Prisons hold the most hardened criminals, the outcasts of society, and are used as a deterrent against leading a life of crime.
For Jesuit Fr. Jose Moreno, they’re just another place where he meets with parishioners on Fridays.
He walks into Dodge Correctional Institution with an unnatural spring in his step after going to Waupun Correctional Institute to celebrate Mass and hear the inmates’ confessions. All the workers know him and greet him with a smile and say, “Good morning, Father.” He smiles back, “Good morning, good morning.”
The security precautions are second nature to Fr. Moreno: he calmly slips off his shoes, removes his coat and metal objects in his pocket, and walks through the metal detector without any hesitation.
Since 2002, Fr. Moreno has visited local prisons to celebrate Mass, hear confessions and administer the sacrament of the sick to inmates.
Guys look forward to Mass, says chaplain
In the middle of a long narrow corridor, there is a small room with two barred windows and two stained glass windows nailed into the wall. The room is small, with about 25 chairs arranged in rows. Inside a few inmates are finishing up a Jehovah Witness Bible study. There are also copies of the Koran on tables.
In the room is Chaplain Dennis Overling, a three-tour veteran of Vietnam with the U.S. Army who retired in 2008 and became a Lutheran minister. He’s been a chaplain at Dodge for the past three years.
“There are guys here that look forward to (Mass) every week,” Overling says. “I know, because I talk with these guys.”
Rev. Overling says in Dodge there about 40 to 50 Spanish speaking inmates that come to Mass.
“Some would have a hard time understanding regular (English) Mass,” Overling says. “I feel fortunate to have (Fr. Moreno) as a friend and fellow priest.”
He jokes with Fr. Moreno about all his visits and the Jesuit responds with a broad smile and says, “I consider this my mission.”
There is an imaginary boundary in the back of the room that the inmates aren’t allowed to cross; on that side Fr. Moreno prepares for Mass while the inmates file in one by one. Fr. Moreno is no bigger than 5 feet 6 inches and looks to be about 120 pounds and yet he has no fear. Not for a second. Not ever.
Inmates take part in celebration
There isn’t a lot of smiling at this Mass. Some of the inmates shake hands with each other, some sit quietly by themselves. One inmate walks in just before Mass begins, “Buenos días, everybody,” he says and shakes the hands of some of his companions.
Fr. Moreno celebrates Mass in Spanish, sometimes including English if there is someone present who doesn’t speak Spanish. The inmates participate fully in the Mass, helping set up the altar and proclaiming the readings. One of them plays guitar and leads the congregation in song.
Today’s homily – everyday life – and what it means to live.
“You have to understand that today you are living your life,” the priest tells the inmates. “And if you’re waiting to get out of prison and say, ‘Now, I’m going to start my life,’ you’re wrong, because you’re living today. This is your life.”
He tries to bring some happiness to places not known for it and structures his preaching to address the issues inmates deal with daily.
Waupun allows the worshipers to have a choir during Mass, which is led by an inmate who plays the guitar.
“It brings a little bit of joy to people,” Fr. Moreno says, adding that Waupun has a very “different environment” to Dodge. The environment at Waupun is “very cold.”
When the inmates at Waupun were allowed to sing, Fr. Moreno says some were a little hesitant, noting some are “gang members” who might not be used to singing.
Prison visits began in Mexico
Fr. Moreno got his start in prison ministry in Chihuahua, Mexico, where he was teaching math and preaching.
“I was teaching the rich; it was useless, they didn’t care,” he says. “I had a big crisis with teaching and my life. I burnt my books.”
In 1992, Fr. Moreno celebrated Mass at the two parishes in Chihuahua, one of which was located next to a prison.
“None of the priests visited the prison,” he says. “They were old and didn’t have an interest.”
Fr. Moreno would ride his bike after Mass to the prison to visit the inmates; it led to a regular ministry.
Typical week for
“I started once a week, then twice a week, then three times a week … I just liked it very much,” he says.
When he came to Wisconsin, he fell out of practice with visitations until he was approached by a woman whose son was in jail.
“She asked me if I could hear the confession of her son,” he says.
He went to the jail as a normal visitor and waited in line. It was during that process when Fr. Moreno said to himself, “This is ridiculous.” He didn’t like hearing confession through a telephone or TV, nor did he like the other precautions that prevented him from ministering.
“It’s very difficult to gather the inmates; all of them are in process, they are in trial or waiting for sentencing or waiting to see what will happen,” he says.
Eventually, Fr. Moreno became familiar enough and didn’t need to wait in line; inmates and guards alike trusted him.
“In the county jail you can do a visit one-on-one,” he says. “I just tell the officer, ‘I want to talk to this guy,’ and they open the library and I talk to them.”
Pastor of two parishes, too
Fr. Moreno came to Wisconsin to receive his master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in biomechanical engineering, which included research on developing mathematical models of the human body, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Outside of prisons, Fr. Moreno works for those behind bars at his two parishes — St. Patrick and Our Lady of Guadalupe, both on Milwaukee’s south side.
“We have a prison ministry at St. Patrick and Guadalupe,” he says. “We help the families so the families can help the inmates.”
Fr. Moreno says inmates need money to buy simple things like paper and stamps for letters, and the money raised also helps the families who have their primary provider in jail.
“For me, it’s a life giving experience,” he says. “I understand how difficult their life is; I understand that many times there is no hope. Just bringing a little bit of hope … they feel like they belong.”
Fr. Moreno also offers workshops for the families to help themselves during this difficult time. He says it’s also important to the family to know that while their loved ones are in jail, they still communicate with God.
“I know a lot of mothers, a lot of fathers, whose kids are in prison, I know how important it is for them to know that their kids go to church and are bettering their lives,” he says.
The name of the group is called Families of the Incarcerated and funds are raised by selling Bibles, rosaries, holy cards and other things out of the parish tiendita (little store).
Fr. Moreno, with the help of one other man, does all the repairs each of his churches needs.
“We do a good job together; he understands how I work,” he says.
They do everything from insulating and replacing windows to changing doors.
Author of innovative math curriculum
He has since gone back to teaching and has written math textbooks that are used in Mexico.
“What I do for the math is I get up early in the morning, at 3 o’clock in the morning, then I go to my office and work,” he says.
The quest for a better understanding and teaching of math is almost a personal crusade for Fr. Moreno that started when he was in Monterey, Mexico, 14 years ago.
“I said if there is going to be progress in this country, to manufacture, we need to be really where we are needed,” he says.
Fr. Moreno devised a way to not only teach math effectively, but also passed the teaching methods on to other teachers. Within a matter of years, it radically changed the way math was taught throughout Mexico, from a small school way of doing things to the national standard.
“Our students, when they got out – those that can make it to high school – were the best in math,” he says.
He has written math textbooks from first grade through senior year of high school. Fr. Moreno says there are about 20 to 25 schools that use his textbooks in all of Mexico
Although he no longer teaches math, he teaches Bible study classes at his parishes.
“I do it in a very spectacular way, using technology,” he says, noting how he includes software like Microsoft Power Point to teach lessons. He has passed his methods along to teachers in Mexico.
Honored by UWM last year
Fr. Moreno gets roughly six hours of sleep nightly (sometimes less), preaches at two parishes, writes math textbooks, conducts workshops and Bible study, and visits two prisons and a jail. He only takes one vacation a year, going to Mexico to visit his family for two weeks.
So when the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee wanted to give him the Hispanic Heritage Month Award last year, no one was surprised — except him.
“I feel flattered,” he said. “When I was told (about the award) I said, ‘Yes,’ but it wasn’t for me … it was for the people.”
Through all his work with the community, he relies on volunteers to help run fundraisers, the tiendita and most other aspects of his ministry.
“Just to know that they belong, that a university, a university, is recognizing their work,” he says. “Because they are the volunteers that are doing the work; for them it’s big. They feel proud of themselves, that the church is important.”
On Oct. 7, 2011, he was given the award in front of a packed house at UWM’s Roberto Hernandez Center; some people even stood and watched from outside.
“It was their feast,” he says, shocked by the response. “I said people are really enjoying this like crazy.”
A year later, he’s still baffled about winning the award.
“I still wonder why … I don’t know,” he says.
But as he stood in front of the crowd, he combined teaching and preaching to inform those in attendance what Wisconsin prisoners face.
He told the story of man he met after being arrested years ago.
“Since the first time I talked to him, I was very impressed by his intelligence and his noble, tender and honest heart,” he says. “A life sentence with no parole at the age of 19 is a tough challenge to face.”
He shows the crowd a painting he had received from the family of the inmate, painted by the inmate, done especially for him.
“I think that this painting is not about me,” he tells them. “It is about discovering in the 23 hours a day, seven days a week isolation in a little concrete cell, the essence and ultimate meaning of human life. The bleeding human heart and the will not to look at the wall of a cave but look upward searching for the source, the perfect forms and virtues.”
He finished his speech with something the inmate told him.
“He told me, ‘Father, if I had known you before, maybe this would not have happened,’” he says. “This is the reason for my hope.”