By S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) - On the fourth Wednesday of every month, a trio of ladies armed only with rosaries, Christian literature, bingo cards and sandwiches enters a high security building at the Lincoln Regional Center to spend the evenings with patients who have committed serious crimes against others, a number of whom have mental illnesses.
They are members of the Lincoln court of Catholic Daughters of the Americas (CDA), and this “Circle of Love” ministry at the Regional Center has been going on for more than 20 years.
Margaret Vencil of the Cathedral of the Risen Christ Parish is the current leader of the outreach, which includes many others who contribute prayers and make sandwiches, in addition to the ladies who visit.
She said, “I feel that they are a really important ministry because most people would not reach out to these men.”
At “87 going on 88,” Arlene Pokorney of St. Joseph Parish is the oldest member of the trio.
“I’ve been a widow for 36 years and this gives me something to do,” she said.
Mrs. Vencil, Mrs. Pokorney, and Kathy Morris of Blessed Sacrament Parish arrive at the regional center around 7 p.m. They distribute whatever Catholic books and pamphlets have been donated to the men by other CDA members. Then the group of three women and many of the 20 or so patients who are there pray the rosary together.
Mrs. Morris remembered being a little skeptical that these patients really wanted to pray the rosary.
“I thought maybe they’d do it just to get sandwiches and play bingo,” she admitted. “But these men really seem to get involved with the rosary.”
Various patients offer intentions for themselves, for family members, for Father Joseph Finn who comes to hear confessions and celebrate Mass for them on Sundays. These requests are written into the CDA book of prayers so that the other members can keep praying for them.
Mrs. Pokorney said she usually starts the rosary, but they ask for volunteers to continue.
“We always get enough volunteers for the decades,” she reported.
Afterward, the whole group enjoys a couple rounds of bingo. Every winner gets a quarter, also supplied by the CDA. Then they socialize and enjoy their snack.
“We’ve had men say, ‘It’s so good to have homemade sandwiches,’” Mrs. Vencil said.
On special occasions, like Christmas, the ladies will bring cookies, too. But even just a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a small taste of home for a man who must stay locked up indefinitely.
According to a worker at the Regional Center, who spoke anonymously due to national privacy regulations, there are no set release dates for these patients.
“They are here until they are no longer mentally ill or dangerous to others, however long that might be,” the source said. Visitors from the outside help the staff “give the patients structure and teach them coping skills and leisure activities.”
Mrs. Morris admitted that she was initially a little intimidated to go into a locked facility with men whom had been declared dangerous.
“It was an odd feeling at first, but it doesn’t take you long to be comfortable,” she said. “I never felt threatened. The patients made me feel very welcome when I came the first time.”
Without the CDA ladies and a couple of other outsiders coming in, the patients would only interact with Regional Center staff members and other patients.
“Some have families and some don’t,” Mrs. Vencil said. “And some families visit and some don’t.”
The CDA ladies arrive with open hearts and treat the patients like their own brothers.
“They are like family,” Mrs. Morris said. “They’ve been hurt and they are suffering.”
“They are a wonderful group of men who happen to be in recovery,” Mrs. Vencil stressed.
She added, “These are the least of our brothers, and we’re called to reach out to them,” referencing the words of Christ in Matthew 25:40.
Mrs. Vencil firmly believes that through the prayers of the rosary and the intercession of the Blessed Mother, the patients experience spiritual and mental healing.
“We have had converts there, and we have had people who were Catholic but had stopped practicing their faith,” she said.
Mrs. Vencil prays diligently for more volunteers to help keep this Regional Center Ministry going. She also sees the need for men to lead a Bible study for this group of patients. There are female patients at the Regional Center who could benefit from a Catholic group visiting and praying with them as well.
“It’s on my heart,” she lamented. “I think it’s such a special outreach.”
She intends to keep visiting these patients at the Regional Center as long as she is able. “It’s a wonderful evening and we all enjoy going there,” she said. “It’s my favorite thing to do for volunteer work.”
For more information about this particular Circle of Love ministry, please contact Margaret Vencil at 402-488-6050. For more information on Lincoln’s Catholic Daughters St. Charles Court and their “Unity and Charity” endeavors, please contact Marvalee Richardson at 402-488-6098.
If your Catholic organization would like to start a ministry at the Regional Center, contact the staff directly to propose your idea.