This month, Cardinal Dolan visited formerly incarcerated men now living at Ignacio House in the Bronx, where they’re transforming their lives as they pursue college studies in a supportive environment.
Ignacio House, located near Fordham University, was opened in 2019 as part of the Thrive for Life Prison Project founded two years earlier by Father Zach Presutti, S.J., to transform lives “behind and beyond” prison walls.
Ignacio House, defined by Father Presutti, is a house of studies “for people coming out of prison who are continuing their college education.”
During his Dec. 15 visit to Ignacio House, Cardinal Dolan celebrated Mass for the staff and men who live there, some of whom he had met on his regular visits to prisons in the archdiocese. In his homily, the cardinal told them there is a need for a place like Ignacio House in the archdiocese, “because when you guys get out of prison, you don’t know where to go.”
“This is where Jesus would be—at Casa Ignacio,” the cardinal said. “And He is here, my brothers and sisters.”
The cardinal came bearing gifts, including a piece of art depicting the Crucifixion for the Ignacio House community, along with cinnamon rolls and coffee to be enjoyed as the men conversed with the cardinal. They discussed their lives with one another, and in many cases, they renewed acquaintances with the cardinal, from his visits when they were behind bars.
The next day, a representative of the Cardinal’s Office called to invite the men to Christmas Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Father Presutti, who was ordained as a Jesuit priest in June, was asked to be a concelebrant.
“He was establishing a relationship,” said Father Presutti of Cardinal Dolan.
About 15 men are currently living at Ignacio House, in a space that can hold 24, because of the additional safety and space requirements necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Italo Sanchez, who met the cardinal when he was serving time for weapons possession at Otisville Correctional Facility, is one of the original members of Ignacio House.
“It was a big change coming from where I was,” Sanchez told CNY. “It’s brotherly love, community—we have each other’s backs. There’s a lot of trust here.”
Sanchez, who said he’s responsible for much of the maintenance work at Ignacio House, said he learned an early lesson when he had to interview fellow residents for a large project that transformed an empty lot in the back of the house into a beautifully landscaped garden area with seating, pavers, a gazebo and a shed. Flower and vegetable gardens were planted, and existing staircases and walls were spiffed up with a fresh coat of paint.
“I wanted to turn something ugly into something beautiful because we all live there,” said Sanchez, who recruited seven or eight of his fellow residents to work on the three-month project during the early part of the pandemic.
“They gave it 120 percent. They did me proud,” he said. “We accomplished it.”
Sanchez, 40, is now working for an architect in the mornings, and several afternoons a week he’s doing construction work as a laborer with Local 79.
He said he hopes to be able to start studying toward a career as a youth counselor next year. “I’ve gotten a lot of support at Ignacio House,” Sanchez said.
Father Presutti supervises parishioners from the archdiocese who are leading retreats at six correctional facilities using the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola as their guiding measure. Thrive for Life pairs with a half dozen colleges and universities who offer scholarships that continue at Ignacio House where the men receive other supportive services.
Sanchez has come a long way from his first days on retreat with Thrive for Life when he was in jail. He remembers an early exercise asking him to list his accomplishments. “I started crying, because I didn’t accomplish nothing,” he said.
His perspective has changed quite a bit since then. “I’m glad for all the blessings,” Sanchez said. “God put me here for a reason.
“He passed me the torch, and I’m running with it. I’m not looking back.”
For Father Presutti, his ministry “behind and beyond” the prison walls has been his only one as a Jesuit.
“The relationships I have formed behind the prison walls have given life to my own religious life,” he said. “Through those relationships, this community of Thrive for Life has organically grown.”