Prisoners to Hold Their Heads High

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
10 Nov 2016

Bishop Terry Brady talks with prisoners at Silverwater Women's Correctional Centre, Sydney

In the middle of maximum security Silverwater Women's Correctional Centre, 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 of Prisoners.

The inmates, dressed in green came voluntarily and the chapel was full. Behind the tiny altar a window looked out over curls of razor wire.

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 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.

Bishop Terry Brady celebrates Mass in Silverwater Women's Correctional Centre for the Jubilee of Prisoners

"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'".

Another volunteered her story.

"I'm in for murder and on the anniversary I know I can come and sit and talk to Chappy. She taught me meditation and breathing, otherwise I never would have got through court."

"Chappy" is softly spoken lay chaplain Margaret Wiseman who for 25 years has ministered to women in prison and is the Archdiocese of Sydney's Chaplain at Silverwater. She is currently assisted by Fr Peter Carroll MSC, Chaplain to the Corrective Services who also works in the men's prisons.

The Chapel inside maximum security Silverwater Women's Correctional Centre

"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 provided is practical and spiritual in 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."
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."

Many of the prisoners hang on to their faith as a source of hope to endure the hardships of prison life

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 to mark the Jubilee of 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.

Archdiocese of Sydney Prison Chaplains Fr Peter Carroll and Margaret Wiseman with Bishop Terry Brady

Bishop Brady explains the Christ of Maryknoll icon on display at the Jubilee of Prisoners Mass at St Mary's Cathedral

"With that in mind we hand all our prisoners in our country and around the world to Our Lord".