As a young seminarian, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, and Principal Chaplain for the Order of Malta American Association, would often accompany his parish priest in Ballwin, Missouri, on communion calls. One day the priest asked the seminarian to join him on a visit to a prison. Cardinal Dolan’s reaction was one most of us can relate to: “I was kind of scared,” he said. “I’d never wanted to visit a jail.”
His attitude changed quickly when he saw the effectiveness of the visit, how it brought a sense of normalcy and routine to the prison. Then, while studying at the North American College in Rome, he performed his apostolate ministry at Regina Coeli Prison. “That really sealed a love for, an appreciation of, prison ministry, which would blossom when I was a priest,” he said.
Throughout his priesthood Cardinal Dolan has continued to serve prison ministry, visiting, celebrating Mass during the Christmas and Easter seasons as well as at Thanksgiving and in the summer. “I savor it, and it’s become an extraordinarily precious part of my own apostolic ministry,” he said.
As Cardinal Dolan came to understand the high rate at which inmates returned to prison after having been released, he wanted to do something to address the issue. He asked himself, “How could I do my best to make sure these guys or these women don’t end up back in prison? Enter Father Zach Presutti, SJ, and his magnificent prison ministry.”
In 2017, Fr. Presutti founded Thrive for Life Prison Project. Its purpose is to transform lives both behind and beyond prison walls. One of the ways they do that is through Ignacio House of Studies, which has locations in the Bronx and in Milwaukee. Ignacio House provides an opportunity for former inmates to continue the college studies they began in prison.
But it’s not just about education. It’s about helping former prisoners change old habits, old associates, old environments. “We want them to discover a new crowd of people who are trying to continue the reform that hopefully started in prison,” Cardinal Dolan said. “And that’s what Father Zach does.”
Cardinal Dolan has been so impressed with the benefits of Thrive for Life that in the spring of 2022 he gifted an old convent located in Manhattan to become the second Ignacio House in New York City. “I thought if I’m really going to mean it, my prison ministry is not going to just be showing up five times a year, as important as that is. My prison ministry is going to try to be part of the solution.”
If you would like to learn more about the American Association’s Prison Ministry programs, please email Craig Gibson, Chair of the Prison Ministry Committee at email@example.com.