Good Samaritan Sister Mary O’Shannassy of Melbourne was among the 958 people recognised in this year’s Australia Day honours list. Mary was awarded an Order of the Australia Medal (OAM) for her “service to the community through church and social welfare bodies”.
Mary said the award “honours” her “many years” as a Sister of the Good Samaritan working in a range of ministries, including teaching roles in Queensland, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria, membership of parish pastoral teams in NSW and Victoria, and most recently, prison ministry in Victoria.
For Mary, the award also “honours” the “numerous people” she has encountered throughout her life, “commencing with my family who, by their presence, have gifted me to be the person I am today”, and the women and men she has accompanied and worked with over several decades.
Currently Mary is Director of Prison Ministry for CatholicCare Melbourne, a role which includes leading a team of 20 chaplains and over 50 volunteers who work across the entire Victorian prison system.
“This is a privileged ministry,” Mary told The Good Oil. “Many tell me that they could not do it!”
Mary believes she has been “gifted and graced, and was called, in 1994, to this ministry which I love” – and 22 years on, she still has “amazing energy for it as a messenger of hope, a messenger of our God’s mercy, a messenger of God’s love, compassion and forgiveness for all people”.
Mary said working with a “multi-faith team of dedicated chaplains, especially leading the Catholic chaplaincy team in the 15 prisons throughout the state of Victoria, and meeting the many people who come into the prison system day by day”, is a “privilege”.
Mary’s approach to those in prison is to meet them as people – “people who have offended, a significant number of whom have been offended against, and so have been victims first, with very poor opinions of themselves and so poor opinions of others.
“Meeting these women and men, who are mostly fragile, broken people, and companioning them on a journey to wholeness and to a dignity as a person, is indeed a privilege,” she said.
In their work with inmates, Mary said the chaplains “endeavour to treat each with respect as a person, to enable each to find something positive and good in him/herself, for each to nurture this and so grow in self-understanding and self-worth and so come to respect themselves and then be able to respect others.
“Our hope is that there will then be less victims,” she explained.
In a statement released on Australia Day, CatholicCare Melbourne congratulated Mary on her award.
“We couldn’t be prouder of Sister Mary O’Shannassy,” the statement said.
“Sister Mary has provided pastoral care to people in Victoria’s prisons since 1994. At the heart of her work is a deep respect for the unique worth of every person, and it is apparent every time she speaks about men and women in prison, who she respectfully chooses to refer to as ‘residents’.”
“In the eyes of prisoners, incarceration can mean more than the loss of their freedom; it can mean the loss of family, love, dignity and hope. So at a time when many prisoners feel abandoned by society, chaplains like Sister Mary provide a real sense that someone still cares.”
The statement concluded: “Sister Mary models courage, tenacity, tireless commitment, collaboration and empathy, leading by example to inspire and motivate others – and we couldn’t think of a more fitting recognition of her earning an OAM on Australia Day”.