Finding beauty and grace in prisons

Mary O'Shannassy SGS

Mary O’Shannassy SGS

Good Samaritan Sister, Mary O’Shannassy has worked in prison chaplaincy for 19 years. “The men tell me I’ve got life without parole,” she laughs.

BY Debra Vermeer*

Prisons are not normally associated with beauty or grace, but prison chaplain, Good Samaritan Sister Mary O’Shannassy, says she often experiences both those things in the people with whom she ministers – the same people that society shuns and would sooner forget.

“It’s very much the God in them meeting the God in me,” Mary says. “And there are some precious moments in that.”

Mary has worked in prison chaplaincy for 19 years. “The men tell me I’ve got life without parole,” she laughs.

She was born in Colac in country Victoria and grew up in a close, Irish, farming community with her parents, Agnes Ryan and Vincent O’Shannassy, younger brother John and younger sister Monica.

“One of the significant things for me in my childhood was the open house we had; a place of great welcome and hospitality,” she says. “There were always people at our place, so from a young age I was exposed to this sense of openness, welcome and hospitality.”

After leaving school, Mary worked in the office of a Colac business, before entering the Good Samaritan novitiate at Pennant Hills and undertaking teacher training at Glebe.

Her first teaching appointment was in Townsville, where she says she “loved the people and their children”. She then worked for five years at St Magdalen’s, Arncliffe, which was a home for disadvantaged women and girls, referred by the courts.

“I found this to be physically, emotionally and mentally challenging, but also at the same time, very rewarding,” she says. “It was really this work that had attracted me to the Good Sams – to be with the people that society shuns.”

A period followed teaching in primary schools in the ACT, New South Wales and Victoria before Mary was appointed to Holy Name Parish, East Preston in Melbourne, to work in parish ministry.

“I was very blessed there,” she says. “Father Anthony Cleary opened all the doors of parish ministry to me. He encouraged me to learn all I could, especially in areas of liturgy and ecumenism.”

It was in the parish setting that Mary first met the partners and children of people in prison.

“It gave me an insight into the ones at home and their struggle, and the impact that having a family member in prison can have on families,” she says.

The move from parish life into prison ministry came in 1994, in response to an invitation from Father Barry King, the Director of Prison Chaplaincy in the Melbourne Archdiocese.

“So I did my apprenticeship in Pentridge Prison in Coburg, and I’m still doing time 19 years later,” she laughs.

“I see it as a privileged ministry, a privileged partnership. Because that’s what it is for me, a partnership with the Lord, and I couldn’t do it without Christ’s strength.”

Mary says her prison ministry is essentially a ministry of presence, hospitality and compassion.

“It’s a ministry of presence in the darkest of places, a companioning, of listening ‘with the ear of the heart’ (RB, Prologue),” she says. “I have experienced powerful healing come from attentive listening.

“We are messengers of hope and of God’s love, especially for those who might not really have encountered love before, those who are belittled, mentally ill and rejected. I meet them and assure them that I’m there for them. Really, I just embrace the humanity of these people, which is so often overlooked.”

As Director of Catholic Prison Ministry Victoria, Mary recruits, encourages and leads the chaplaincy team in the state’s 12 men’s prisons and two women’s prisons. The chaplains are also joined by volunteers who attend prison Masses as a support-based community and engage in conversation and hospitality.

She is currently the Catholic representative and also convenor of the Chaplains’ Advisory Committee, a multi-faith consultative and advisory body to Corrections Victoria, and a member of the newly formed Australian Catholic Prisoners’ Pastoral Care Council.

Over the years, Mary says she has met many characters in prison and is adamant that she has received much more from the people she meets than she has given.

“I have always received the greatest of respect, and the greatest hospitality,” she says. “I’m very often inspired by these people and they offer me the means by which I relate to God.

“I have learnt much from the residents of prisons. They have an amazing sense of humour and I really admire their ability to cope with the daily challenges and situations they face, being taunted and rejected, and the unpredictability of their lives.”

There is no doubt though, that Mary’s ministry has its challenging moments, and none more so than when visiting prisoners in solitary confinement.

“Visiting those in solitary confinement is very sobering, confronting and humbling, but also a wonderful privilege,” she says. “Because you may be the only person that they see or speak with week after week, and it’s through a very small opening in the door. Being alone 24 hours a day with no-one to talk to is a time of contemplation for them, and many are happy to have their Bibles and read them and talk to you about what they’re reading and where they’ve reflected on their life.

“But I suppose the ones that challenge me most are those who’ve lost all hope. I find it incredibly challenging to be in the present moment with people who have lost hope or the ones who have been sentenced to life imprisonment. They’ll never get out. So I work with them to find hope for the present moment, something fulfilling for that day.

“It’s very much the paschal mystery. In each of these people, I see Christ, broken, crucified and dying, but also for me, I see resurrection. Because you get what I call the narrow beam of light coming through, and these small steps to new ways, with just a glimmer of hope that something different could be possible.”

Mary says the prayer and Scripture groups, Masses and prayer reflection days for the prisoners can be touching occasions.

“Once they’ve been through the courts and are sentenced, they feel they can share their vulnerability and their pain, and most of all their concern for their family and loved ones. They pray for them often, and frequently say, ‘my family is doing it much harder than I am’,” Mary says.

“We also pray for the victims of crime and acknowledge the deep and ongoing hurts suffered there.”

Mary says she often encounters moments of great beauty in the way that prisoners support each other.

“Not long ago I walked into one of the accommodation units and a man looked up and greeted me. He’s a man who is doing a heavy sentence of 30 years and he was talking to another man and they had the Bible out. He told me he was helping this other man by showing him the passage in the Scriptures that helped him through each day. It was a deeply moving moment,” she says.

“And another man told me that at the moment he’s concentrating on helping those who keep to themselves, the loners. He invites them for a cuppa and he quotes to me the inspiration for his actions, as being Hebrews 13:1-2 (‘Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it’).

“They blow me away really. It’s very inspirational.”

Mary says the symbol of the prison chaplaincy is a stone, which is dark and rough on the outside, but inside, at its centre, is a brightly coloured precious stone.

“Our endeavour is to enable the women and the men to find the beauty that is within themselves and to know that they are precious to their God and precious to us,” she says.

“And when I reflect on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), I am taken to the perpetrator of the robbery, who is not often referred to. And it is these women and men that I must minister to and among. It’s these people that I am able to be neighbour to – for their own sakes, for the prevention of future crime and hopefully for the betterment of society. I’m very blessed and very grateful to be able to do this ministry.”

* Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both the Catholic and secular media.

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The Good Oil, July 16, 2013. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

17 Responses to “Finding beauty and grace in prisons”

  1. Julia says:

    May the Lord bless you Mary mightly as you visit people that are isolated. What a privilege I sincerely wish I could visit my nephew in Port Phillip just to remind him that the Lord and his uncle and aunty love him. Would you kindly tell me if you visit Port Phillip in Victoria? Thank you

  2. Michelle Reid says:

    I am convinced that the ministry that you Mary and all the volunteers who work in the prisons are doing has an enormous impact on so many of these men. Letting them know someone cares about them and accepts them must help them to face those lonely days and nights in prison without family. Keep up the great work, truly inspirational

  3. Dear Mary,
    Great to hear of your work and awareness of both prisoners and victims situation. A solemn reminders of the fact that any of us could be either.
    well done!

  4. Brian Gleeson says:

    Your beautiful reflection has touched and challenged me deeply. What a grace you have experienced as a messenger of faith, hope, love and joy to so many hurt and wounded people inside and outside prison walls!

  5. Gerri Boylan says:

    Mary, thanks so much for your beautiful sharing. I really appreciated your last paragraph talking about being “neighbour” to the perpetrators. I believe that we often forget these people of God.

  6. Thank you Debra for beautiful article. A wonderful balance to the disturbing news coming from California re the current prisoners’ hunger strike ….protesting at the terrible conditions of US prisons



    Main media outside US not giving ongoing coverage to this story

    Hope more people like yourself can cover this story. Welcome to post on my site if nowhere else to post

  7. Jane Marshall says:

    Mary, a very inspirational reflection of Prison Ministry
    When I first started in Catholic Prison Ministry I was attending a conference at which you were at as well.
    After reading your wonderful reflection, it confirms why I requested to spend time with you in the early part of my ministry.

  8. Rosie Carroll says:

    Great article. I spent 2 uyears with you at port Phillip Mary and I did enjoy it

  9. Thank you Mary for sharing some of the very intimate experiences you have in this ministry. They are truly sacred. Marie.

  10. Edwina says:

    A very touching and inspiring article Mary. Thank you for sharing. Your words enabled me to visualize those things you describe. I found this article very meaningful and an important reminder of the things that matter most.

  11. Geraldine says:

    Mary; thanks … I have heard during my experience that you are ‘the face of God’ for those who leave the courts and who are in deep shock.
    Thanks on their behalf.

  12. Val Deakin says:

    Mary, it was an inspiring read. You are living the parable of the Good Samaritan in our day. Very proud of you and all you are doing

  13. B Kennedy says:

    Thanks Mary. Your reflection reminds us that we find God where we we may least expect it – at the foot of the Cross like the two Marys.

  14. Annie Dixon says:

    Beautiful portrayal of your ministry Mary – thank you for your constant presence…..

  15. Kristin Dawson says:

    A truly inspirational story. It is wonderful that Mary has been able to be a conduit of the light of Christ into the dark places of the lives of prisoners as inspired by the Good Samaritan and the spirit of St Benedict. At the same time she has been blessed and touched by the presence of Christ in so many different ways in the lives of those women and men. A true Gospel story of love and compassion

  16. Carmel Mahoney says:

    Mary, I admire your transparent approach and openess to acknowledge the “Good” within. Your sharing is a gentle challenge to recognise our neighbour and to be accepting of all – thank you.

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