Saturday, March 20, 2010

Seeing Christ In The Eyes of Prisoners

This is an article I wrote about our former jail chaplain.

"Papa Joe" Wanner served as jail chaplain at our county jail for more than 12 years. He was loved by many and served as an inspiration to prisoners, ministry members and jail staff. This article appeared in the Catholic Herald - October 10, 2002.

It is 9 p.m. at the county jail and visiting hours are over. A single voice echoes through the deserted hallways. Joe Wanner is singing hymns.

It has been a tiring day for the 72-year-old chaplain. He struggles to propel himself through the long corridors in a wheelchair too small for his six-foot frame. Wanner took a spill in 1993 and tore a ligament in his knee cap. The injury has slowed him down a bit, but Wanner has the spirit and enthusiasm of a much younger man.

Until recently, Wanner spent 90 hours a months serving the incarcerated. In addition to visits to the jail, conducting services and sharing his religious beliefs, he spends time at home writing letters to judges on behalf of the inmates, making housing arrangements for soon-to-be-released prisoners, and "other background work that needs to be done."

But it is the visits with inmates that he most enjoys. Most of the time he just listens. Inmates gather around him begging for attention. Papa Joe, as some prisoners affectionately call him, prays with Christians, Muslims and Jews. "We have to be sensitive to other religious," he said. "We have to recognize and honor them."

Leading prisoners to God. Wanner's mission is to lead prisoners to a relationship with their God. His nickname, Papa Joe, is a fitting title for a jail chaplain and former priest. Wanner was ordained to the priesthood in 1957. He requested and received permission from the church to leave the priesthood in 1972.

Wanner will tell you that his passion for prison ministry began with a life-changing experience. It happened in 1963 when he was a young priest at St. Thomas Church in Milwaukee.

"I was driving down North Avenue," he said. "At about 32nd Street I looked out of my window and there to my left was a bum. He was lying on the ground, sick and unconscious. He was unshaved and poorly dressed. Liquid was flowing from his mouth onto the sidewalk."

Wanner's first impulse was to take care of man, an example he learned from his dad. But then he thought about his nice clean suit and the fact that he would be late for his doctor's appointment.

"I figured somebody would be along soon to take care of the old timer so I didn't stop," he said. "I really think God was there at that moment. And oh, did he let me have it! I felt terrible. Terrible. By then I was several blocks away."

The call to action continues. The guilt he experienced affected his entire life. "From then on I didn't want God pointing a finger at me anymore," Wanner said. "I realized it was my job to care for somebody who was in a mess, even if they made the mess themselves. It was kind of a call to action. It was a strange, strong moment in my life."

For many years, Wanner continued in his work with the church helping individuals and families in need, sometimes reaching out to people on the street. He came to have a fascination with folks who had ruined their lives in a criminal way. "When you see those fellas up there at the jail, you might say, 'They made their own mess, let them lie in it.' But no," he said shaking his head, "that's your brother."

Even though he left the priesthood to marry, Wanner's call to serve the least of his brothers did not stop. "Despite the fact that I left the priesthood, I had made a promise to Christ to serve his people," he explained. "We believe that once you are ordained, that's your life, for eternity. But I could not exercise that (ministerial role) any longer. I looked up from the wreckage and said, 'At least I can help people.'"

A public open house for the Waukesha Jail led Wanner to volunteer his services. In 1992, at the suggestion of the jail captain, he agreed to become the chaplain. "It was what I loved doing (serving Christ). I couldn't do it the old way so here was a new way."

Prisoners' lives are tragic. For Wanner, the hardest part of the job is "the sheer tragedy of many have to leave their spouse, their children, their parents. They lose their job. They live in disgrace. I can never get used to it, and yet, sometimes, you get such a surprise. Some (prisoners) finally decide to live a life that is worthwhile. I have no numbers, but many people have told me that it was a turning point in their life when we worked together on their soul."

"When I leave the jail at night," Wanner said, "I sing all my favorite melodies. The halls here are long and empty. The ceilings are hard and the acoustics poor. It doesn't sound great, but I sing anyway." Then he laughed, "They probably think I'm a nut."

Papa Joe has found great peace and joy in his work. "It's been a pattern of my life," he said, "that the Lord always saves the best for last. Other things were good. Other people were great. This is just the happiest time in my life. This tops it!"

In Memory Of: Joe Wanner 1930 - 2008

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For excerpts of my upcoming book "The Women of Block 12, visit:

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  1. Thanks for the article about "Papa Joe". I visit a man at Federal Penitentiary, about once every six weeks. That inmate has become an inspiration to others, leading them to Christ. He teaches GED classes, leads worship, and scrubs the floors as needed. This servant for Christ behind the walls has been mentioned several times on the broadcasts of the National Christian Choir. Ministry to prisoners is definitely worthwhle and fulfilling!

  2. I always get a 'reality' check when I visit your blog. It's a reminder of another world outside my world of comfort and joy.