Dane County Jail Apostolate team reaches out to share the love of God with inmates Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Mary C. Uhler, Catholic Herald Staff   
Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019 -- 12:00 AM
prison apostolate
Deacon Lawrence Oparaji baptizes inmate Sara Sullivan at the Dane County Jail Chapel. He and Fr. Bart Timmerman presided at the Sacraments of Initiation -- Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation -- for two inmates at the jail. This was part of the Dane County Jail Apostolate Thursday evening services at the jail. Also pictured are sponsors Sue McCrone and Dennis Noonon. (Photo by Sheriff David Mahoney)

MADISON -- “I ask myself, if I had been raised by a poor single mother, by illegal immigrants living in the shadows, or abused as a child, would I be in prison today?”

That’s a question Susan Hundt-Bergan asks herself. She’s not alone in pondering that question.

She noted that Pope Francis, in speaking to a group of Italian jail and prison chaplains, said that he had spoken by phone with a prisoner in Argentina.

The Holy Father said, “Why is he there and not I . . .? . . . the weaknesses we have are the same, why did he fall and I didn’t fall? This is a mystery for me which makes me pray and . . . come close to prisoners.”

Jail apostolate

Hundt-Bergan herself has become close to many prisoners in her apostolate in the Dane County Jail in Madison. She has been involved in the apostolate there for almost 15 years, along with a team of other volunteers, including a number of area priests.

A member of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Madison, she now serves as coordinator of the jail apostolate.

She first heard about the jail apostolate from Deacon Jack Fernan. “His words struck a deep chord in me,” she recalled. “I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being locked up. And I couldn’t shake off the word of Jesus (MT 25:36), ‘I was . . . in prison, and you visited me.’”

So Hundt-Bergan called Fr. Mick Moon, head of the apostolate at that time, and he welcomed her. For almost 15 years, Hundt-Bergan has spent most Thursday nights behind the massive locked doors in the Dane County Jail Chapel.

“At the end of the evening, I go home again, but carrying with me the ones I left behind.”

Thursday nights at the jail

Each Thursday night, the Jail Apostolate welcomes men and women who have signed up for chapel. “We share the Good News that God loves each of us, and that no one is ever beyond the loving and merciful embrace of Jesus,” said Hundt-Bergan. “By our faithful weekly presence, we testify to that love.”

The Jail Apostolate alternates Mass one week with Word and Communion Service the next. Services for the men are at 6:30 p.m. and the women about 7:45 p.m. After each Mass or Word and Communion Service, the group pulls their chairs into a circle for a time of reflection and sharing. On a Mass night, the priest is available for Reconciliation or pastoral counseling.

Hundt-Bergan said, “In the circle, men and women share their struggles with drug addiction, poverty, injustice, and despair. They speak of their regrets, their hopes, and fears . . . and the mothers speak sadly of their children. Some have strong faith in God; others are seeking it. And they always thank us for the chance to come to chapel.”

Sacraments of Initiation

One of the highlights of the past year was the reception of the Sacraments of Initiation -- Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion -- by two jail inmates. Hundt-Bergan described it as “a particularly beautiful and Spirit-filled evening for us at the Dane County Jail Chapel.”

During the men’s Mass, Marvin Baker received the Sacraments of Initiation as did Sara Sullivan during the women’s Mass.

“And, in the way the Spirit works, Brian Louis, baptized as an infant, made his first Confession and first Holy Communion,” said Hundt-Bergan.

Fr. Bart Timmerman, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Madison, celebrated the Masses, with the assistance of Deacon Lawrence Oparaji. It was the first time at Thursday night chapel for both of them, although Deacon Lawrence had made two pastoral visits to Sara and Marvin in the preceding two weeks.

“We are so grateful for the love and gentleness and warmth they brought to the jail,” said Hundt-Bergan. “Father Bart’s preaching opened our minds and hearts to the power and hopefulness of Christ’s love for us, and the transformative joy of following His way.”

A special guest that evening was Sheriff David Mahoney, who stayed for both Masses and helped in several practical ways, including taking some photos of the Baptisms.

Sue McCrone, a member of the Jail Apostolate team, brought gifts for Sara and Marvin, and greeting cards for the team to sign. Pam Bradford played the piano, leading singing and the Litany of the Saints. Dennis Noonan offered a flute reflection during the women’s Mass.

“This beautiful evening would not have happened without the leadership of Msgr. James Bartylla. In addition, I received invaluable help with various matters from Sgt. Chris Reynolds and Lori Prieur of the jail staff, who are always kind and responsive to my many questions and requests,” said Hundt-Bergan.


She emphasized that the inmates appreciate the Jail Apostolate. Some of the words the team often hears on Thursday nights include:

• Thank you so much for coming! I live for Thursday night chapel.

• Where do you go to church? I want to come to your church when I get out.

• Please pray for me!

• When I go to prison, will you write to me?

• Where can I see you and the others when I get out?

• I’m afraid that when I get out, I’ll relapse!

• I have nowhere to go when I get out.

“We are also struck with the amount of counsel and comfort that the inmates give to each other,” said Hundt-Bergan.

“Perhaps the greatest gift that I receive from praying with my brothers and sisters at the jail is the power and reality of the faith we encounter. I am awed and I am humbled. Their daily lives are so hard, and mine is not. My faith is refreshed and profoundly strengthened by encountering Jesus Christ in them,” she said.

Hundt-Bergan also wanted to recognize Blessed Sacrament Parish in Madison “for its faithful and invaluable support of the jail ministry effort. For years, the parish has annually provided hymnals for use in the jail chapel.

“In addition, I have the freedom to use the copy machine in the Parish Center to make copies of the Scriptures of the day for Thursday night Jail Chapel. I also make copies of a simple calendar, home-made prayer cards, etc.

“On a sacramental level, I am able to take Holy Communion from Blessed Sacrament to the jail on a Word and Communion Service night. And, perhaps most important of all, the Dominican priests have supported the apostolate by joining the jail apostolate team and celebrating Mass at the jail,” she said.

Msgr. Bartylla’s comments

Msgr. James Bartylla, currently the Diocesan Administrator of the Diocese of Madison, has worked with Susan Hundt-Bergan and the Dane County Jail Apostolate team for quite a few years.

He stated, “We’re so grateful for the cooperation of the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, particularly the jail staff. Over the years, I’ve worked with Sheriff David Mahoney, and I’m grateful for his commitment to the spiritual welfare of the inmates.

“One of the beautiful aspects of jail and prison apostolic work is the quick recognition for all of us of the deep humanity and the dignity of every inmate. That recognition is a gift from Our Lord Jesus Christ, and seeing Him in the poor and vulnerable who are incarcerated and reflecting on His presence in them is an important element of the Gospel message and our apostolate.

“All of us who serve in the jail apostolate would admit we receive as much or more than we give to the inmates. This is the actual grace that Our Lord grants to us for our feeble efforts as His instruments in this apostolate.”

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