The Rev. Donna J. Quenroe, who spent 40 years as a spiritual counselor to Minnesota prison inmates, died March 22 at a Wayzata nursing home. She was 80, and had resided in her later years in Plymouth.
Quenroe was the founder in 1975 and longtime president of H.O.P.E. Ministries Inc., which has served inmates in Stillwater prison, Oak Park Heights prison and St. Cloud prison.
She continued to offer twice-a-month worship services at Stillwater prison until about nine months ago, said Bruce Gilbert, a board member of the ministry who volunteered with Quenroe for 16 years and continues her work in the prison.
“We pray and sing and the music is normally done by the inmates,” said Gilbert. About 30 to 50 inmates participate in the Stillwater worship program, he added.
Sarah Latuseck of the Minnesota Corrections Department said the ministry offers inmates an opportunity to practice their beliefs and principles inside the prison walls.
Quenroe became a Lutheran minister and founded the nonprofit, nondenominational prison program after promising to serve God if she survived a life-threatening infection in 1970, according to her “testimony,” the story of her faith that she told to audiences and had printed. “I will never stop serving You a day in my life,” she pledged.
She was ordained as a Lutheran minister on Dec. 31, 1976, after religious and counseling studies at Lutheran colleges, said her daughter, Shari Quenroe-Savage. She was 42 at the time of her ordination.
By then, the Rev. Quenroe had already launched her prison ministry, which her daughter said went on to serve thousands of inmates.
At the time, it wasn’t easy for women to volunteer in men’s prisons, according to a 1981 Minneapolis Tribune column about Quenroe’s work. “She was repeatedly told that prison was no place for a woman, but she persisted,” columnist Robert T. Smith reported.
Once, early in her ministry, an inmate became irate and quoted from the Bible that “women are not to be teachers of men” and a second inmate told her to get out, according to the newspaper account.
But another inmate who had been helped by her counseling spread the word about Quenroe, and the ministry thrived.
The “Hope” in the ministry’s title stands for Hope of Pilgrims Everywhere, her daughter said.
The prison ministry originally operated out of the family’s home, and grew to about 30 volunteers doing outreach in the three prisons.
Quenroe was born in Minneapolis and graduated from Robbinsdale High School in 1952. She was married two years later. She and her husband, the late Robert Quenroe, had four children, and the family lived for many years in Brooklyn Center.
In 1961, the Rev. Billy Graham brought his crusade to the State Fairgrounds in Falcon Heights, and Quenroe attended — the first of several life-changing religious experiences for her, according to the text of her testimony.
She traveled widely, including to Yugoslavia after some children there reported in 1981 the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary, her daughter Shari said.
“She took her message across the United States,” she added.
Quenroe was for many years a member of Wayzata Community Church.