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WCPO Interview Transcript

Below is a transcript of the questions and answers from the recent WCPO Channel 9 interview. We pieced it together from memory of a two-hour interview, so we do not claim that this is a word-for-word transcript. It is meant to show the depth and breadth of the topics we covered and the answers we gave to the best of our memory. There may be parts of answers that were given to other questions, but we do remember saying all of what is written, or at least the gist is recalled. We also acknowledge that writing a response allows for the ability to edit and more precisely articulate our answers. This is intentional. We want to give clarity on what we believe, what we intend, how we operate, etc. We have been working on a FAQ sheet and will have it published in the coming months on our website, but if you have any questions about Serenelli Project and our mission, our vision, and how we work, please do reach out to us. 

Why do you love prison ministry? 

My love for it started in middle school and high school. My pastor at my home parish in Cleveland did death row ministry and was instrumental in the exoneration of Joe D’Ambrosio, a man wrongfully convicted of murder and put on death row. I played a small part in the story since I was an evening receptionist at the parish and would receive the calls from Joe and transfer him to wherever Father Neil was in the parish. My senior year, on Christmas Eve, I was warming up on my trumpet before Mass and Father beckons me to come with him. I was like “Oh no, what did I do?” and he brings me to this guy sitting in a pew and says “Marty, Joe. Joe, Marty.” I couldn’t believe this was him! Then in college (I went to UC and studied music and German) a visiting priest to my parish here noticed my singing and said the inmates in prison could really use some help singing at Mass when he goes to the prison to offer Mass for them. Would I like to join him and sing at the Mass with these guys? I took him up on the offer and joined him at Lebanon Correctional. From the first moment meeting the men and participating in the Mass with them, I fell in love with doing prison ministry. Their fervor and desire to worship God was incredible. I volunteered for the ministry for about four years, including when I was in seminary at Mt. St. Mary’s here in Cincinnati for two years. A short while after I discerned out of seminary I got engaged and moved to Indianapolis to be in the same city as my fiancé. In 2019 I received the call from my predecessor in the role of Director of Prison Ministry for the Archdiocese asking if I would like to take it over, and I was thrilled to. I started in April of 2019 and have been doing it ever since. 


Are they interested in becoming more religious? 

Yes they are. Anyone coming to services has to want to be there, and we see a lot of them develop a strong interest in the Faith. 


How did you get the idea? Take it from an idea to where it is now? 

There were many seeds of the idea that were planted over the years. One of them was from the priest who got me involved in prison ministry. I wanted to do something with inner city youth and music, something like the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, but he kept saying “what about the inmates?” I thought that would be too difficult to deal with prison re-entry. But then I would see these beautiful, abandoned churches around the city and think “why is that sitting empty? That’s such a shame!” and started to connect the idea of fixing up the church with a community that lived, worked, and prayed at it. And who would want/need to do something like that? Then Father’s question about the inmates came back to mind. Then finally in 2019 a man in our Catholic Initiation class at Lebanon Correctional asked if a guy like him could become a priest. I was amazed that he, of all people, was thinking God could be calling him to serve that way. I researched it, and while there are some crimes that make it impossible in Church law for a man to be ordained, he didn’t have those crimes. So technically, it was possible for him. But what seemed impossible is that he would be able to get stable in a normal Catholic parish on the outside of prison, and the enter seminary, and then get assigned to a parish. His tattoos were a bit much. But I figured, what if there was a community designed for a guy like him, that could support him in his Catholic faith while he re-entered society? One where he lives a contemplative life of atonement and public penance for the sins and crimes of the world? So I decided to pursue it at the beginning of 2020. We have one house here in Sedamsville that we are currently restoring, and we are on the verge of launching our core programs this year. The house could be opened by the end of this year. The earliest would be September. 


Why Sedamsville? 

We came here because of the church. Our vision is to have our residents restore an old, abandoned church back to its former glory. We were looking at another church before OLPH, but realized it was not going to be a suitable location for our community, and I knew that this one also existed, so we started asking around. The second reason is that we were welcomed in this community. 


Describe the inside of the church 

A little like the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean. The ceiling is collapsing on the sides. The windows are mostly all broken out. The plaster is almost all off the walls and the bare brick is exposed. The only thing that seems to be original that wasn’t taken out is the light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. 


What does the church and rectory represent to the project? 

It’s the crowning jewel and the external symbol of the transformation that is happening interiorly in a person’s soul when they receive the grace of God.  


Why it is monastic and not a traditional halfway house? 

Halfway houses are purely transitional. We are setting up a permanent community, and monks profess stability. We want our residents to have in mind that this place is where they are committing to live and build the kingdom of God for the rest of their lives. 


How did you get the idea? Do you have a model? 

Many seeds were planted throughout the years, especially by the priest who got me involved in prison ministry. I wanted to do something for inner city youth, like a youth orchestra similar to Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela, but he kept asking me “what about the inmates?” I thought it was too difficult to deal with prison re-entry. But then doing my work as the director of prison ministry for the Archdiocese, a man at Lebanon Correctional turned to me and asked if a guy like him could become a priest. I researched it, and found that it might be technically possible, but what is practically impossible is for him to practice his Catholic faith in a regular old parish when he gets out. I thought there would have to be a community designed for a guy like him. That’s was set the wheels in motion. 

We have spoken with a few Catholic re-entry houses, on in Colorado and one in Texas and learned a lot from them. They initially envisioned a community like what we are creating but didn’t realize it because their residents have to go out for work and when they come home at the end of the day are too tired for the community life aspects. We are setting up a model where everything is under one roof for them.  

There is one monastery I have heard of in Sicily that has a prison re-entry program where men get to spend that last 6 months of their time in the monastery, and most beg to go back to the prison because it is easier there than with the monks. 


What are property plans? 

We have our house and a couple of vacant lots. We plan to make community gardens on at least one of our vacant lots and to create green space.  


Do you have people wanting to live there? 

There are some who have expressed interest, both among the currently incarcerated and those who have been in society for a while, but they will have to go through our vetting and discernment process. 


Who does the work on the house? 

So far volunteers under the guidance of some volunteer professionals. Now we are at the stage where we have contractors working on certain things like HVAC, plumbing, etc.  


Describe how we have integrated into the community 

We’re known (to at least one local) as the people who go around a pray and “stuff”. We invite members of the community to join us for our prayers and events. We attend and are members of the Sedamsville Civic Association. We participate in neighborhood clean-ups and recruit volunteers for them. We have been laying a foundation for our core programs that will allow what Serenelli does to benefit and incorporate the neighborhood, especially our community gardens. 


Could you move forward without the church? 

Yes. We are invested in Sedamsville. If all we ever get is this one house with three men in it, we’re going to make that a beautiful community. 


Do you want other property from the Port? 

We have a home ownership model for our future residents that would allow them to purchase a house in the neighborhood if they aren’t called to be a monk, but would like to be in the neighborhood with Serenelli Project. We could see a partnership with the Port for some of the houses in the portfolio that could serve that purpose. Our focus is on the house we have and the church and rectory, though. We are always keeping in mind to manage our resources to be ready for the church and rectory and to get our house operating.  

How do you get property if it is not from the port? 

Some people have contacted us wanting to sell their building or lot to us and we have assessed whether we could take it on. We are not trying to buy up houses and kick people out of the neighborhood. 


Describe the archdiocese involvement. 

We are our own 501c3 non-profit organization. We are an approved Catholic apostolate. What that means is the Archbishop of Cincinnati gives us the right to pursue our mission and call ourselves Catholic, and he can revoke his permission if he determines that we have veered from the mission of the Catholic Church, but that is the extent of his oversight. We receive no funding from the Archdiocese. We have all our own donors.  


Why was the archbishop blessing the chapel important? 

It’s important to have a sacred space dedicated solely to the worship of God. We live a very busy, noisy world that does not create peace, and we need a place to find peace. That’s what the chapel gives us. It represents the first priority for us, which is God first and the rest follows. We’ve communities that start with the house first and the intention to have the monastic life and never get there because the cares of the world crowd in. 

Is there anything else like this in Cincinnati? 

Not that I am aware of. 

What is monastic life? 

Prayer and work. That is the motto of a monk, Ora et Labora. 

Do you think people want to do this? 


Would people in prison want to do this? 

I have had a number of people in prison approach me about this and express interest. Then it takes some real discernment if that’s what they actually want, and if we actually want them in the community. 

What are the struggles they face reentering? 

There are numerous. Josh, our General Manager, could tell you first hand because he’s been through re-entry. 

(to Josh) How’s it going? 


(to Josh) what do you think so far? 

It’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done in my life and I couldn’t be happier. 


Is your program open to violent offenders? 

I’ll the same thing that I tell Cindy and other residents; we discern the person, not just the crime. We don’t just look at the worst thing they did many years ago, but we look at all the years following because we believe that they have a free will and with that they can choose to become a better person, and that the grace of God can transform a person. That’s the kind of person we are looking for. The fact is, people are getting out of prison whether we want it to happen or not. We have to decide what kind of a society we are going to be. Do we surround them with goodness and a real chance to live a good life? Or do we push them away into bad corner of town? If good people do not open themselves, and what I mean is what we are doing in Serenelli, and welcome them, then I guarantee you they will find a welcome with people are perfectly ok with doing evil things. 


You’re a bit young, isn’t this a little… naïve?  

Am I, because of my age, to sit back and complain about how bad the world is? Or do I do something? I think God has called me to this. 


How will they be monitored? 

There is a community life director, Serenelli staff and core volunteers. We have an Executive Director, a General Manager, an administrative coordinator. By the end of the year we will have 1 or 2 more staff hired. We have 15 core volunteers to help us run programs and participate in community life. Our goal for each resident is for there to be at least 10 people supporting them from every angle: for physical and social needs, psychological, spiritual, emotional, recovery, etc. 


Are the programs you offer outside programs? 

Yes. We offer Catholic in Recovery, a Catholic complement to the traditional 12-step programs to bring the Catholic faith to bear on the process of recovery. We will have community gardens. We have re-entry mentorship. And we will have Bridges to Life, a 14-week restorative justice course focusing on victim awareness with victim speakers, reconciliation, and even things like financial management and life skills. Texas has a recidivism rate of around 70%, meaning that 70% of those released from prison will re-offend in 3 years. Graduates of BTL have an 85% success rate, and only 15% re-offend. 


So bridges to life is violent and non-violent? 

Yes, it’s for everyone. 

Further commentary: Bridges to Life was founded by a man whose own sister was brutally murdered and he came to a point where he said to himself about the murderers, “I am either going to hate them, or I am going to help them” and he chose the later. From this decision developed the highly successful program called Bridges to Life. 


Have you heard concerns from Sedamsville about violent offenders? 

We have been very up front about this to the neighborhood and others, and I’ll say the same thing as I say to everyone. We discern the person. If they are not right for our community, then we won’t bring them in. If they even begin to veer from the monastic way of life in our house, we will kick them out. Our criteria are  


So you won’t have sex offenders? 

If someone has committed a sex crime and in the course of their time in prison has changed and proves that change by their consistent actions and new way of life, then we would discern if they would be right for our community.  


So if someone was convicted of a sex crime and changed you would consider them? 


Will there be a priest living there? 

Potentially, if we can find someone. He will have to be the right fit. 

Where would priest come from? 

A religious order/monastery. God will have to provide. 

Will the house open without a priest? 

It will not open without a Community Life Director to live in residence. It does not necessarily have to be a priest. Their job to lead the religious life of the community, following the discipline of the Rule of St. Benedict or St. Augustine. 


Isn’t it off-putting to victims for the project to be named after the murderer rather than the victim? Why not the Goretti Project? 

No I don’t think it is. It was never just Maria’s story, it was their story. Maria said “I forgive Alessandro and I want him to be in paradise with me.” [emphasis added] Maria is one of our principal patrons and we have a whole chapel named after her. We think it is important that Alessandro’s part of the story gets told because he did the crimes and then changed. Maria got what she wanted. He converted.  


Isn’t it inappropriate to have a priest live with the men, if they are violent and sexual offenders, given the priest abuse scandals in the Church in recent years? 

The priest sexual abuse scandal is horrible and that we have to see and live through it is terrible, but I will point out that in relation to other churches and other professions, the percentage of priests that have abused people is very low. The Catholic Church is also the biggest institution with the biggest target on its back that is easy to hit. That doesn’t mean it’s right, but we need some perspective. Plus, whoever we hire to live in community with our residents will also have to be discerned by our diverse board or qualified individuals in many fields, and will have to be the right person. You can’t just put anyone into a position of leading a community like this. 


Wouldn’t it be better to have someone with a social work background? 

We have another staff position, not a live-in role, called the Re-entry Services Director who handles case work and social work things that we will hire. The Community Life Director’s job is focused on the religious life of the community and leading that.  


Is it possible that some people like you personally so much that they are afraid to bring their concerns to you? 

If someone is afraid to bring a concern to me because they like me, I guess all I can say is don’t be afraid. Come and ask. I’m not afraid of tough questions. I even have board members that come to me asking these questions, “Marty, are we really going to…” I would like to see someone’s concern turned into something positive. We strive to overcome a mentality of fear with a mentality of encounter and accompaniment.  


Who will be responsible for them? 

Me. I will. Josh will. Our core values are Faith, Forgiveness, Communion, Accountability, Prayer and Work. We hold each other accountable and we take responsibility, and if someone doesn’t have these core values, they won’t be around here. The Community Life Director reports to Josh, collaborates with our Resident Services Director, who all report to Marty, and we all report to the board.  


What would you say to someone who hasn’t had the opportunity to spend two hours with you like I have? 

Come meet us. Come spend time with us. Come see for yourself.  


So people have nothing to fear? 


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