Father Christian Reuter, OFM, remembered for his ministry to prisoners

Father Christian Reuter, OFM, is being remembered for his early work in the Civil Rights Movement and his admirable work with inmates in southern Illinois prisons and with ex-offenders.

Father Reuter died June 30, following complications from back surgery. He was 79.

In a statement, Bishop Edward K. Braxton said: “As we pray for dear Father Reuter, we are mindful of his joyful, unselfish, and tireless ministry on behalf of the imprisoned and the marginalized. From this perspective, it seems providential that the name given to him at baptism was “Christian.” His life truly embodied the teachings and example of the Christ-centered ministry of his patron, St. Francis of Assisi. Father Reuter reminded all of us, including the Bishops of Illinois, to become more aware of and to become more responsive to the needs of those in prison. He taught us forcefully that the person in every prison cell is Jesus Christ himself. ‘When I was in prison you visited me. Now enter into the joy of my Father!’”

Friend and colleague Louis Shapshak said that at the heart of Father Chris’ prison ministry was his caring hand and guiding presence.

Bishop Stanley Schlarman said: “Fr. Chris over my recent years in prison ministry with him became like brothers; I mean that literally (though I never presumed to tell him so in those exact words). He was a priest-brother with a brilliant mind and sense of humor to go along with it, lots of determination to go along with his vision for Church ministry, as well as real life, and with kindness to all!”

Brian Nelson, who spent 12 years in solitary confinement at Tamms SuperMax, recalled the many times Father Chris came to see him and the other inmates. “He walked into that ugly, depressing and terrifying place, but treated all men of faith and those without faith as human beings guided by the caring hand of God as a beacon of light to wash away evil and oppression.”

Father Reuter, who celebrated his 50th anniversary as a Franciscan friar in 2016, once said that he wouldn’t be good at retirement. “I keep getting new pots to stir,” he said. “And this work is so rewarding.”

Father Reuter was born Jan. 18, 1939, and grew up in south St. Louis County with St. George his home parish.

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. 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, where he visited many young men in Chicago’s jails.

As a young priest of the 1960s, he was involved in the Civil Rights movement. 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. The experience reinforced what he saw as the need for justice and equality among all peoples, he said.

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.”

In 2002, the Franciscans were returning that parish to the archdiocese when then-Bishop Wilton Gregory invited them to come to the Diocese of Belleville.

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 told the lay leaders. “We don’t have answers, but we came to walk with you, to work with you.”

Throughout his ministry in Chicago, he always visited people when they were in jail, and once in the Belleville diocese he turned his full attention to prison ministry as prison ministry coordinator for the diocese.

With his associate coordinator, Lou Slapshack, he 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 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. Sixteen years later, 50 volunteers visit prisoners, and priests visit to celebrate Mass on a rotating schedule. They also have RCIA programs in prison.

Until the end of his life, Father Reuter continued to advance the case for a criminal justice system based on Restorative Justice, a system that does not ignore the offense or let someone off the hook, but is grounded in healing and reconciliation and based on the human dignity of everyone and speaking truth to love. Each of the offenders must be called to accountability so that the offender can restore what was taken from the victim.

He worked with volunteers to catechize prisoners and he worked closely with Mike Schuette to promote literacy. To offer a hand to people being released from prison, he would acquire backpacks with personal hygiene products from Geri Furmanek, director of Mission Enrichment & Oblate Associates at the shrine.

A few years ago, Father Reuter and a number of lay and ordained prison ministers created Our Brothers Keepers of Southern Illinois, a reentry project to assist returning citizens when they leave prisons in the Diocese of Belleville.

At his passing, the group had recently helped establish a job-training program in East St. Louis and 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 Schlarman 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.

He was sacramental minister at St. Liborius in St. Libory and St. Anthony in Lively Grove. At his death he was sacramental minister at Immaculate Conception in Columbia.