September 4, 2020

Be Our Guest / Stephen Kappes

A thank-you to Lena Peoni and all who began a ministry at the Marion County Jail

Consider this a thank-you note, a challenge and a short history lesson.

The history lesson comes courtesy of Lena Peoni, a member of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove, who was part of a small group of Catholics who used their faith to make a difference in the lives of people who were imprisoned at the Marion County Jail in Indianapolis.

Starting in the late 1970s, the group accomplished a monumental task of bringing an “on-call service” to inmates, as well as coordinating every month two Masses, one for the men and one for the women. The two Masses were held on the same day and nearly back to back, permitting detained Catholics to have the privilege of going to confession and attending Mass.

According to Lena, the group was led by George Rolfsen Sr., who was affectionately called “Pop” or the “Patriarch.” The group also included then-Marion County Sheriff James Wells, Franciscan Sister Philonilla Weintraut, Helen Springer, Ella Moriarty, Lena and eventually myself.

Recalling the days of the Mass at the jail, Lena shared how she would stop by the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus to borrow for several hours a large quantity of missalettes for the attendees to better participate, especially with the music. “Pop” was the music director at St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis, and wow, did we have music at the jail Mass!

She also explained how “Pop” would call and arrange a volunteer priest to celebrate the holy Mass. We were very meticulous about having Mass as opposed to just a prayer service. One volunteer was Msgr. Joseph Schaedel, who in the day was the associate pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Indianapolis and a teacher at nearby Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School.

The county jail, at least at that time, was a partial lockup for those awaiting court and, upon being found guilty, sentencing. Then, offenders would be moved to other jails according to their offenses to carry out their rehabilitation. Thus, we could not have a head count until the time of the liturgy for the number of hosts to be consecrated into the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.

Lena also recalled how each member of our group had to have a picture ID from the sheriff’s department to enter the jail, and how we would have to escort the volunteer priest into the jail because there was no way for him to have a photo ID.

Through the years, many members of that group have been called home to heaven. Pop’s replacement expanded the ministry as it networked with the then‑Indiana State Police Catholic Chaplain Father Richard Cooley, a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette, Ind. And later, the ministry would include the Indiana Department of Correction where the prison ministry is still in operation at this time.

So, this is my thank-you to Lena and all the members who started the group. If it were not for the fortitude and stick‑to‑itiveness of these ladies and gentlemen, the prison ministry would never have gotten off the ground.

We pray that by sharing this information it will encourage others to get involved and see our detainees as children of God who deserve a hand-up the ladder of ascent unto rehabilitation, and a return to be contributing members of society.

(Stephen Kappes, O.F.S., is a member of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove.)

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!