50 YEARS IN THE COUNTY WORK HOUSE
Hanwick’s zeal was for the women confined in the Henn-epin County Work House in Plymouth, Minnesota. She said, “They are incarcerated for a number of reasons — for thievery, or immorality of some sort. Typically there are 40 of them at the facility at any one time. They live and work in a small, low building. The place is not very nice.”
Most of the women, she explains, are there for a maximum of 4-5 months. If their residence stretches to a year, they’re moved to a facility in Shakopee. But most are not there that long.
Hanwick and her friends at Calvary Church were not the first to think of starting a ministry to the work house women. “The way was paved by the social service worker at Central Lutheran Church. And, at least one Lutheran congregation from south Minneapolis made some efforts toward doing ministry there, but they didn’t continue.”
It was Hanwick, and her faithful band — over the years between 40-50 women from Calvary have participated — who made the program go and grow.
Hanwick could have invested herself in a professional career. Her training would have enabled her to teach at the college or university level. But, she says, “My husband, Ted, had a good teaching job at Augsburg College. We had children at home. My ethic was to be a housewife.”
As a homemaker, and participating member of Calvary, Fern Hanwick saw a challenge she liked when the work house ministry idea surfaced. She says, “For me, doing this ministry satisfied two things in me — a love of learning and a desire to help others.”
At first, only Hanwick and one other woman went to the work house. Later, larger groups began going on a monthly basis. In time, the facility’s management restricted the numbers of visitors to ten or less at a time.
“We’d have a Bible reading, music, prayer, and some re-freshments. For the longest time, we’d bring a cake to share. But then, finally, that was eliminated. I think they were afraid we might smuggle in a weapon or something, inside the cake! So now we just take along candy for them.”
And books. “One of our women would collect books to distribute to the women who wanted them. They always went quickly when we offered them.”
The pastors of Calvary gave solid support to the program, and a growing cadre of women signed on over the years. But, says Hanwick, not all volunteers stuck it out. “As you can imagine, not everyone approved of what we were doing. One woman who came along said, ‘Humpf! They have it so nice out there, they’re not even being punished!’ I never asked her to come along again.”
When the Calvary women prepared for their monthly presentations at the work house, part of the spade work was conversation with the inmates. “We would ask them if they had any prayer concerns. These became part of the sharing when we met as a group. The prayer requests included a desire for sobriety; for being good parents; and for the welfare of absent family members.”
And sometimes the soul-searching continued, even into the fellowship time which followed the prayers. “There’s confession that goes on,” Hanwick explains. “During refreshments inmates would be anxious to talk with us visitors about their offenses.”
Hanwick still has the three-ring notebook listing the many women from Calvary Church who volunteered to participate during her 35 years of service. As she turns the pages, she remembers names of individuals, some no longer living.
“We even had a blind woman and her blind husband coming out to help,” she recalls.
A guitarist from Calvary, almost totally blind, performs at the work house regularly.
Hanwick is just as full of energy and fire for the work house project as she was in 1963. But, she says, “One of the pastors finally told me that, at age 90, perhaps it was time to relax and let somebody else pick up the reins of leadership. So I finally did.”
Those who recognized her long years of energetic service rewarded her with a gift. It’s a clock mounted on a wooden base, with an engraved metal plaque that reads:
What’s next for Hanwick? “I have plenty to keep me busy — gardening; feeding Ted; vacationing; going to meetings; reading.”
She and her retired spouse still live in their trim suburban Minnetonka home, where they grow roses and enjoy the company of their son, who lives next door, their daughter and husband in Excelsior, and their four grandchildren.