BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Province’s Cephas program, offering prison ministry and transitional housing for ex-offenders in Western New York State, is merging with a similar organization, forging a strategic plan, and acquiring a church rectory for additional space.
When HNP Today caught up by phone last week with Michael Oberst, OFM, executive director of Cephas, he was busy working out the details for the merger with Hope of Buffalo, a prison ministry that reaches out to former offenders at its Bissonette House and families of those incarcerated.
He had been working on the merger for the past 18 months. He had also just completed the Cephas annual awards dinner on March 21 at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, honoring three ex-offenders who have significantly changed their lives, along with community supporters.
The new umbrella organization will be called Peaceprints™ Prison Ministries, with Michael as interim executive director until a permanent leader is hired. The Cephas name, which means “foundation” in Greek, will remain, said Michael. Cephas will continue to house up to six former prison inmates at its apartment-style Cephas House in South Buffalo. It will also run its support groups at seven prisons in Western New York State.
The merger will allow the two groups to expand their support system and services to ex-offenders and their families, by sharing administrative and operational costs and maximizing on resources.
“The two ministries complement each other,” said Michael. “We’ll be able to offer more services under one umbrella. Both groups provide transitional housing, Cephas has in-prison groups, and Hope of Buffalo has outreach to families. Peaceprints will be a more comprehensive program.”
“We will have an even stronger presence and ability to serve the individuals in need,” Michael said in a Jan. 22 story in The Buffalo News.
The two groups appeal to different types of ex-offenders. Hope of Buffalo is for non-violent offenders, while Cephas helps those who have committed violent crimes. The average stay at Cephas is about six months, while Hope of Buffalo residents leave usually after two.
The two groups are centered on a common vision, and will soon write a strategic plan, “one that would allow us to grow, and to serve the needs of women within three years, as well as strengthen and continue services in Rochester, N.Y.,” Michael said.
In addition, he added, the group is planning to acquire a former church rectory so Peaceprints can accommodate more people and have permanent residential staff. Additional space will allow Peaceprints to move its offices from St. Patrick Friary in Buffalo, which has been lending it space.
According to an article in the March 2009 issue of Western New York Catholic, Peaceprints has a three-year plan that focuses on building the infrastructure of the newly-formed organization. Future plans include a women’s residence and secondary Cephas residence.
The friar community, Michael said, has always been very supportive. He mentioned the current help from Vianney Justin, OFM, and past involvement of Robert Struzynski, OFM, when he lived in Buffalo. Once a week, the men from Cephas House have dinner at the friary.
Friars initially got involved with Cephas in 1983, when the lay-ministry upstart program reached out to the faith community and connected with David Schlatter, OFM, in Buffalo at the time.
The Cephas volunteer program was started after the serious Attica prison uprisings in the early 1970s. The dedicated volunteers brought ex-offenders home with them to live so they could learn how to transition back into society. In 1981, the organization opened its first residence for ex-offenders.
Cephas residents have typically spent long periods in prisons, according to Western New York Catholic, and need transitional time in a highly-structured environment. Cephas offers the residents tools to become active members of society, including use of public transportation, computer skills and addiction counseling.
When Michael learned that David had connected with the volunteers and offered St. Patrick’s Friary as a place to live, he wanted to be involved. He left his ministry at Holy Name College in Maryland and moved to Buffalo to live and work with the ex-offenders.
“I wasn’t doing much with the poor, and I requested that I come up to Buffalo. I got there two weeks after the first man arrived from prison, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
That was more than 25 years ago, and today, Michael is running a successful ministry. He estimates that over the year, he has lived with about 150 ex-offenders, helping many turn their lives around. About 80 percent of the men who lived at Cephas House do not return to prison, he said, which surpasses the national average of about 33 percent.
While many friars throughout the Province run prison ministry programs, Cephas is the only one providing transitional housing, Michael said. Cephas, he said, is not a religion program, but rather a spiritual one, giving men the tools they need to live successfully.
From its humble beginnings of housing men in volunteers’ homes and at the friary, five years ago Cephas bought an apartment building accommodating six. “The whole concept is based on living together in community, and that care, support and brotherhood can allow people to make change in their lives.”
The newly-merged groups chose the name Peaceprints Prison Ministries to honor the work of the late Sr. Karen Klimczak, SSJ, from the Sisters of St. Joseph who ran Bissonette House. Tragically, Sr. Karen was murdered by one of the home’s residents in 2006.
Bissonette House has an eerie and interesting history, according to Michael. It was named for Fr. A. Joseph Bissonette, who was also murdered by two men he was trying to help. In the mid-1980s, Sr. Karen took over the house and renamed it Bissonette House, in memory of the late priest.
Sr. Karen advocated for non-violence by drawing dove peace prints. Since her murder, people have remembered her by putting these peace prints on bumper stickers and yard signs in the Buffalo area. That’s how Peaceprints Prison Ministries got its name, said Michael, who was a friend of Sr. Karen.
Interestingly, Michael said, Sr. Karen had a premonition that she would be murdered. After her death, a 1990s entry was found in her journal predicting that she would die at the hands of one of the men who lived with her. She also wrote a letter of forgiveness, saying that she would pray for him.
While Michael has also lived with many former hardened criminals, he said he has never been afraid. “Bad things can happen anywhere,” he said. “There are no guarantees.” He is happy to report, however, that he has had no issues in the past 25 years.
One of the reasons for the merger, he said, was to fulfill a dream of Sr. Karen’s, a plan that the two had discussed. Since his name has become synonymous with Cephas, Michael also wanted to take steps that would make the ministry less dependent on him. “One of the things I have been aware of is that I’m the longest involved person with Cephas, and it is significantly dependent on me. I am looking at ways to develop a larger base.”
Michael is grateful for the financial support Cephas receives, especially from the Province’s Benevolence Fund and the Franciscan Sisters. It is only through this support that this vital ministry can continue to grow.
In 1972, there were 12,000 people in New York prisons; now there are 60,000, he said.
“In many ways, those in prison are the lepers of today. They are the people we want to lock up, throw away, and forget. They are in need of a love that both supports them and gives them a firm direction.”
That is what Peaceprints Prison Ministries can give them.
— Wendy Healy, a Connecticut-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.