supplies from the storeroom. Determined to help as much as she could, she hopes more people volunteer, even if it is for an hour. “I know others would feel the same joy I have knowing what little I am doing is brightening the faces of these families.”

Mike Vega supervises the Catholic Charities Office in Clewiston and is based in Fort Myers, said the need for volunteers is growing. Volunteers are needed to safely distribute food, assist with the set-up, clean-up, organize donations, bag food, help with paperwork; and much more. Gloves and masks are provided to everyone.

“We have been at a breakneck pace, but many of the people we counted on in the past are not able to help because they are in at-risk categories,” Vega explained.

Catholic Charities CEO Philomena Pereira said that without volunteers the organization would be unable to continue to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic. The six food pantries throughout the Diocese distributed food to more than 20,000 individuals in July, and more than 75,000 since late March, more than triple the normal amount.

“There is no end in sight, and in fact the demand is growing,” Pereira said. “We are looking for volunteers at all locations. Loading cars, doing paperwork, we need help.”

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer with Catholic Charities is asked to contact Joan Pierce at 844-385-2407 or joan.pierce@catholiccharitiesdov.org.

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 hinbob5@hotmail.com.

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 hinbob5@hotmail.com.

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.

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