If someone had told Father Christian Reuter when he was a child that he would someday be ministering to people in prisons, he would never have believed it, he said.
Father Reuter OFM, 77, is celebrating his 50th anniversary of priesthood as a Franciscan friar this year, and he is happy to continue his present ministry in Belleville diocesan prisons even now.
Christian was born Jan. 18, 1939 and grew up in south St. Louis County with St. George his home parish. He remembers breaking the barriers of girl servers when he practiced celebrating Mass as a youngster on the family’s ping-pong table. “I forced my sister to be the altar server” for those celebrations, he said.
He chose to enter the Franciscan friars because he “had Franciscans on both sides of my family,” he said, and was drawn to the Franciscan charism. So he took the train to Chicago after elementary school graduation to begin his life in the seminary before ordination.
“My parents were supportive of my decision, but my father said: ‘Don’t stay one minute (if you don’t want to) because of us.’”
He wanted to stay and was ordained June 24, 1966 and spent the first 35 years of his priesthood in the Archdiocese of Chicago, first in an all boys high school before becoming pastor of a parish, both in the African-American community on Chicago’s south side.
One of his good friends in the seminary and then after ordination was Father, and later, Archbishop James Lyke of Atlanta. The late archbishop and Father Reuter kept in contact even though they were not ministering in the same communities.
As a young priest of the 1960s, he was involved in the Civil Rights movement, marching and, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Chicago, he drove a truck that the Civil Rights leader used to deliver his speeches.
“I knew what it was like to have bricks flying at you through the air,” he said. It was a heady time, one that reinforced what he saw as the need for justice and equality among all peoples. He has carried that work for justice forward in every assignment.
After teaching and then becoming principal at Hales Franciscan High School, he became pastor of Corpus Christi Parish, also in Chicago with “very many senior citizens. I was scared to death; I didn’t know how to deal with dying people.”
He learned and ministered to them as they taught him and ministered to him.
In 2002, the Franciscans were returning that parish to the archdiocese when then-Bishop Wilton Gregory, now archbishop of Atlanta, invited them to come to the Belleville diocese.
Father Reuter joined confreres Father Carroll Mizicko and Father Fernand Cheri in a move to East St. Louis where they built St. Benedict the Black Friary and met with lay leadership in East St. Louis.
“We come to be your brothers,” Father Reuter remembers telling the lay leaders. “We don’t have answers, but we came to walk with you, to work with you.”
Father Mizicko is now pastor of St. Augustine of Hippo in East St. Louis, and Father Cheri is now Auxiliary Bishop Cheri serving in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Throughout his ministry in Chicago, he “always visited people when they were in jail,” he said, and now in the Belleville diocese he has turned his full attention to prison ministry as prison ministry coordinator for the diocese, and takes his job seriously.
With his associate coordinator, Lou Slapshack of Queen of Peace Parish in Belleville, he has developed a program in the diocese to minister to as many inmates as possible.
More than 20 years ago, when Father Thomas Miller, among others, was ministering in prisons, a network of many volunteers visited and conducted retreats, but over the years, those numbers changed to what Father Reuter found when he took over.
The diocese had 11-12 major penitentiaries plus other types of incarceration (county jails, immigration detention) with half a dozen volunteers.
He saw the future of the ministry with volunteers coming from the diaconate and lay ministry. Now, 14 years later, 50 volunteers visit prisoners, and priests visit to celebrate Mass on a rotating schedule. “We have three RCIA — Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults — programs in prisons,” he said. “Whatever the needs are, we try to meet them.”
He said he needs volunteers to catechize prisoners and be sponsors for them. Father Reuter said he believes in networks, and he stays in contact with Mike Schuette to promote literacy. To offer a hand to people being released from prison, he gets backpacks with personal hygiene products from Geri Furmanek, director of Mission Enrichment & Oblate Associates at the shrine.
He keeps track of news and information about the prisons, families, people released and works on the state level with the Catholic Conference of Illinois and nationally with other agencies and groups who work with people already released or those who are incarcerated to minister to them and promote human rights in prisons.
Now, Father Reuter and a number of lay and ordained prison ministers have come together to create Our Brothers Keepers of Southern Illinois, a reentry project to assist returning citizens when they leave prisons in the Diocese of Belleville.
At present, the group is looking for supportive housing in East St. Louis to give people a place to stay just after being released as a re-entry house. “We’re getting very close,” he said in finding appropriate housing.
In the beginning, Father Reuter said he and Bishop Stanley Schlarman DD, went to the Illinois bishops to talk about prison ministry and talked about how the system was working well and where it was failing.
Then he set up a partnership with Lewis University to establish a 15-month curriculum to train lay volunteers in prison ministry at the leadership level. Slapshack and Deacon John Fridley have finished the program.
He was sacramental minister at St. Liborius in St. Libory and St. Anthony in Lively Grove. At present, he is sacramental minister at Immaculate Conception in Columbia.
These days, Father Reuter is networking on many levels. “I keep getting new pots to stir,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t be good at retirement, and this work is so rewarding.”
For more information, please go to obkministry.org