JUVIES MINISTRY Deacons' juvenile detention center ministry about prayer, mentoring


deacons juvies first

In this photo illustration, a person prays a rosary while under incarceration. Diocesan deacons maintain a ministry to juvenile detention facilities in Lake and Porter Counties to inspire and listen, while hoping to prevent youths from repeating offenses as adults. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


by Anthony D. Alonzo

Northwest Indiana Catholic

      “Here comes the Church,” remark staff members of juvenile detention facilities in Lake and Porter Counties when diocesan deacons arrive.

      The scene plays out every other Sunday when those ministering to incarcerated youth arrive to communicate and comfort, and bring God’s love to those who find themselves locked up in the youth correctional system.

      “My objective is to get them to think about God, about what their purpose is in this world, and to pray,” said Deacon Robert Litavecz of St. Stephen, Martyr.

      Through more than two decades of service since the early days of an informal juvenile outreach, Deacon Litavecz said he has refined his approach. He knows how to break the ice and how to give and demand respect. He believes that the greatest goals can be simply articulated.

      The Merrillville deacon tells the 13- to 18-year-olds at the Lake County Juvenile Center in Crown Point, “Don’t expect miracles, but ask God to help you become the person he created you to be – that is the greatest prayer.”

      Nativity of Our Savior Deacon Dennis Guernsey finds caring for minors who are spending time at the Porter County Juvenile Detention Center in Valparaiso not only part of his vocation as a clergyman, but also an extension of being a father-figure.

      Deacon Guernsey accepted his role in youth ministry shortly after he was ordained in 2009. He said diocesan officials, and later corrections administrators, interviewed him and found his experience parenting four girls and a boy to be germane to work with “juvies.” 

      “I try to treat them like my kids; I try to treat them with respect, and, in turn, most of the time they treat me with respect,” said Deacon Guernsey, a 10-year Marine Corps veteran.  

      Unlike one’s responsibility for their own children, the detention population is always changing. But on the other side of the coin, Deacon Guernsey finds it sad when he starts to see familiar faces.

      “I ask, ‘Weren’t you here a couple months ago,” he said. “And that’s when (the incarcerated youth) volunteers why they are back.”

      Deacon Guernsey said that whether a youth is charged with an illegal drug offense or violates a probation order, he often sees parents’ lack of guidance as the culprit: “Sometimes I say to myself, the parents should be in (jail) and not the kids.”

      Deacon Litavecz said he tries to understand the factors that lead a youth to act out. However, he tells them that they each must change their ways or their dreams of attending college, serving in the military or being a business owner, “just aren’t going to happen.”

      A graduate of Andrean High School in Merrillville and the former Holy Rosary School in Gary, Deacon Litavecz said there were periods of his life when he behaved like a hooligan.

      “I tell them I’m the person who should have been in here,” said Deacon Litavecz. “But you also have a chance to turn this around and be somebody else.”

      Both deacons agreed that building trust and relatability are keys to drawing in youth, who voluntarily attend the hour-long Sunday sessions. In each location, no more than 20 incarcerated youth come down from their cells to hear Scripture selections from the cycle of readings.

      After participating in prayer intentions, some of the more expressive teens share their hopes and talk about their problems. According to Deacon Guernsey, there has only been one time when a youth has gotten so unruly that security had to intervene.

      Deacon Litavecz said facility security has always afforded a safe environment for the sessions. In some instances, rival gang-affiliated youth have been prohibited from gathering together.

      Yet despite the public’s potential generalizations about the detained population, many of the temporary residents are quite well behaved, and have a deep spiritual lives.

      “Most of them tell me ‘I pray all the time,’” Deacon Litavecz said.

      Deacon Guernsey and Deacon Litaveczsaid current detention center administrators, especially Lake County Superior Court Juvenile Division Senior Judge Thomas P. Stefaniak, Jr., have been supportive of the local Church’s ministry visits.

      Within the mission statement of the court is a program directive: “…while in detention, children will experience programs designed to meet and positively influence their educational, emotional and behavioral needs.” Judge Stefaniak said the deacons provide valuable guidance to the juvenile center’s temporary residents.

      “They provide insight into helping kids make better decisions,” Judge Stefaniak said. “The deacons provide yet another adult that kids are exposed to for health of the soul.”

      Deacon Guernsey said he hopes the less-brimstone, more-listening approach to the Sunday prayer sessions offers a more sunny vision of what the future could hold for those presently incarcerated.

      He tells the teens: “I’m here to help you see where you are at in your life, and help bring you to Christ.”

Join The Flock

Flock Note