July 2013

Finding beauty and grace in prisons

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

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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