Deacon named ‘volunteer of the year’

For Deacon Joseph O’Tool of St. John the Apostle Parish in Woodhull, the motivation to visit the inmates at the Henry C. Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg comes down to something very simple.

“You really have to believe, ‘When I was in prison, you visited me.’ You have to know the person sitting in front of you is Jesus,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going back.”

For that commitment, Deacon O’Tool was named Volunteer of the Year at “The Hill.” He joined top volunteers from 35 other correctional institutions around the state for a ceremony in Springfield on April 14 and was honored at a reception at the Galesburg facility on April 18.

State officials told them that the hours donated by all of the volunteers at Illinois prisons would amount to about $3.5 million if converted to what it would take to pay for those services, Deacon O’Tool said.

He estimated that more than 50 percent of that work is religious in nature. That includes Communion services on the first Tuesday of the month and spiritual counseling, putting together a team for an annual Cursillo and following up with Ultreyas on the third Thursday of the month, which he coordinates with the help of the Northwest Cursillo Community.

“I feel that in them recognizing me, they are recognizing all of the volunteers of our Cursillo program,” he said, noting that this year marks the 10th anniversary of Cursillos at The Hill. Deacon O’Tool has been involved in all but one of them.

He said that each Cursillo draws about 40 inmates and the Ultreyas have brought together as many as 75.

In fact, it was an invitation from someone in the Peoria Cursillo Community that got him thinking about prison ministry. While he wasn’t sure he could do it, he called the man back and has been involved ever since.

Ordained as a permanent deacon in 2007, Deacon O’Tool said he offers spiritual counseling to the inmates as part of the monthly Communion services. The stories he hears are often as heartbreaking as they are heartwarming, since many of the inmates don’t know who their fathers are.

Married to his wife, Jolene, for 44 years, Deacon O’Tool has five grown children and 16 grandchildren. Before he retired in December 2007, he was a corporate safety director for the Helm Group, a large construction company.

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