Dcn. James Matthias is a man of several hats.
In addition to serving his parish at St. Sebastian, he is the new director of the Respect Life Ministry and the director of Jail and Prison Ministry for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
While it may seem daunting to most, for Dcn. Matthias, ordained in 2018 by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, the ministries are interconnected.
“It is impossible to separate respect for life from any ministry involving corporal and spiritual works of mercy,” he said. “I fully expect that they will become individual offices as these two ministries grow because both are very demanding.”
Serving the incarcerated and their families while in prison and upon release is an important and greatly needed position, said Dcn. Matthias. He added that his first effort is to discover what groups are already involved in the ministry and learn of their work.
“I am familiar with Waukesha County Jail and what they have been doing because I have been serving there for many years. Dcn. Dick Niggemann ran the program there, and it has been very successful,” he said.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee encompasses 10 counties, and within these boundaries are many prisons, jails and correctional facilities. Some facilities already have established ministry programs, but some do not.
“Some programs are run through St. Vincent de Paul, the Dismas Ministry or even on a parish level,” Dcn. Matthias said. “My job will be to find out what is working and provide a blueprint for facilities that do not have programs. Then we will try to find volunteers, priests and deacons to make it happen.”
Some of the imperative programs are Mass, Holy Communion services, bible study within the facilities, helping families of the incarcerated and providing support programs for released prisoners.
“It would also mean finding and working with non-Catholic programs already serving the community,” Dcn. Matthias said.
The prison and jail ministry program is essential, as it is one of the corporal works of ministry to visit the imprisoned. Dcn. Matthias said we are all called to be pastoral and help those in need.
“Christ gave us a mission to serve people in need wherever they are, and in this case, they are behind bars. It’s no less important than other ministries, just a lot harder to gain access to serve them,” he said. “We all have peaks and valleys in our lifetime. Being imprisoned is an example of one of those valleys. Inmates may become more receptive to reaching out to God at times like this. The ministry includes bringing the Word of God into the prisons and jails so that those inside can experience God’s love and forgiveness. It can provide an opportunity for conversion, rehabilitation and transformation.”
Families of the incarcerated also struggle and need support. Whenever a member of a family unit is removed, the family struggles. Dcn. Matthias said he plans to find programs helping the families, either through the archdiocese, the government or other organizations.
“I want to find out how we can help, too,” he said. “I want to also look into programs offering support for victims of violent crimes.”
Dcn. Matthias’ interest in helping the incarcerated began before he started his diaconate formation program. John Waymel, a member of St. Dominic Parish, invited him to help with St. Vincent de Paul’s efforts in the Waukesha County jail.
“I wasn’t sure I was qualified,” he said. “They paired me with Dcns. Allen Olson and Gary Stephani. I learned a lot from them and the inmates.”
While it may seem dangerous or frightening to think about ministering to the incarcerated, especially those who have committed violent crimes, Dcn. Matthias said he was more nervous about providing something worthwhile for the prisoners rather than feeling concerned for his safety.
“Typically, the inmates who are allowed to come to our programs have earned it through their good behavior,” he said. “They are also very interested in hearing the Word of God or participating in Mass. They have more time to study Scripture, which often leads to some great discussions. They are strong in their prayer, and we always end sessions by asking what we should pray for, and the list is long. I never felt afraid or threatened on the inside. They are receptive, eager and glad that we are there.”
Early on in his prison ministry, John Waymel cautioned Dcn. Matthias and the other volunteers to make sure they were not judging those behind bars. He told them that no one on the outside knows what the circumstances were that led up to them landing in prison.
“Given the same set of circumstances, we could very well have made similar choices,” he said.
For those leaving prison, Dcn Matthias is working on familiarizing himself with the available programs in the area. He is aware of one but plans to learn about the approximately 32 others in Milwaukee, and others in the surrounding areas, so he can garner volunteers to assist with the re-entry programs.
“The program I knew was ‘Hope Upon Release’ in Waukesha, held in the St. Vincent de Paul store on Sunset Drive. This program is for men, and they meet on Thursdays to enjoy a light supper, friendly discussion, and either a short spiritual video or occasionally a guest speaker,” he said. “I know there are similar programs throughout the archdiocese. It’s my goal to get familiar with them and then engage volunteers to help meet the needs.”
Many of the programs are beginning again after the pandemic put them on hold. Because of this, all involved in the prison ministry need retraining. Unfortunately, not all of the volunteers received the message.
“They are being denied access even though they have been serving for years and even decades. The protocols for being allowed in are different from facility to facility and county to county. We must figure out the requirements for each facility before we can send our volunteers. Then we will need priests, deacons and the laity to respond to this vital mission,” Dcn. Matthias said. “I would love for those already participating in this ministry to reach out to me so I can track who and where people are serving. I would also like to hear from parishes or people who want to get involved in serving in this ministry so I can direct them where to go and how to begin. They can call me at 414 769-3454 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”