Catholic Charities honors Deacon Chesley, two others for service to community

Deacon Mike Chesley, director of prison and jail ministry for Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, will be honored with the Leonard R. Jagels Leadership Award on Sept. 11 at Catholic Charities’ Annual Celebration for his steadfast service to inmates and parolees during the height of the pandemic. (Paul Duda | Detroit Catholic)

Jail ministry director, St. Christine’s Christian Services and Most Holy Redeemer Parish to receive awards during Annual Celebration Sept. 11 

DETROIT — Deacon Mike Chesley has a heart for ministering to those in prison.

The chaplain of the Wayne County Jail and director of Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s prison and jail ministry cherishes the time he spends meeting with incarcerated individuals, accompanying them in the Scriptures, offering Communion and being a listening ear.

So Deacon Chesley’s heart was broken when pandemic restrictions prohibited him from being able to visit and accompany those behind bars for the better part of the past year and a half.

Still, he found other ways to serve — helping parolees and those recently released find housing, employment and other services to help them adjust to life on the outside.

“I have so much love for them because especially when they come out of the jails and prisons, the world treats them as lepers,” Deacon Chesley told Detroit Catholic. “In Luke's Gospel, the lepers are outside the village, and society doesn't want anything to do with them. They have to fend for their own food, basically ostracized from their whole community. There’s very little opportunity for them to succeed.”

Deacon Mike Chesley meets with an officer from the Wayne County Jail in his office at Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s Center for the Works of Mercy. (Paul Duda | Detroit Catholic)

Deacon Chesley and his team of five volunteers devote themselves day and in and day out to following Christ’s example — unafraid to approach those whom society views as unapproachable.

For his dedication to the corporal works of mercy, Deacon Chesley will be honored with the Leonard R. Jagels Leadership Award on Sept. 11 during Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s Annual Celebration.

The honor is one of three awards to be given during the gala — held in person this year at the Basilica of Ste. Anne in Detroit as well as virtually — which serves as the largest fundraiser of the year for the charitable service arm of the Archdiocese of Detroit. The event helps fund more than 14 offices and ministries across Metro Detroit that serve an estimated 20,000 individuals each year.

Also honored during the evening will be St. Christine’s Christian Services in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood and Most Holy Redeemer Parish in southwest Detroit, who will receive Catholic Charities’ Outstanding Organization and Outstanding Parish awards, respectively, for 2021.

“I’m very humbled because there's so many deserving people and ministries, but I was absolutely thrilled because it reflects the all the work that our volunteers are doing,” Deacon Chesley said of the award, which is named after the late Catholic Services director Leonard R. Jagels.

In the past six months, Deacon Chesley said, restrictions have begun to ease to the point where he’s able to visit the jail once or twice a month — although he’s not allowed to bring other volunteers with him.

After being barred from visiting jails and prisons during the worst days of the pandemic, Deacon Mike Chesley now visits inmates once or twice a month, in addition to his work helping parolees and individuals in the Wayne County Jail’s “tether unit.” (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Northwest Indiana Catholic)

“It’s mainly one on ones,” Deacon Chesley said. “I’ll have the Eucharist with me for any Catholics who want it, but I offer to pray with the men whether they’re Catholic or not.”

Deacon Chesley said larger gatherings such as a Liturgy of the Word services or even Masses are on the horizon, but “we’re not quite there yet.”

In the meantime, Deacon Chesley and his volunteers continue to work with parolees and individuals in the jail’s “tether unit,” an electronic monitorings unit for individuals being released while awaiting sentencing.

“Everyone at Catholic Charities has been super supportive,” said Deacon Chesley, who maintains an office at the newly opened Center for the Works of Mercy in Midtown Detroit. “We couldn’t do it without them, and we couldn’t do it without our great volunteers.”

Outstanding Organization: St. Christine’s Christian Services

The soup kitchen at St. Christine’s Christian Services in northwest Detroit serves about 500 meals per month — currently boxed, to-go meals — but that’s just a fraction of the service the nonprofit provides for its neighbors in the Brightmoor district.

Since 2005, the ministry that began as an outreach of the now-shuttered St. Christine Parish has continued to support those most in need though meals, person-to-person accompaniment, a food pantry and service center that links clients with community resources such as transportation, job training and emergency utility assistance.

Maureen Northrup, director of St. Christine’s Christian Services, center, chats with clients at the nonprofit’s soup kitchen in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood in 2019. (Paul Duda | Detroit Catholic)

Now sponsored by Christ the King Parish, St. Christine’s was one of the few soup kitchens to remain open during the worst days of the pandemic, said Maureen Northrup, St. Christine’s director for the past 10 years.

“When it seemed like every other agency closed, we were there for everybody,” Northrup said. “We stayed open during all the drama of the pandemic.”

In addition to passing out boxed meals on Tuesdays, St. Christine’s volunteers offer to bring groceries to those who are homebound. With the help of partnering parishes and businesses, the nonprofit also distributes necessities such as pillows, blankets, clothing, first-aid kits and personal hygiene items.

Northrup said Catholic Charities’ Outstanding Organization award “means everything” to the volunteers and staff at St. Christine’s.

Northrup said when the announcement was made that St. Christine’s had been named Catholic Charities’ “Outstanding Organization” honoree for 2021, “everyone started crying.” (Paul Duda | Detroit Catholic)

“When I made the announcement last week, everyone was crying,” Northrup said.

“It was never about that, but it really validates for me all the hard work that the volunteers do behind the scenes every, every week, to make sure that everyone in our community has ample food or whatever services they need,” Northrup said, adding the organization benefits from more than 700 volunteer hours each month.

“We live by the Beatitudes and by the corporal works of mercy as our guideline,” Northrup said. “We want to make sure we are providing dignity and service to everyone who comes to our door.”

Outstanding Parish: Most Holy Redeemer, Detroit

Nestled in the heart of southwest Detroit just a stone’s throw from Mexicantown, Most Holy Redeemer Parish once was among the nation’s largest Catholic parishes.

While the parish community has evolved over the years — in recent decades, it’s become a bastion of faith for hundreds of Mexican and Spanish-speaking families — it’s never lost its larger-than-life spirit, said Fr. Dennis Walsh, SOLT, the parish’s pastor.

A parishioner at Most Holy Redeemer Parish in southwest Detroit dresses as Our Lady of Guadalupe, with her son dressed as St. Juan Diego during a celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day in 2018. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

Today, the parish boasts a robust multicultural community, with more than 30 ministries, daily Masses, service outreaches, adoration and confessions and five weekend liturgies in both English and Spanish.

But what makes Most Holy Redeemer an “outstanding parish” is the evangelizing spirit of its people, Fr. Walsh told Detroit Catholic.

“We have some very strong Catholics who are genuinely concerned about other parishioners and people who aren't coming to Mass or haven't had an encounter with Christ,” Fr. Walsh said. “They're just really concerned about bringing people in to have that encounter.”

In a normal year, Most Holy Redeemer’s religious education program boasts about 550 students, in addition to the nearly 200 students who attend the parish’s namesake grade school.

Fr. Dennis Walsh, SOLT, pastor of Most Holy Redeemer Parish, waits to hear confessions at the southwest Detroit parish. Fr. Walsh said he’s constantly amazed at the strong faith of the parish community. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

Fr. Walsh said Catholic Charities’ Outstanding Parish award came as “quite a surprise,” but added the parish community certainly lives up to the “outstanding” description.

“It’s just a beautiful community here. We have a lot of parishioners who have a heart for evangelizing, and they're good workers,” Fr. Walsh said, adding parishioners aren’t afraid to try new things, such as a Spanish-speaking young adult community or pregnancy center on Holy Redeemer’s campus.

Most Holy Redeemer’s outreach also includes an active food pantry and Rachel’s Vineyard ministry for those grieving abortions, as well as support for women who’ve suffered emotional or sexual abuse.

Sr. Mary Solanus Casey, Sr. Kateri Marie and Sr. Mary Agnus Dei, members of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, are pictured at Detroit’s Most Holy Redeemer Parish in 2017, joining a team of SOLT brothers, priests and seminarians serving in the community. (Courtesy of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity)

Fr. Walsh’s religious community, the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), includes three priests, four brothers, three seminarians and five sisters who serve the parish and grade school after arriving at Most Holy Redeemer in 2011.

Each is blessed to serve the community and is humbled by the faith of the parish’s families, Fr. Walsh added.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “The way they ask for the sacraments like confession, it’s like you know you really belong to them. You become a member of their family. And so it's just beautiful the way they take us in and make us a part of their lives.”

Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s Annual Celebration

In-person registration for Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan’s Annual Celebration on Sept. 11 at the Basilica of Ste. Anne de Detroit is sold out, but registration for the virtual livestream is still available for $25. 

This event will include a performance by Catholic singer, storyteller, and inspirational speaker ValLimar Jansen. Proceeds from the event support Catholic Charities’ offices and ministries throughout Metro Detroit, which serve an estimated 20,000 individuals each year. 

To learn more about this year’s award nominees, lend support or to volunteer, visit: