By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
ST. JOSEPH — Father Tom Hermes knew exactly what Vicky Williams was doing on the evening of Oct. 28.
While the rest of St. Louis was celebrating a World Series win, Williams was also on the streets of the city, distributing meals she made to the city’s homeless.
That is what Williams has done every Friday evening since she was released a year ago from the Chillicothe Correctional Center after serving 32 years in prison for the murder of her husband.
Father Hermes, former pastor of St. Columban Parish in Chillicothe, still makes the 250-mile round trip from his new assignment at Immaculate Conception Parish in Montrose to serve the prison until the new St. Columban pastor, Father Angelo Bartulica, goes through the long process required of prison ministers.
It was there that he met Williams, a convert to Catholicism, and leader of that prison’s Catholic community, Father Hermes told the 50 people who attended an Oct. 29 prison ministry workshop, sponsored by the diocesan Human Rights Office, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in St. Joseph.
Originally sentenced to life with no possibility of parole for 50 years upon her conviction of hiring a hitman to kill her security guard husband, Williams is one of 11 women who have won parole after the Missouri General Assembly passed a law in 2007 that provides clemency to women inmates convicted of killing their husband, but who have served at least 15 years and can provide evidence that they were abused by their husbands. Williams has consistently maintained her innocence.
“Her story is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Father Hermes, after workshop participants watched the documentary, “Sin by Silence,” that told of a group of California women inmates, also convicted of killing abusive husbands, who are successfully fighting to change laws across the nation — from behind prison walls.
“A year ago this month, Vicky was released because the court system changed,” Father Hermes said.
“A lot of these women are there (in prison) unjustly because of what our whole concept of abuse used to be,” he said. “And we really need to be listening to their stories, and not prejudging it with what we think.”
It wasn’t an “official” prison minister who brought Williams to Catholicism. It was a prison guard, Beverly Schneider, who died a few years before Williams was released from prison.
When she walked out of the Chillicothe prison into the loving embrace of a grown daughter whom she hadn’t held since she was five years old, and Williams’ own mother, she asked to do two things.
First, she visited Schneider’s grave where she prayed, then poured a can of the guard’s favorite drink, a Vanilla Coke.
Then she went to Mass at St. Columban, the first time she had attended Mass and received the Eucharist outside of the prison.
“Has she changed?” Father Hermes said. “Yes.”
Now living with her daughter in the St. Louis area, Williams learned to serve others as leader of the Catholic community. She is still serving others, the priest said.
“Every Friday evening, she goes out in the streets of St. Louis to find and bring food to the homeless,” he said.
“That is her greatest joy, to bring life and food to people she doesn’t even know,” Father Hermes said.
Human Rights Director Jude Huntz told the workshop that for the first time in years, every one of the state prisons within the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is covered with lay catechists and priests to celebrate regular Mass.
But more volunteers are still needed in all areas of prison ministry, including post-release care as mentors in Catholic Charities’ TurnAround program.
Rick Burr, released last summer after spending 16 years in prison, said the help he has received from TurnAround is keeping him determined to make it outside of prison.
But it’s not easy, he said.
“When you get out of prison, you don’t have nothing,” he told the workshop. “The Catholic Charities program helped, and I am blessed with people there who support me. But there are other guys who have no one. They are just dumped on the streets.”
Prison ministry isn’t easy, Huntz said. But it is rewarding.
“You are asked to minister to people with a lot of challenges,” he said. “You will have all your natural fears, but maybe the Holy Spirit is leading you to that ministry to do battle with Satan in that particular place.
“It’s a difficult process to go through all the hoops to become a volunteer,” Huntz said. “But once you are in, you have the opportunity to share the Good News of the Gospel.”