In return, several women volunteers from the church serve the workers a homemade meal.
“We cook for the fellas,” said Marie Baerwald. “We make a homemade big meal with everything from the meat, potatoes, vegetable, salad, homemade bread and the desserts. That’s the one thing we can do for them to show we appreciate them. They don’t get home cooking in the facility. This is on a one-on-one basis, and it’s just something we do.”
Joining her are Carolyn Crofoot, Gen Putzer and Shirley Courchene.
“The fellas love it,” Baerwald said. “They thank us. In the Heritage Room in the church basement, we have notes they’ve made. We put them up on the bulletin board so the next group sees other guys have been there.”
The collaboration started a few years ago when Fr. Bill Van De Kreeke, pastor of the former St. Vincent Parish, regularly visited the correctional facility to offer Mass. He learned about the community service program and suggested it for the St. Vincent site. Inmates now help maintenance volunteers such as Jerry Paulik, Bob Freid and Greg Courchene with regular upkeep at the church site.
“I think the one-on-one contacts with the fellas are good,” Baerwald said. “They need something positive in their lives and to know that people appreciate them. They appreciate us. We tell them they’re our grandchildren – we get them for six months and then give them back.”
She said most of the participating workers are 18 to 30 years old, have chosen to participate, and have been approved as part of their service.
“We get to know them really well,” Baerwald said. “I think it’s good for the fellas to see they can come into a church. A lot of them never have been in a church before. They’ll come down and say the church is so pretty, and they’re in awe with the Stations of the Cross. They’ll walk from one to another and look.”
She said one worker was asked to clean the elevator area really well. Just inside is a little water fountain for holy water.
“He thought it was an ashtray,” Baerwald said. “He said, ‘I didn’t know. I’ve never been in church.’ I told him, ‘Jesus is going to be really happy you cleaned it so well.'”
She said the workers are happy to clean the church, and the church is happy to feed them. New workers are happy to come because “they’ve already heard what kind of cooking we’ll do for them – meatloaf, lasagna, turkey with dressing, beef roast, pecan-crusted chicken breasts. We try to make it interesting,” she said.
Tom Donovan, business administrator for St. Jude and Most Blessed Sacrament parishes, said the program offers financial savings for the parish and also provides a great service for the workers involved.
“The parish gains tremendously from the services,” he said. “They provide a service to the parish and are given a chance to pay back what they might have done. Regardless of what they may have done, they are children of God and we need to welcome them and appreciate the gift they’ve given us of their time and their talents.”
He said the program offers a chance for the workers to have a rebirth in their hearts and learn that they can have good relationships with others.
“This is a chance for them to get along and be treated as a human being and not be degraded,” Donovan said. “That’s very important. We treat them with respect because we’re very pleased and thankful for the work they do for us. They see this as a way to give back, to say to society, ‘I’ve done something wrong, but I’m not a bad person.’ “
He said the workers also have helped to set up and clean up for the parish picnic. “It’s a tremendous gift to the parish, a gift of their stewardship of service,” he said.
“It shows them that the church is there for them. A church is a part of everybody,” Baerwald added. “They clean it, we cook. Some say they will come back when they graduate. They like Oshkosh, and it’s to show them that we care. It’s who we are.”