In the middle of maximum security Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre, Sydney, a converted demountable classroom has been transformed into a chapel. Bishop Terry Brady, Australian Catholic Bishops Delegate for Prisoners along with 50 inmates, volunteers and prison chaplains, gathered to celebrate Mass on Sunday 6 November, the Jubilee for Prisoners.
During a moving service, the inmates and the chaplains held up the struggles of life in prison to God’s care and sought help to endure. Through the hymns and prayers, the prisoners who came voluntarily, readily participated in the service and expressed their gratitude for the opportunity.
Bishop Brady assured the women there is hope for them, no matter what circumstance they find themselves in.
“My prayer today is that you know how loved you are by God,” said Bishop Brady.
“We’ve all made mistakes,” he said. “You can hold your head high, because of God’s love and mercy for each and every one of you.”
A 23 year old inmate shared that she looks forward to coming to chapel each week.
“It gives us strength to stay happy in gaol” she said. “The worst thing about being here is that your freedom is taken away.”
“Our sense of value in God makes us stronger, makes it easier to cope.”
Chapel gives the women real strength to face difficult situations.
An inmate of four years revealed “it’s not the most pleasant place to be. You come across different types of women. I got beat up pretty bad the other week. I know God protects me and I won’t hit back. Yesterday I had mediation with her and I told her ‘I forgive you’”.
A number of volunteers from Epping –Carlingford parish in the Diocese of Broken Bay attended the Mass and come regularly to assist the prison chaplaincy.
Many women in prison bear the burden of separation from their children, and the chaplain ministry plays a crucial role in meeting the many needs that arise in the inmates’ families.
“We organise a wishing tree for Christmas which allows the inmates to give a gift to their children,” a 28 year old parish volunteer explains. “Without this, Christmas which is painful anyway for those in prison, would be even worse.”
The ministry to women inmates in Silverwater prison is headed by lay chaplain Margaret Wiseman from the Archdiocese of Sydney. She has been involved in prison ministry for over 25 years and is currently assisted by Fr Peter Carroll MSC, Chaplain to the Corrective Services who also works in the men’s prisons.
“No one is so bad, so far away from God or so evil, that the Grace of God cannot penetrate,” Margaret says. “Divine justice is not based on the law but on love. God’s justice extends beyond the law. And so should ours.”
The help they provide is practical and spiritual in the times of greatest need. “I missed my mum’s funeral,” said one inmate, “but Margaret and Fr Peter held a memorial service here at the same time, so I was able to be there in spirit.”
During the prayers of the faithful, prisoners prayed spontaneously, many thanking the chaplains for their kindness and generosity, without whom, the women know, such help would simply not be available.
Later that evening a special Mass was celebrated at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, to mark the Jubilee for Prisoners and pray for those in prison, their families and loved ones.
Celebrated by Bishop Brady, the Mass was attended chaplains, families of prisoners, those who work in the correctional services and those who have done time themselves in prison.
Bishop Brady acknowledged the wonderful work done by prison chaplains in prisons and correctional services centres across the country.
“We are grateful for the dedicated service of the prison chaplains who bring hope to so many” said Bishop Brady.
“Our very first prison chaplain was Fr John Joseph Therry who spent much of his ministry caring for convicts. Indeed, many of us are descendants of convicts. We must never forget those on the margins of our society, especially our indigenous brothers and sisters.”
“We will always find Jesus in the most vulnerable and broken people in our society” said Bishop Brady.
“With that in mind we hand all our prisoners in our country and around the world to Our Lord”.
Photos by Giovanni Portelli. Used with permission Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.