BY Connie Berry
Growing up in a neighborhood that included the first state prison in New York, the Auburn Correctional Facility founded in 1817, may have subconsciously had something to do with Bill Cuddy’s passion — jail ministry.
This year’s Dorothy Day Award, given originally by the St. Andrew’s Parish community in Syracuse and now by the St. Lucy’s Parish community, goes to Cuddy. There will be a dinner held in his honor May 6 at St. Lucy’s Church at 6 p.m. For ticket information, Sister Pat Bergen, OSF, can be reached at (315) 475-7273.
Cuddy’s life has followed an interesting path. He was ordained a priest for the Syracuse Diocese in 1963 after first considering a contemplative vocation with the Carmelites. He served as parochial vicar at Holy Family Church in Fairmount before his life took a pivotal turn. Cuddy was appointed chaplain at Colgate University after his position at Holy Family, and it was there that he got his introduction to the peace movement. And it was the anti-war movement at Colgate that gave Cuddy his initiation into the criminal justice system.
“The peace movement was alive and well at Colgate,” Cuddy remembered. “The Berrigan brothers and others were making their way into the criminal justice system because of their anti-war activities. That’s how I became acquainted with the system.”
Another connection was between the disproportionate number of veterans incarcerated back in the 1970s and ‘80s and the anti-war movement.
“The jail was filled with veterans, most of them from Vietnam,” Cuddy said. “They were addicted, shell-shocked and had broken families. This was a direct link to war. We don’t take care of our veterans and war creates this situation.”
Unity Acres, Unity Kitchens and the Catholic Worker movement were introduced to Cuddy around the same time. He took students to experience Unity Kitchens in Syracuse and he became passionate about Dorothy Day’s brand of ministry. Cuddy would bring her philosophy to Jail Ministry for the Syracuse Diocese officially in 1976. He left Colgate with the permission of Bishop Frank Harrison so that he could develop and implement an urban prison ministry in the city of Syracuse.
There were men touched by Unity Acres and Unity Kitchens whom he had advocated for through the criminal justice system. Cuddy was learning the ropes and felt compelled to do more than a prison chaplain. He wanted Jail Ministry to be a ministry of community. Today, 34 years later, it still is.
Visitor advocates go to Syracuse’s Justice Center regularly. They listen to the prisoners and find out how they and Jail Ministry can help. The advocates pass messages as simple as “tell my mom I love her” to “tell my attorney I need to talk to her.” The ministry founded by then-Father Bill Cuddy is still working and still a valuable asset, sometimes even to the criminal justice system.
Jail Ministry was housed in Slocum House on Slocum Ave. in Syracuse from the early days. In the beginning, it was a hospitality house for those just released from prison. “We learned a lot about the system in those days,” Cuddy said. Now the house is headquarters for Jail Ministry and a place where volunteers and paid staff gather. Cuddy lived at the house at one time. He also lived at St. Vincent de Paul rectory for 14 years and at St. Joseph the Worker in Liverpool for a year.
In 1995, Cuddy took a leave of absence from the priesthood because he met and fell in love with Pat Hoffman, a widow with nine children.
“I resigned. I was in love and I wanted to explore marriage and family,” Cuddy explained. There are now 31 grandchildren and a full house on any given holiday.
At the same time as Cuddy’s marriage, the bail expediting program began. Cuddy facilitated that program which allowed him the “perk” of “getting people out of jail every day.” The program helped people with low-level charges who were languishing in jail and didn’t have the means to make a low bail.
“We would look at holes in the system that we could fill and bail was one of them,” Cuddy said. “We could provide bail funds, bus trips to state prisons to bring families to see their loved ones.”
The bail expediting program ended last year because the funding was cut by the state. Cuddy noted that when jail ministry began there were 12 state prisons and now there are 72. The proliferation of prisons began in the 1970s with the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
“Now with the downturn of the economy, the first thing they are doing is letting people out of prison,” Cuddy said, “which suggests that maybe they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”
Billy Medina runs the office at Jail Ministry these days. He delegates tasks for the nine-person office staff and provides a Spanish speaking element to Jail Ministry. “I have a Spanish speaking service Thursday evenings at the Justice Center,” Medina said.
Medina’s work began first as a volunteer and then he said, “one thing led to another“ and he’s in his third year at Jail Ministry. “You have to have a heart of service to do this work. Otherwise you’ll burn out quickly,” he said. “I ask prisoners all the time if they know of any other ministry like this anyplace else and they always tell me there’s nothing like it. The end result for me is knowing I can plant a seed, maybe even a spiritual seed. When I lay my had on my pillow at night I know I serve.”
When Peggy Wrobel’s family obligations decreased, she thought maybe she’d take up volunteering. She read a letter in the Post Standard by an inmate and it “totally touched” her. Wrobel had a friend who was a volunteer with Jail Ministry and she asked him if he could visit the person who wrote the letter.
“Eventually I went to visit the young man on my own,” Wrobel explained. “It meant a lot to him to have someone listen, someone not angry with him, who wouldn’t judge him.”
Wrobel was interviewed by Cuddy before training to be a volunteer. That was approximately seven years ago and it is the sense of community shared by all involved in Jail Ministry that continues to appeal to Wrobel.
“I love the whole organization,” she said. “I work with other visitor advocates and they do wonderful things. They go way beyond the call of duty and Bill Cuddy is a prime example of that.”
Wrobel said she worked in the bail expediting office for a while and witnessed many occasions when Cuddy would gather his coat and briefcase ready to head home when the phone would ring and he’d put everything back and take care of the call, including any follow up required.
Cuddy is honored by the Dorothy Day Award but he said the real bonus would be if the award brings attention to Jail Ministry. That he said, is still his passion.