A gathering of unsung heroes

Jail Ministry honors staff and volunteers

The Office of Jail Ministry for the Diocese of Syracuse honored staff and volunteers Aug. 28 at a luncheon held at Christ the King Retreat House and Conference Center. Honorees included former ministry bus driver Marion Wierowski; Jail Advocates Mimi Olech, Carol and Tim McCarthy, and Gary and Mary Burgmeier; printer Walt McDermott; defense lawyer Ed Klein; and former Executive Director of the Brady Faith Center David Allen, who was honored posthumously.

   The ministry celebrated its 35th anniversary this year and staff members at the luncheon were pleased to honor those who dedicated their time and effort to the ministry through the years.

   “It’s really nice they are doing this,” stated Mary Lou Coons, 53, Wierowski’s daughter, who came to the event to see her mother honored. “My mom is a hero to me and she has always been an inspiration and a great role model for others.”   

   Wierowski, 88, a parishioner at Holy Family Church in Fairmount, used to drive a school bus for the West Genesee School District. Now retired, Wierowski remembers how she would volunteer a few Saturdays for the ministry during the year to transport inmates’ families to Attica Prison on visiting day. 

   “It was many years ago, but I really enjoyed driving the bus for the ministry,” stated Wierowski. “I remember it as being a time for family. The families would bring big coolers on the bus filled with food to take inside the jail. My daughter Mary Lou, who was 11 at the time, would come with me, but we weren’t allowed on the prison grounds. We stayed outside by the bus and the prison guards on the roof were always watching us.”

   Wierowski was surprised she was one of the ministry’s honorees. “I just helped out because they needed someone who could drive a bus. It was the right thing to do,” she said.

   Tim and Carol McCarthy, both 64 and members of St. Lucy’s Parish in Syracuse, have been married for 42 years. For 32 years of their marriage, they have worked together in jail ministry, Tim as a Visitor Advocate, and Carol supporting him in his efforts. Tim is also a longtime member of the ministry’s Worker Council and also serves as the ministry’s liaison with the Brady Faith Center, where the ministry is now housed. Previously, the jail ministry was located within Catholic Charities.

   Tim has served on many committees for the ministry and supported the ministry’s bail program when it began as a new initiative a few years ago. Throughout the years, Carol supported Tim’s efforts in the ministry and helped out whenever she could.

   “Jail Ministry is a wonderful program and I am honored and humbled that Carol and I are being honored,” stated Tim. “It’s been very rewarding, especially to serve beside my wife, who is my best friend. Working here this long helps me be ‘the hands and feet of Jesus.’ When I work for the ministry, I am always reminded of the scripture, ‘Where two or more are gathered in his name, I am in the midst to comfort.’ I always remember that Jesus is by my side in the jail.”

   Ed Klein, a defense lawyer, has offered his professional assistance to the ministry by defending inmates, acting as a mentor to many volunteers and staff members, and offering his professional insight in working with the Onondaga County Court system. Klein, although deeply touched by receiving the award, was quick to point out that it’s the ministry’s volunteers who deserve the lion’s share of the praise.

   “Working with the Jail Ministry is a blessed profession,” stated Klein at the luncheon. “I always admire what the volunteers with this ministry do for others and I am honored to work with you.”

   Pushing his wife’s wheelchair into the ceremony, Gary Burgmeier, 62, a Visitor Advocate for the ministry since 2000, was deeply touched he and his wife Mary, 62, were being honored at the luncheon.

   “I’m glad to help this ministry. I’ve handed out bibles, spoke to inmates about God and listened and helped whenever I could. I have never been honored like this before and I am both humbled and a little bit nervous,” laughed Gary.

   The couple is still involved in working for the ministry despite Mary’s recent battle with two life-threatening illnesses through the year.

   “When I began working for the ministry I had one image in my head about how the ministry would be, but it totally changed when I started working on the newsletter,” stated Mary. “I wanted to stay involved with the ministry and now I work with the restorative justice program that works with non-violent criminals and their victims and is modeled after the Native Americans. Everyone [the offender, victim and professionals from restorative justice agencies] sit down and discuss positive actions the offender can do to help the healing process for the victim.”

   Sitting with her husband, son, daughter and grandson, Mimi Olech smiled shyly as ministry staff commended her past efforts within the Jail Ministry. Olech began with the ministry team in 1989 as both a volunteer and Visitor Advocate. She became a core member of the ministry, despite being a single parent at the time and earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Syracuse University. During her years at the ministry, Olech played a key role in laying the foundation of the ministry’s bail program, which to date has helped more than 7,000 inmates.

   In 1996, Olech, working with the Sheriff’s Department and Catholic Charities, created the ministry’s “PlaySpace,” an area within the Onondaga County Justice Center for children of inmates to come and play during visitation days. Olech directed the program, which continues today, until 2003.

   Printer Walt McDermott shook his head in disbelief as members of the ministry spoke at the luncheon praising his tremendous contributions to the ministry such as printing flyers, brochures, newsletters and stationery. McDermott, who owns the Printing Center in Syracuse, thanked the ministry for the award but stated, “There are so many more people who do so much more for this ministry than I do. But thank you for this honor.”

   Surrounded at the luncheon by her family, grandchildren and friends, Mary Allen, the widow of the late David Allen, held back tears as David was honored posthumously for his work with the ministry. David had been involved as executive director of the Brady Faith Center and was responsible for helping the ministry move into the Center before he passed away in April 2014.

   “David believed tomorrow was always a new day. He was a friend and a resource to all those who were in need,” stated Mary. “I know David would be deeply touched to receive this award, but he would also say there are so many others more worthy of it and he would want to honor them. He just believed he helped with the heavy lifting.”

   Keith Cieplicki, Jail Ministry coordinator, smiled as he spoke about David Allen and all the honorees at the luncheon: “We are grateful that the family of David Allen is here today and we are grateful to the many volunteers that create our beautiful community. We appreciate the service that everyone does in advocating for the inmates and I can’t think of a better group of people to work with.”

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