June 29, 2016

Partly sunny

YWCA speaker went from lawyer to ministering Indiana prisoners

ELYRIA — The first time Elyria YWCA Executive Director Jeanine Donaldson met the grandfatherly man introduced to her as Father David Link, she was already well-versed in much of his background.


Yet she was still blown away by his humility, graciousness and sincerity.

“I think I spent at least three days with him, and it was not enough,” she said of his visit to Lorain County last year. “He spoke at an impromptu meeting that was pulled together in three days, met the women at our homeless shelter and met with Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov. But everyone who met him saw the same man. He is sincere with whoever he meets in whatever walk of life they are in. Even the waitresses knew there was something special about him when we were sitting at the coffeehouse having breakfast. He is just that kind of man.”

One of the last things Link said to Donaldson was to call him if there was anything she ever needed to further the mission of the YWCA. It didn’t take long for her to take the 76-year-old priest with a passion for prison ministry up on her offer.

Link is keynote speaker for the upcoming YWCA Peace and Justice Gala in celebration of its 100th anniversary.

“I feel like that is why I met him. We have this special meeting planned, and we needed a special speaker,” she said. “If someone would have told me a year ago we would invite a man to be our keynote speaker for our 100th anniversary, I would have said they were nuts. But God moves in mysterious ways, and it’s part of our mission at the YWCA to be open to women and men of good conscience to move forward our vision for women and girls. I couldn’t possibly think of anyone who demonstrates our mission greater than him.”

Link was born and raised in Sandusky before going off to college and law school. He went on to become a prominent civil rights lawyer and fierce litigator who eventually turned his attention toward academia. He became the well-known dean emeritus of the University of Notre Dame Law School and founding president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame Australia and is so well-regarded in his community that when an election recount is necessary, his is the first name uttered as the one who should oversee it.

In 2008, Link was ordained and now spends his days ministering to convicted criminals inside some of Indiana’s toughest prisons.

It’s not every day you meet someone who’s spent years imprisoning people only to seemingly reverse course to spend his golden years dedicated to changing the lives of men behind bars — and Elyria author Maura Zagrans remembers the first time she’d heard of Link.

At Notre Dame for a business meeting, Link’s name was mentioned in a conversation. Zagrans soon learned that the people she was with could not stop talking about the beloved dean who lost his wife and high-school sweetheart Barbara and went on to become a priest.

“When my friend said a couple of sentences about this guy, I shouted out, ‘That’s a book,’ ” she said. “I knew someone had to write a book about him because he was too powerful.”

Zagrans was months away from releasing her first novel “Miracles Every Day” — a book published by Doubleday Religion, a division of Random House, which made it among the top 10 Catholic bestsellers when released in 2010.

It took all of one meeting with Link for her to figure out her next project.

“That first meeting was a three-hour breakfast,” she said. “I laughed. I cried. He laughed. He cried. That man literally had me at hello. I got started on the book immediately.”

That was in May 2010. More than three years later, the book, “Camerado, I Give You My Hand” is scheduled for an August release.

The book chronicles not just Link’s life and why he has chosen to spend his later years as a prison chaplain, but it also delves deep into the lives of the inmates Link calls brothers.

“Just think about it. He was a lawyer, litigator, law professor, dean and university professor,” Zagrans said. “He starts this prison volunteer ministry thing, and I think it closed the loop on his law education. He ended up seeing that the current criminal justice system is not working.”

A mother of six, Zagrans said she never thought she would ever go into a prison. But she did when shadowing Link. It changed her entire perspective on the criminal justice system.

“I have to say, I loved it. I talked to so many people,” she said. “And I was repeatedly blown away by Father Dave. Even if they never get out of prison, he tells each one of them they can be better people. He tells them they matter. I don’t think a lot of these men have ever heard that before in their lives — to hear someone say they mattered.”

Zagrans may seem a bit biased, but she knows Link’s message will be powerful.

“When you listen to him speak, it just makes sense,” she said. “He will come here and talk about looking at the law as a healing profession, looking at it from a different perspective.”

“But it will not just be about prison ministry and the healing that can be found there,” Donaldson added. “He will talk about how there is healing in every profession. We all have the ability to offer healing and help.”

Peace and Justice Gala for the Elyria YWCA

  • WHEN: 6 p.m. May 11
  • WHERE: Spitzer Conference Center of Lorain County Community College
  • TICKETS: $100 and include cocktails and a buffet supper
  • INFO: (440) 322-6308

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.

About Lisa Roberson

Lisa Roberson has been with the Chronicle since 2006, and covers Elyria city government and public education. She can be reached at 329-7121 or LRoberson@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter.