Jail ministry became a passion for 30-plus years for deacon and his wife

Categories: Around the Diocese

Jan. 31, 2014, edition
By Sue Schulzetenberg-Gully

Andy Kunkel was studying for the diaconate when his friend, Ken Bates, suggested he help with jail ministry.

Kunkel didn’t want to go inside the jail. Bates eventually convinced him to help with the ministry in another way.

Kunkel and Bates met with a group of people who were released from jail. Soon, however, members of the group found jobs and no longer came to the meetings. Bates said that they needed to go into the jail to grow the group again.

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Deacon Andy and Celine Kunkel. Photo by Sue Schulzetenberg-Gully / The Visitor

Kunkel and Bates both brought Communion to the Stearns County Jail for awhile before Kunkel took on the project. That was the beginning of more than 30 years in jail ministry.

“It’s really rewarding because you see all of these people changing their lives,” said Deacon Kunkel, who was ordained in 1980. “They always thanked us for coming, not just once, but sometimes four or five times.”

In honor of his years of service, jail ministry volunteers, including priests and deacons and two bishops, assembled for a party Jan. 20 at the Speltz House in Sauk Rapids.

A faithful leader

Deacon Kunkel, 87, a member of Holy Cross Parish in Pearl Lake/Marty, hasn’t done ministry in the jail for about a year, but he continues to help with scheduling priests for Masses. The priests agreed he and his wife Celine, who also helped with the ministry, deserved to be honored.

“He was the leader,” said Father Richard Leisen, a retired priest of the diocese who presides at Masses at the Stearns County Jail. “He was very faithful. He’s been very good to the priests.”

Bishop Donald Kettler and Bishop Emeritus John Kinney expressed their appreciation for Deacon Kunkel and Celine. “We’re grateful for all they’ve done,” Bishop Kinney said. “They have done faithful pastoral work.”

Eventually, Deacon Kunkel found priests to celebrate Mass in the jail on Sundays. He set up the schedule for the priests and brought the lectionary, hosts and wine. He also brought Communion to residents on work release who watched the TV Mass.

Celine Kunkel and other volunteers visited with the men residents after the Mass. Another group of volunteers visited with the women after Communion services.

“It gets in your blood when you see people changing,” Celine Kunkel said. “You want to help them.”

A few years later, Deacon Kunkel and Celine began to help with the Residents Encounter Christ retreats at the jail. Jail employees noticed improved behavior in the residents and allowed two retreats per year.

In addition to his ministry at the Stearns County Jail, Deacon Kunkel also provided Communion services at the Benton County Jail in Foley, ministered at the Morrison County Jail in Little Falls and helped with two RECs in the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud.

“What really surprised me is you would see holier people in jail than outside,” Deacon Kunkel said.

Listening ears

During RECs, Deacon Kunkel would get to know the residents and their stories and they would hear his. Some of the residents said they never felt as much love as they did at the REC.

Deacon Kunkel discovered that many of the residents were like people who weren’t in jail. Most were young, between 17 and 35 years old, and incarcerated because of drug or alcohol related offenses.

“Somebody has to care for them,” said Celine Kunkel. “We would sit there and listen and they would say, ‘You’re the first person who would sit here and talk to us and listen.’ Just being present is the main thing.”

While some residents were not ready for a change, many were. They told stories of losing their cars and their houses. Some were in and out of jail several times and wanted to change their lives so they did not need to return.

“Andy brought a lot of hope,” said Garry Linn, a volunteer jail ministry musician and a member of St. Anne Parish in Kimball. “No matter how broken you are, God can fix you.”

Most of the residents were in jail for two days. One man was there for two years before he was sent to prison. Deacon Kunkel got to know him very well and encouraged him to do good in jail. The man started a rosary crusade in prison.

“He’s doing his good works there,” Deacon Kunkel said.

“Andy said, ‘God got you here for a reason,’ ” Celine Kunkel added. “Maybe you can change some other men around. . . . You don’t have to be out here to be good, you can be good in jail too. You can be an example.”

Now retired Deacon Kunkel enjoys ice fishing and doing activities to stay healthy. He prays, which he believes helps him avoid accidents, does 100 sit ups and pushups every day, eats balanced meals prepared by Celine and cuts wood. Meanwhile, he continues to help out family, friends and neighbors when he can, doing good “out here.”