The reporting for this story was completed last year. The inmates mentioned in the story are no longer in jail. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.
On a sunny spring day with blue skies and a brisk wind, Deacon Pablo Perez makes the drive from the city of Chicago up to Lake County to visit his flock. Many of that flock will only see the day’s skies through small reinforced windows because they are locked behind bars at the Lake County Jail in Waukegan.
Perez, assistant director at Kolbe House, the Archdiocese of Chicago’s jail ministry, makes the trip every week, along with regular visits to Cook County Jail. In 2015 he took Catholic New World staff along with him to see the ministry firsthand.
Kolbe House is a “jail ministry” because there are no prisons located in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Along with those awaiting trial, a jail houses people convicted of a crime and sentenced to serve a term of less than a year. Prisons house those convicted of a crime who are sentenced to serve a term of one year or more.
Lake County Jail houses an average of 700 inmates, 90 percent of whom are men. Cook County Jail, which is far larger, houses 10,000 inmates.
To visit the inmates at Lake County Jail, Perez passes through security and then through a series of locked doors. To go from area to area, staff and ministers go through one locked door — which is unlocked by staff in a control room watching everyone on video camera — and into a small hallway. Once the first door is closed and locked again, the second door buzzes and is unlocked.
Perez always brings paperback Bibles with him to give to the inmates because Bibles are the only books inmates are allowed to bring with them when they enter the jail and take with them when they leave. If Perez brings prayer books, any staples have to be removed before they can be passed out in the jails. Inmates often use staples for tattooing. Some swallow them to hurt themselves.
When Perez arrives in one of the pods housing inmates, a guard announces that a chaplain is on the floor. The men and women are then free to approach him to talk and pray.
One of the men who approached Perez during his visit was David, who marked his 21st birthday just three days earlier. He asked Deacon Pablo how he could improve his relationship with God. The young man admitted that he didn’t practice his faith outside jail even though his mother regularly implored him to attend church with her.
David’s mother told him it hurts her to come down to the jail and visit him, he said. Perez told him that as long as he’s in jail, a part of his mother is in there with him. She suffers too because of his actions.
The inmates are serious when they say they want to get closer to the Lord, Perez said. Then why do many go out and commit more crimes that land them back in jail?
“Here, we talk to them about God,” he said. “Out there, who talks to them?”
Another inmate who reached out to Perez was Guillermo. He had tears in his eyes as he spoke about struggling with the guilt of what he did that put him in jail. Even though he wanted God’s forgiveness, he said he couldn’t find a way to accept that forgiveness.
Deacon Pablo gave him a Catholic Bible and asked Guillermo whether he attended the Sunday Masses or Communion services offered at the jail.
“Do you go to Communion?” Perez asked. The 35-year-old said he didn’t feel worthy to receive.
None of us is worthy, Perez told him. You should go, the deacon said. “Jesus comes to feed you.”
He likened it to the food carts that came to the jail floors three times a day. “You wouldn’t turn down the food cart, would you?” Perez asked. Guillermo shook his head no.
One of the last men to approach Perez during his visit was Jose. He hoped to be released that day and asked for prayers. Cocaine and alcohol use were what got him into trouble, he told Perez.
Perez, who once overdosed on drugs, shared his story with Jose. If God could turn his life around, the deacon said, then God could do the same for Jose.
Jose has a tattoo of a cross on his forearm, which he said was covering up a gang tattoo. That’s something else he had in common with Perez. During his teenage years, Perez belonged to a Chicago gang.
“He [God] did it with me. He could do it with you,” Perez said referring to the changes in his life.
Perez mostly listens to what inmates want to say, unless parts of his biography can help them. Sometimes it is difficult to listen to their stories, particularly in the case of child molesters, but Perez said it’s not for him to judge them.
“They’re still somebody’s son or daughter and they’re suffering.” And once he walks in the doors, he continued, “Christ takes over.”
Jail ministry was not something Perez ever saw himself doing, but God had different plans.
Men who go through the archdiocese’s diaconate program are required to do jail ministry as part of their service hours. Perez said tried to get out of it, but that didn’t work.
“Halfway through the summer of 2006 I saw the power of the Holy Spirit moving in the church in jail,” he said. After he was ordained, he quit his job in sales and was hired as assistant director at Kolbe House.
“Part of me stays in the jail now,” he told the Catholic New World, “because their suffering has become my suffering.”
Kolbe House, located at Assumption Church, 2434 S. California Ave., near the Cook County Jail, began in 1983. It was named after St. Maximilian Kolbe, who was executed at Auschwitz during World War II.
The ministry trains male and female volunteers to visit inmates in book Cook and Lake County jails. They offer bilingual Bible studies, Masses and Communion services to those in jail. Kolbe House also ministers to families of the incarcerated, families of victims and those released from jail or prison. There is a monthly Mass of reconcilation offered at Assumption Church.
Kolbe House relies on help from generous donors to conduct its ministry. For information on how to get involved, visit www.kolbehouseministry.org.
St. Maximilian was born Raymond Kolbe in Poland, Jan. 8, 1894. In 1910, he entered the Conventual Franciscan Order and was sent to study in Rome where he was ordained a priest in 1918.
Father Maximilian returned to Poland in 1919 and began spreading his Militia of the Immaculata movement of Marian consecration, which he founded on Oct. 16, 1917. In 1927, he established an evangelization center near Warsaw called Niepokalanów, the “City of the Immaculate.” By 1939, the city had expanded from 18 friars to nearly 900, making it the largest Catholic religious house in the world.
The friars utilized modern printing techniques to evangelize the culture. This enabled them to publish numerous catechetical and devotional tracts, a daily newspaper with a circulation of 230,000 and a monthly magazine with a circulation of over one million. Maximilian started a radio station and planned to build a motion-picture studio.
In 1941, the Nazis imprisoned Father Maximilian in the Auschwitz concentration camp. There he offered his life for another prisoner and was condemned to death by starvation. He died on Aug. 14, 1941. Pope John Paul II canonized Maximilian Kolbe in 1982. He is the patron of journalists, families, prisoners, the pro-life movement and the chemically addicted.
For the past 13 years, Anthony Brown has delivered lunch bags of food six days a week, driving the Port Ministries Bread Truck to people who gather at eight stops in Back of the Yards, Englewood, New City, Gage Park and Canaryville.
When the Illinois Department of Corrections began releasing inmates from state prisons to reduce populations during the COVID-19 pandemic, staff from Kolbe House, the archdiocese’s jail and prison ministry, stepped up to help.
“I feel blessed to be with you.” That’s what Cardinal Cupich told about 130 men in Cook County Jail who joined him for Christmas Mass the morning of Dec. 25.