Prison ministry, marriage ministry and Father François

Glenmary News

Prison ministry, marriage ministry and Father François

Prison ministry and marriage ministry are the focus of Father François' work. Here he says Mass at a marriage event.

Father François Pellissier brings the Church to the margins. Marriage workshops through Retrouvaille, and prison ministry are two primary focuses of his work in Glenmary. (Photo by Katie Camario)

Father François Pellissier is living the Glenmary charism and mission, but in a different way than many of his confreres. Based in Georgia, his primary works are prison ministry and marriage ministry through a program called Retrouvaille (pronounced retro-vi). 

“My motto is, if you’re a pastor you invite people to church or the hall,” Father François says. “I don’t invite them to church. I bring the Church to them in subtle ways by being who I am.” 

Saintly Intercession

Father François was one of Glenmary’s first candidates from overseas. Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine on the outskirts of Paris, he came to the United States under temporary oath with the Little Brothers of the Gospel. The brothers sent him to serve in Appalachia, in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. At the time he was a welder and worked in a school as a shop teacher. There he met Glenmary Fathers Bob Bond and Les Schmidt.

Brother Francis, as he was known, stayed in touch with the Glenmarians when the brothers sent him to New York for his next assignment. There, an encounter with a potential saint helped him to change the direction of his vocation.

While doing music ministry at a New York parish, he met Dorothy Day, co-foundress of the Catholic Worker Movement and candidate for sainthood. Father François said Dorothy was like a grandmother to the brothers. One day, she encouraged him to pursue the priesthood. He’d felt the call to sacramental ministry before, and this moment reinforced his desire. He chose not to renew his oath with the Little Brothers.

Gaining a home

Seen here at his ordination in 1981, Father François will celebrate 46 years as a missioner in May 2023.

Recalling his relationship with Glenmary, Father François remembered the enthusiasm and welcoming attitude of the men he’d met in Virginia.

“I was very impressed with the community life,” he says. “The story of Glenmary’s ministry with outreach and door-knocking and welcoming everybody resonated with me.”

Father François made his First Oath with Glenmary in 1978, and was ordained a priest in 1981, just 11 days after becoming a U.S. citizen.

A variety of roles followed. One constant was that Father François always sought to serve the poor and marginalized. At the turn of the century he served in Hispanic outreach, and even spent two years working in Mexico.

Prison ministry

While serving in Claxton, Ga., in the 1990s, Father François began his foray into prison ministry. First, at Smith Prison in Glennville, and later at an immigration detention center in Lumpkin. He’s met detainees from all over the world. Father François brought in Bibles, rosaries and said Mass.

At various stops along the way, he encountered trouble. In one prison, a Baptist chaplain with anti-Catholic bias made things difficult. At another, he faced discrimination for his own French background. Eventually, the COVID-19 pandemic halted his ministry for a time.

Today, Father François visits multiple prisons and detention centers in South Georgia, including in the Department of Juvenile Justice.

“I was working with youth from 12 to 18 years old,” Father François says. “I’m known there as Mr. François. We don’t talk about me being a Catholic priest, but we do church.”

Prison ministry photo. This shows inmates and Catholic volunteers at a Georgia prison retreat.

Father François, back row, and Brother Jason Muhlenkamp, at right, often participate in prison ministry retreats. The faces of inmates and other volunteers are blurred to protect their privacy.

Once, he asked the youths if they knew the prayer that started, “Our Father.” No one did. So, by repetition, Father François taught them.

“It blew my mind. I never presumed that kids would have no exposure whatsoever to the Our Father!” he says. “These kids deserve to come to church.”

In the adult prisons, Father François doesn’t find too many practicing Catholic inmates. Sometimes one to three people will attend Mass. But like all Glenmarians, Father François sees all the people as worthy of his attention, not just Catholics. He has participated in the past in Kairos retreats, an interdenominational prison ministry.

“Life in prison is a whole different life,” he said. “I never thought I would do prison ministry… It became my full time ministry here. One guy said to me, ‘Father, when you don’t come, either because you’re sick or if there is a lockdown, nobody else comes.’ I never forgot that.

“It’s a long-term ministry,” he added. “There’s a lot of intercession, a lot of praying. It’s a ministry that has no perks, no rewards. Ninety percent of the work is to show up.”

Marriage Ministry

In the 2000s Father François became involved with Retrouvaille, a marriage ministry that grew out of the Worldwide Marriage Encounter movement. A fellow Glenmarian encouraged him to engage in this ministry.

In the past two years, even amidst COVID-19, Father François has been a part of Retrouvaille weekends in more than 30 communities. He describes it as similar to Marriage Encounter, but more therapeutic, for couples having serious marital problems.

Prison ministry is just part of Father François' work. Seen here, he also does Crusillo retreats and more.

Father François, like all Glenmarians, wears many hats. In addition to prison and marriage ministry, he fills in for Masses, gives appeal talks and participates in Crusillo weekends, like this one. (Courtesy of Christina Bundrick)

“It’s helping a lot of people in Europe and Asia and Africa and in the United States,” he said. “I like to see the work of God in these couples over three days. You see miracles, there’s no doubt… It saves marriages. It saves families.”

Glenmary’s founder, Father William Howard Bishop, once said, “We are ministering to overlooked and forgotten people. Our quest for the neglected and forgotten takes us out beyond the boundaries of where the Church is at present established and obliges us to enter new lands where the Church is unknown.”

Father François’ ministry shows that those lands include not just the geographical areas served by Glenmary missions, but also the overlooked and forgotten people in different states of life.

— John Stegeman

This story first appeared in the Spring 2023 Glenmary Challenge magazine.