By Mary Stadnyk | Associate Editor
There are two things Peter Haas treasures most about his volunteer experience as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion at the Mid-State Correctional Facility in Wrightstown. The first is that he is able to bring Jesus to the inmates and the second is “how the men bring Jesus to me as well by their strong faith.”
“It’s been wonderful,” Haas said of the past two-and-a-half years he has made weekly visits to Mid-State, where every Friday he helps conduct Communion services, facilitates discussion groups on spiritually based books and prays the Rosary with inmates.
Now, Haas has the opportunity to broaden his reach across the Diocese and bring the love of Jesus to inmates who otherwise would not receive the Eucharist as the newly named coordinator of Jail and Prison Ministry in the diocesan Department of Pastoral Care.
Haas, a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Whiting, has made his mark as an active volunteer on parish and diocesan levels for more than 40 years.
“It’s always been in the back of my mind,” he said of prison ministry, recalling how even in the late 1970s when he and his wife, Lori, and three sons were living in New Hampshire and they would periodically send packages of toiletries to area prisons.
When his family relocated to Mercer County and joined St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, Haas got involved as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and chairman of the parish respect life ministry, in which he helped coordinate an annual Pro Life Day For Teens. He is a former grand knight with the Hightstown Council Knights of Columbus and on a diocesan level, he was a member and board of trustees chairman for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton.
In the midst of his service, Haas encountered a number of people who recognized that he might have the heart to work with prison inmates as well. Among them was Mercy Sister Karina Haywood, who was principal of St. Paul School, Princeton, during the time Haas’ three sons were students. In addition to her school work, Sister Karina had also spent many years as a prison chaplain. Then, in more recent years, Haas came to know Vincentian Father Martin McGeough, who was the Diocese’s jail and prison ministry coordinator from 2012 to 2017.
“Father Marty really got the ball rolling for my prison ministry work,” Haas said, explaining that two others were also sources of inspiration because of their longtime work with the poor, marginalized and the ailing. They are Roberto Hernandez, director of Catholic Charities El Centro, which provides outreach to the Spanish-speaking community, and Bob Tanzola of St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish, Spring Lake, who has been a longtime Catholic Charities volunteer and as a member of the Knights of Malta, had led annual pilgrimages to Lourdes, France, for seriously ill persons.
The spark for prison ministry work was once again ignited a little over two years ago, when Haas, – now retired after a 50-year career in banking – relocated to Whiting and joined St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish. Haas began volunteering at Mid-State, an all-male correctional facility for men who committed drug-related crimes.
As Haas settles into his new role for the Diocese, he has named two pressing goals, the first of which is to visit the various institutions around the four-county Diocese, which include seven county jails, six state prisons and one federal prison in Fort Dix (part of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst), which is the largest federal prison in the country.
The second goal, or “key challenge” as he describes it, is to recruit more prison ministry volunteers. To help generate volunteer interest, Haas plans to supply parishes with regular bulletin announcements and when possible, he will visit parishes during weekend Masses. Haas assures the new volunteers will have a training program readily available; he also plans to have offerings that will help them foster their own spirituality.
Haas said he is steadfast in remembering that “these men are not bad people, but they did bad things. I also continuously remind them – and myself – that they are children of God and that God loves them regardless of what they have done,” he said.
Persons wishing to learn more about the Jail and Prison Ministry as well as volunteer opportunities, can contact Haas at 609-403-7198 or email@example.com. Haas is also available to give presentations to parishes, Catholic schools, college campus ministries and young adult groups.