Ten years of Cursillo at Galesburg correctional center

GALESBURG — Hard work and a lot of prayer go into any Cursillo weekend, but bringing the faith enriching experience to a prison also requires patience and a great deal of trust in the Holy Spirit.

Next weekend, a large group of volunteers will put all of that hard work, prayer, patience and trust to work one more time as they present the 11th Cursillo at the Hill Correctional Center here. After 10 years they know what to expect, but never cease to be amazed at the way God works in the lives of the men they meet, according to Deacon Joseph O’Tool of St. John’s Parish in Woodhull and spiritual director of “Cursillo at the Hill.”

“We are told very often by the chaplain — and this year when I had an opportunity to spend a day with the warden — about the change of attitude in the men,” he told The Catholic Post. “They could see it. There are not as many ‘repeaters’ among the men who have been through Cursillo.”

Knowing that somebody cares about them gives the inmates hope, said Mary Ellen Rogers of Rock Island, who has served on every Cursillo team at the prison in the last decade.

“I can’t tell you how many times the guys have told us when we go back for follow-ups on the third Tuesday of the month, ‘You are our family. My family won’t come to visit me. You’re the only family we have. I can’t tell you how much it means that you come time after time,'” she said.

WHEN 55 volunteers gathered recently to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Cursillo at the Hill, they recalled other moments that touched their hearts:

— One inmate who was baptized a Catholic but hadn’t celebrated any other sacraments asked to receive Jesus during one Cursillo weekend. After going to confession, he received his first Communion. The volunteers later discovered that he had been shot and killed in an act of revenge only a few weeks after returning home to Chicago.

— Another inmate, Emil, was frustrated because his cell mate, Jack, worshiped Satan. Emil had asked to be moved to another facility several times, but his request had not been granted. Jack agreed to come to a Cursillo weekend and found himself touched by the Holy Spirit. He went back to his cell and prayed with Emil and then shared his newfound faith with the men around him. Emil was transferred the Monday after the Cursillo weekend. “The Lord had kept him around to bring his ‘cellie,’ his brother, into the family of God,” Deacon O’Tool related.

“We share God with them,” Rogers said. “We tell them, ‘You’re thankful for us coming, but you have no idea what a gift you are to us.’ It’s a marvelous gift.”

OVER THE years the volunteers have experienced their fair share of “red tape,” beginning with why they needed a team of 25 when any other religious service requires one or two people, Deacon O’Tool said.

But they prevailed and the first Cursillo weekend was held at the Hill Correctional Center in March 1999. Starting with four inmates, they had 16 by the time the weekend was over.

“I figure God gave us as many as we as we could handle,” said Rogers, who was the rectora for that first weekend and continued to serve as director until 2007.

Providing encouragement and support was Deanne Schmid, a member of the Diocesan Cursillo Board. Not only did she introduce the idea of taking Cursillo into the prison, but she was part of the first team.

The group now works with an average of 40 men per weekend and some of them have come back two, three and four times, Deacon O’Tool said.

THE CATHOLIC presence continues every Tuesday night, with a rotating schedule of Communion services, Masses, Cursillo gatherings (Ultreyas), and Bible studies, he added.

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