By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Ponte Vedra Beach resident Laura Moritz felt called to the prison ministry for most of her life. So, when she stopped working as a nurse practitioner a few years ago, she knew exactly where she wanted to dedicate some of her time. Moritz accessed the program through Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church and visited six different Florida prisons with Deacon Lowell “Corky” Hecht, the Diocese of St. Augustine’s Director of Prison Ministry. All of the prisons Moritz visited are male prions, because there are no female prisons in the Diocese’s jurisdiction. She also attended an orientation and received clearance through the Florida Department of Corrections. Moritz, who has four children, was looking for a place where she could help build relationships, get out of her comfort zone and spend one day a week at the prison. She also wanted to apply her 20 years in the medical field in some way to the prison ministry. Ironically, the prison she ultimately chose, Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler, is the only prison in Florida that is also a hospital.
Q: Where are you from originally?
A: I was born in Chicago, but I lived in upstate New York and Louisville, Kentucky. My husband, John, is from Seattle. We have been in Ponte Vedra Beach for about 20 years.
Q: How did your upbringing influence your desire to serve in the Prison Ministry?
When I was maybe 15 or 16 years old, I went with my dad, who is a physician, to the Methodist Church in downtown Jacksonville to help the homeless people. My job was to count the pills and to help hand out the medication. My mom was involved at St. Vincent De Paul at Assumption Catholic Church, getting furniture to men released from prison to help them start a new life. I think because my parents valued helping others that this was instilled in me. They always tried to help others and even joined the Peace Corps after they retired.
Q: What do you do when you are at Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler?
A: I am a Catholic volunteer and a Eucharistic Minister. I bring them Jesus each week. I stop at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Mandarin on the way to Lake Butler and pick up the Eucharist and then offer a communion service at the prison to Catholic inmates. I usually have around eight to 14 inmates who attend each week. I also visit the wards in the medical facility and talk to the men in beds and pray with them and give them information. I could see patients all day long in my practice, but to pray with someone you don’t know is sometimes awkward. When you look at people’s eyes in the prison, you see the emptiness and hopelessness. They do not have much hope for anything else. In many cases, no one comes to see them. All it takes is one person to show them a better way. I think God placed me there because I can handle the medical aspect of the facility, and it does not bother me.
Q: What has the Prison Ministry taught you?
A: Goodness spreads goodness. If I can bring them hope, that is infectious and they may spread that hope there. As with most things, I went into this thinking that I would be helping them, but the reality is that they help me way more than I could ever help them. I am very thankful that the Holy Spirit has drawn me to this and that I can do it. There are so many people incarcerated. I am told to call them by their inmate number, but I call them by their first name. I refer to them as “my guys.”
Q: You mentioned a need for people to become Prison Ministry pen pals. Could you share more about how this works?
A: The hardest thing is that inmates feel completely and utterly disconnected from people. We have so many names on the list just waiting for a pen pal, and we do not have enough people to fulfill everyone’s request. There are 48 prisons within the Diocese’s jurisdiction, and each prison has about 1,500 inmates. Anyone can be a pen pal. You do not have to be Catholic, and the correspondences are all anonymously written and delivered through Our Lady Star of the Sea. It is a beautiful thing to write a letter. You get to establish a trust, and it really is a wonderful way to get to know someone. If anyone is interested in becoming a pen pal, they can contact me to learn more at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy Laura Moritz