Sheila Grove

ERIE — “Deacon (Ralph) DeCecco has gone beyond the call of duty to make sure that the inmates’ needs are met spiritually. He has genuine concern for the men he serves and is a great help to those who walk with and for him. Always with a kind word on his lips and a willing heart, Deacon DeCecco has been one to whom the inmates could turn and know that he will respond graciously,” wrote Rev. Abner Garcia, chaplain at the State Correctional institution in Albion in his letter nominating Deacon DeCecco for the 2021 Pennsylvania Prison Chaplain Association (PPCA) State Correctional Chaplain of the Year. He received the award on Sept. 1.

Deacon Ralph and Janet DeCecco      Photo/Sheila Grove

          During an interview with Diocese of EriE-news, Deacon DeCecco and his wife Janet expressed gratitude for the honor which has provided an opportunity to shine a light on their ministry to the incarcerated.

          The spiritual opportunities available within prisons are those that are hallmarks of the most active parishes. Sacraments are celebrated regularly. Bible studies, a rosary program, lectio divina, centering prayer, counseling, Lenten Stations of the Cross, RCIA programs and Metanoia (a Cursillo-like experience) are offered.

          It is tempting to be cynical about inmates participating in religious activities because they are a captive audience, but the DeCeccos know otherwise. They have witnessed genuine commitment to the practice of the faith by hundreds of men to whom they have ministered. Some continue to worship as they did prior to incarceration. Others enter the church through the RCIA program and remain committed.

          Deacon Ralph, who was ordained in 1999 and serves as deacon assistant at St. Andrew Parish, Erie, has been a contracted chaplain at multiple correctional facilities in western Pennsylvania. He served as Chaplaincy Program director in Albion from 2014 until 2020 where he continues to minister as a contracted chaplain

          One of many transformations Deacon Ralph has witnessed was a “self-described thug” who traveled a path from Islam to Christianity and eventually to Catholicism and a Catholic wedding upon release.

          Janet DeCecco described a need for community for men whose experience may have been one of disconnection and trauma. The church provides a relationship of acceptance, forgiveness and love from a merciful God. For many, that is novel — both as experience of God and in relationships with people, she said.              

          The pandemic has altered, but not stopped, chaplaincy services. Personal visits to inmates in their cells rather than gatherings have been permitted.

The State Corrrectional Institution at Albion, PA. Website photo

          “We wanted to continue to offer hope to the men who were in lock-down 23 hours/day during the pandemic. The Department of Corrections allowed chaplains to go unit to unit. It was shocking to some prisoners to realize that they were the reason we were there,” said Deacon Ralph.

          Janet and over 100 other volunteers who minister in Albion have been unable to enter the prison during the pandemic. As COVID precautions are relaxed, they are eager to resume the full array of spiritual offerings to those so ready to receive them.

          In sharing their experience, the DeCeccos are happy to let others know of the important ministry impacting the lives of the incarcerated. They encourage parishes to remember those living within prison walls.

           “Approximately 90 percent of those in prisons will be released someday. They will need prayers, support and acceptance when that happens,” Deacon Ralph added.

           Those who have completed their incarceration can be helped to remain in society. Victims, their families and friends, and those who work and volunteer within the prison system would also benefit from prayers, the couple noted. All are important members of the human family.