A Ministry To Orthodox Inmates

By Fr. Thomas Mueller

Oxford Federal Correctional Institution is a medium-to-heavy security prison located in a very rural area in Central Wisconsin. Several years ago, David Giffey, an iconographer and parishioner of the Greek Orthodox Church in Madison, Wisconsin, had the inspiration to call the Roman Catholic chaplain at this prison and ask whether there were any Orthodox inmates.

His call was well-received, and David undertook to organize an Orthodox service at the prison every so often (probably twice a year). He secured the involvement of any priest who was available. (His own pastor was unavailable because he has a full-time secular job and lives outside the immediate area.) A year ago, David contacted Fr. Thomas Mueller of Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Milwaukee. Fr. Thomas agreed to take ongoing responsibility for the ministry.

In January, 1985, Father Thomas served Divine Liturgy for the prisoners while David chanted. The four Orthodox prisoners joined enthusiastically in the responses, while a non-Orthodox guest observed. After this initial introduction, Fr. Thomas has served the Liturgy or occasionally another service at least once every two months at the prison.

Several parishioners have assisted him, providing companionship for the 2 and 1/2 hour one-way trip, leading the singing, and witnessing to the prisoners of the concern of their brothers and sisters in the faith. They have also brought icons. Orthodox literature, and things like blessed palms and willows and Easter eggs to the men. Their involvement has lent depth to the ministry.


Going to the prison involves first contacting the senior or chief staff chaplain to set up a date for a service or visit. When Fr. Thomas and whoever accompanies him arrive at the prison, they must await the staff chaplain who will guide them into the proper area. While they await him, they must sign in, have their carry-in materials checked, and pass through a metal detector.

An invisible stamp mark is affixed to their hands. Once ushered into the area where the liturgy will be served (usually not the chapel), they must quickly set up a reasonable liturgical setting. Father must do the preparation for the Liturgy and provide for Confession for the participants. All this is difficult because there is always a time limitation and lack of privacy. These circumstances are not negotiable; in general, conditions of visitation in prisons are subject to the dictates of the institution.


The prisoners are very grateful for the opportunity to have Liturgy and to receive the Holy Mysteries. Without the visit afforded by this ministry, they would be nearly abandoned, in effect, by their Church. Not having the freedom that we take for granted, they see their whole hope and freedom in Christ. This gives the whole Liturgy a flavor of intensity and intelligent participation that is sometimes lacking in our parish churches. The lay people who have participated in this ministry sense this, as does the priest. After the service, which always includes preaching, the participants have a half an hour to socialize and talk.

If this prison were located nearer to Milwaukee, there might be more time for personal exchange and inter-action, but the whole trip takes about eight hours from beginning to conclusion, so time is constricted. In addition, the prisoners have meal times to adhere to and other duties to fulfill every day. We hope our ministry can be expanded in 1986 to include one or more state prisons which lie midway between Milwaukee and Oxford. If funding could be obtained, the prison visitations could be combined within a two-day trip. It would also be good to include some kind of educational ministry, but this must be secondary since the Eucharist is what the prisoners need and want most.


Lay people can assist in prison ministry by researching the need and feasibility of Orthodox services, as David Giffey did here. They can assist the priest in setting up and conducting services. Where no priest is available, they can lead classes and discussions and provide reading materials. They can lead readers’ services where that is the only possibility. They should be very careful to work within the guidelines of the staff chaplains and their own clergy, however; failure to do so could jeopardize the ministry. They should be aware that normal civil rights do not apply in prison situations. Prisoners are not free, and perhaps for this very reason they need our ministry and our love.

Fr. Thomas Mueller is pastor of SS Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church, Milwaukee, Wisconsin