A priest finds peace ministering to prisoners

Standing near the century-old statue of the Sacred Heart on the grounds of Sacred Church in Hamilton, Father Phil Luebbert holds ‘The Glories of Mary,’ by St. Alphonsus Liguori, a focal point in his prison ministry. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

Standing near the century-old statue of the Sacred Heart on the grounds of Sacred Church in Hamilton, Father Phil Luebbert holds ‘The Glories of Mary,’ by St. Alphonsus Liguori, a focal point in his prison ministry. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

HAMILTON — The Blessed Mother has had a profound impact on Father Phil Luebbert’s life, vocation and ministry. He grew up praying the Rosary with his family, honoring Mary at Nativity of Mary School, and then praying the Rosary daily with the Vincentian priests and fellow students at St. John’s Minor Seminary in Kansas City. “The Rosary remains a necessary part of my daily prayer life,” he said.

Since July 2012, when he was assigned to pastor St. Ann’s Parish in Plattsburg, he has spent several hours weekly with inmates at Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron. His predecessor at St. Ann’s, Father Jeff Stephan, asked if he would continue the Catholic ministry at Crossroads, “Yes or No?”

He recalled that “My pastoral instincts prompted me to say ‘yes,’ and I’m still there, Wednesday evenings from 7 – 9 p.m.”

Father Phil said he was required by the Missouri Department of Corrections to take a day of classes for new volunteers, and was then issued an ID card and given instructions for prison ministry, mostly about safety. Crossroads is a maximum security prison for men, housing about 1,500 inmates. An average of 8 – 12 men gather with Father Phil on Wednesday nights.

Father Phil recalled the prison chaplain, Matthew Mason, who oversees all the religious denominations and their services, saying it was up to him how the two hours was spent. Brand new to the ministry, he gave it some thought and prayer.

“I figured we’d start with Mass,” he recalled. “I’d offer Mass for the inmates who came for the session. That takes about an hour. There’s a big room in the prison where we meet. The state provides vestments, missals, lectionary and Book of the Gospels, the vessels and altar cloths. These are stored in a locked metal cabinet in the meeting room.”

Father Phil does not assign any tasks to the inmates as far as setting up before Mass.  “Apparently they were in the habit of doing so for Father Jeff, Father Bob Kerr, etc., before me.  So it really made it easy for me from my first service in August 2012, and still does, that I don’t have to take care of the material preparation. They put away everything after Mass, too, in the cabinet where the vestments are kept —and it remains locked all week. They each do the same detail before and after every Mass, and the same three volunteer to do the readings, too. Usually the same guys do the same detail each week, unless one of them is sick or absent for any reason, then one of the others takes his place.  All is organized without any input from me including providing the altar breads and sacramental wine.”

After Communion, Father Phil said the men kneel beside their chairs in silent prayer or meditation, “a moving sight.”

After Mass, the men have the opportunity to go to Confession. He reminds them that God’s mercy is all-powerful. “Thinking of that has changed my attitude toward them,” he said.

During the session’s second hour, they read and discuss the scripture readings from the previous Sunday’s Liturgy. In the session this past Wednesday, for example, the men would have read and discussed Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4; 2 Timothy 1: 6-8, 13-14, and Luke 17:5-10. But before the readings and discussion, Father Phil begins the Rosary. They pray the Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious and Luminous mysteries of the Rosary. At the beginning of each decade, he strives to personalize their meditation on the Mystery. “The Agony in the Garden: Go into the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus, try to stay awake with him for an hour. Mental images of the Mysteries bring them home to the men and they get it!”

A book he read years ago, The Glories of Mary by St. Alphonsus Liguori, had stuck with him and became a focal point in his prison ministry. Each chapter is headed by a line from the Salve Regina, “Hail Holy Queen,” the prayer concluding the Rosary. He talks to the men about Mary loving them as she loves her Son, Jesus Christ; about her love for penitent sinners.

Father Phil explained that St. Alphonsus describes Mary as the Mother of sinners and gives personal accounts of people who were converted through her prayers. “When at the foot of the cross Mary became John the apostles’s mother — through Jesus’ words — and he became her son, all the rest of us became her children by adoption, in the person of St. John. I encourage the inmates to foster their relationship with the Virgin Mary each day. She is the spiritual mother of all her Son’s disciples.”

Over the past four years, the men he meets with on Wednesday evenings have grown in faith and spirituality. One inmate told Father Phil that the Luminous Mysteries are his favorite decade of the Rosary. Two inmates have been baptized Catholic, with Baptismal Certificates issued by St. Munchin Church in Cameron.

Having experienced some uncertain times in his own life, Father Phil doesn’t find it difficult or scary to talk with the inmates.

He graduated from St. John’s in 1967, then attended Conception Seminary College for his freshman (future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was a classmate) and sophomore years, then transferred to St. Benedict’s College in Atchison for his final two years.  He was in the last St. Benedict’s College class (1971) before St. Benedict’s and Mount St. Scholastica colleges merged in 1972 and were renamed Benedictine College.

With the priesthood still in mind, he chose to major in Philosophy.  After graduation he “went on” to St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., for his first 2 years of theology. “Despite my enthusiasm,” he recalled, “things didn’t work out and I left in 1973.” Finding a job to pay the bills was difficult. He recalled a number of years working on a shopping center cleaning crew. “Philosophy is great as far as helping someone sort things out and understand the deeper realities, and what are the most important priorities. But for job resumes it was not advantageous. I kept my interest in the priesthood over the years, reentered seminary in 2006, and finished in 2010.” He was ordained that year.

In the event Father Phil is unable to go to a session with the inmates, Deacon Doug Myler of St. John LaLande Parish in Blue Springs, or prison ministry volunteers from Kansas City Patricia Wiles, Jeanine Arens and Dee Baker, hold a communion service and Bible study for them. Father Phil has just expanded his ministry to include the jail at Kingston on the second Wednesday of each month. He is confident that through Deacon Myler or the three women volunteers, the spiritual needs of the inmates will be met.

Father Phil hopes that more people will prayerfully consider volunteering for prison ministry. The diocesan Human Rights Office noted that in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph there are seven prisons and numerous jails, nearly 100 Prayer Warriors, volunteers who mentor offenders once they’ve been released, volunteers who help drive family members to visit their relative in prison, and several Pen Pals who correspond with offenders in prison. If you are interested in volunteering, contact Laurie Jo Holmes to learn more about the MAX Diocesan Prison & Jail Ministry Team. A story in the October 21 issue of the Key will profile the ministry in greater depth.

Father Phil is happy he agreed to continue the prison ministry at Crossroads Correctional Center and to expand his ministry to the Kingston Jail. “Realizing the Lord wants me to be there is very comfortable and peaceful.” He feels he is following Pope Francis’ exhortation to offer mercy to others, in this Jubilee Year of Mercy and in the future.


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November 29, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph