Visit to detained student leads to new ministry

Sisters and associates minister at the Dodge County Detention Facility in Juneau, Wisconsin. "In accord with church teaching and directives, we work actively, especially in our local situations to eliminate the root causes of injustice in order to realize a world of peace, justice, and love." -You Are Sent, Constitution of the School Sisters of Notre Dame

About 60 miles northwest of Milwaukee, sits Juneau, Wisconsin, a town of 2,700 people. The Dodge Detention Facility, part of the county jail in Juneau, is a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) center. The detainees at the Dodge Detention Facility are immigrants who are awaiting further steps in the legal process related to refugee status, immigration and deportation. Detainees at the Dodge Detention Facility come from all over the world.

There are more than 100 of these centers throughout the United States. According to a Chicago Tribune (March 24, 2017) article, “On an average day, about 1,055 people are in detention [centers] across Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas and Kentucky, according to preliminary 2016 ICE statistics. As of mid-February [2017], the national average length of stay for a detainee was about 36 days.” However, some in the Dodge County facility have been detained for as long as two years.

Sisters Mariel Kreuziger and Anton Marie Voissem, associate LeVonne Wille and volunteer Sarah Hasbrouck visit detainees at the Dodge Detention Facility in Juneau, Wisconsin.In 2011, Sister Mariel Kreuziger and Sister Anton Marie Voissem, both then age 80, were retiring from full-time ministry but were not ready for full-time retirement. Both sisters professed vows in 1950 and served for over 60 years as educators in the classroom, adult education programs, diocesan offices and at a retreat center. They moved to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, and settled in a house provided by St. Katharine Drexel Parish, about 10 miles from Juneau. It was in the fall of 2015 that Sister Mariel received word that a former student had been jailed in the Juneau Dodge County Detention Center.

During the visits to her student, Sister Mariel learned there were about 200 detained immigrants there. A priest was ministering to the men, but the women had no access to ministry. Sister Mariel was connected with the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants (ICDI), an organization founded by the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago. The organization trains and coordinates volunteer visits to detainees held at ICE facilities. They also provide legal and transitional assistance to detainees. It took nearly a year, but on September 7, 2016, their ministry officially began.

Sister Mariel and Sister Anton Marie were able to find volunteers to be trained, and established regular Saturday morning visits to those being detained, both men and women. These trained volunteers are lay people and sisters who come from as far away as Milwaukee, Racine, Madison and Chicago, Wisconsin. They offer five 30-minute sessions each week for detainees, providing a listening ear, guidance and spiritual reading materials for all faith traditions. Each session ends with a prayer, the handshake of peace, big smiles and many words of gratitude. Two SSND associates, Jane Lord and LaVonne Wille, are among the volunteers who go once a month to serve. Pam Shearman, a Lutheran Deacon from ICDI, oversees the training and sessions. Sister Mariel helps coordinate the work at the Dodge Detention Facility.

Detainees share their stories with the volunteers, such as the story of a young man from Africa who emigrated with his parents at a young age. When he was old enough, he went to join the Marines only to discover he was not documented. He's now waiting in Juneau for his deportation back to a country he never knew. A middle-aged father also shared his story. He owned his home and had raised his children in the United States but was not documented. He also waits for legal recourse.

Sister Mariel and Sister Anton Marie could tell hundreds of these vignettes. They spend their time listening to frustrated and bored detainees, taking prayer requests or chatting about how the corn looks in that time-honored Midwestern tradition. The volunteers’ ministry brings comfort to detainees whose families are often in other states or are afraid to visit because of their own immigration status. The sisters say the most fulfilling time of their visits is extending the handshake of peace, a form of contact not permitted at any other time during the visit.

Sister Mariel says this ministry has been eye opening, “We work with people of many different religions and cultures. In the past, I worked in Catholic parishes, Catholic schools and Catholic dioceses. I have now come to appreciate people of all faiths and so many more cultures. It has given me a new vision for who God is. God is for all of us.”

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