Catholic Distance University in Charles Town Serves the Incarcerated Church

CHARLES TOWN — Catholic Distance University educates students throughout the nation and the world in Catholic Theology, the Liberal Arts, and faith development through high quality online programs. Since 1984, the university has also educated incarcerated students through paper-based courses. Now, thanks to a significant grant from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, the university is educating incarcerated students through digital tablets approved for use in prisons.
Two parishioners of St. James the Greater Church in Charles Town work in CDU’s prison ministry office to make the program a success: Sister Dolores Keyser of the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour and Becky Trainor.
CDU’s courses are accessible on the tablets through a partnership with Edovo Corporation, which helps incarcerated individuals build better lives by providing access to educational, vocational, and treatment programming. CDU’s courses are the first Catholic content available on the tablets, which are now available in 129 prisons. Incarcerated students had completed over 81,000 CDU courses through the tablets as of mid September.
Over the last 15 months, Sister Dolores, who became involved in prison ministry through her order, has used her IT knowledge to add 18 CDU courses in English and Spanish to the Edovo tablets. Prior to taking her vows three years ago, Sister Dolores had a 37-year career as an Information Technology director and manager for government infrastructure contracts and worked for a number of federal agencies. She finds her work at CDU rewarding and enjoys that it keeps her in touch with IT on a certain level. “The blessing is that the courses are really being used,” she says. “The most popular courses are on Christian prayer and the gospels,” she says. “They are really interested in the Bible.” In service to her order, Sister Dolores also conducts a nondenominational service three to four times a month at the Martinsburg Maximum Security Transitional Corrections Center.
Trainor administers the paper course program for CDU, working in close communication with prison chaplains and inmates through written correspondence. She responds to letters, collects enrollment forms, and sends out courses. Most take continuing education courses, but several are in the BA in Theology degree completion program, working to earn a degree while behind bars. They currently take 15 to 20 paper courses each month, a big increase from the five per month when she began working at CDU two and a half years ago.
Trainor took three CDU continuing education courses herself in the 1990s after realizing she needed further formation in the faith. She then began corresponding with prisoners to share what she had learned and to provide spiritual support and has continued to do so for 20 years.
“I feel like this is my calling and has been for many years,” she says. “They want to learn as much as they can, and I want to be an instrument of God’s love for them.”
Inmates taking the tablet courses can opt to participate in a pen pal program with members of the Order of Malta, which provides additional support and friendship and also helps to reduce the rate of recidivism. Grants from the Order of Malta Federal Association also provide significant support to CDU’s prison ministry program.
Since 1984 many incarcerated individuals educated at CDU have completed continuing education certificates and courses in the Catholic faith and even earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology while in prison. Many use their education to serve as chaplain’s assistants who evangelize and minister to their fellow inmates. One graduate has successfully written and published faith-based books while incarcerated.
Other significant grants supporting CDU’s prison ministry program were provided by the Diocese of Arlington, the John C. Fricano Foundation, the Andreas Foundation, and individual donors.
A pioneer in distance learning, CDU was founded in 1983 as the first catechetical institute in the United States to award the Catechetical Diploma and teach the Catholic faith to adults using distance education.
CDU offered its first degree program in 1996. Today CDU is a fully online accredited university offering the following programs: MA degree in Theology, MA degree in Theology and Educational Ministry, BA in Theology degree completion program, AA degree in Liberal Arts with a concentration in Catholic Studies, several graduate certificates, an undergraduate certificate, and continuing education certificates and courses.
The university also continues its active outreach to the incarcerated church. Dr. Charles R. Wasaff is Chairman of CDU’s Board of Trustees, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio serves as Vice Chairman of the Board and Chancellor of the University, and Marianne Evans Mount, PhD, serves as President.
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