Our ministry to prisoners holds a special place in the hearts of the Sisters of Charity.
From January 1839, within weeks of their arrival in Sydney, until the present time, the Sisters of Charity of Australia have ministered to prisoners in a variety of ways.
This included ministry within the prisons and also what would be now known as “through care” – assisting with prisoners transition to society and follow up afterwards. Many families over the years have also been supported of the Sisters.
In the early years the Sisters not only visited and counselled the prisoners, they assisted by teaching them life skills that would be most beneficial on their release and return to society. The Sisters saw the ministry as a privilege as well as an opportunity to learn from those incarcerated.
Mary Aikenhead herself served in this ministry through a request from the Governor of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin in 1821. He asked that some Sisters visit and help two young women who had been convicted of murder and who faced execution.
She experienced the challenge of this ministry, but the opportunity to assist the poorest of the poor was one she deeply valued, as have the Sisters in Australia since 1839. Like her, they heard the call of Jesus, described in Matthew’s Gospel: “I was in Prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:36)
Despite growing public demand in Britain for an end to convict transportations and a review that had reported that it was ineffective, the practice was not officially abolished in New South Wales until 1840 and after 1860 in Tasmania. From early 1839, the Sisters began visiting the women in the prison known as The Parramatta Female Factory and soon after the gaol at Darlinghurst.
Darlinghurst Gaol closed in 1914 and was eventually replaced by Her Majesty’s Australian Prison Long Bay where the ministry continued by many Sisters, among them Sr Maurus Tierney who with various companions was not only a regular visitor over many years but is remembered as quite a “character” and “legendary” in the way she interacted with the men and women at Long Bay.
Although ministry to prisoners by various denominations commenced in the early years of the NSW Colony, in 1960 the Civil Chaplaincies Advisory Committee was established and Chaplaincy was formalised and recognised as a partner to the NSW Correctional system, Its role is still, to recommend to Corrective Services NSW the appointment of Chaplains from member Churches.
Sisters Germanus McQuillan and Carmel Schick, then later Sr Jane Frances Wall, became official members of the Chaplaincy Service at Long Bay together with clergy from other faiths as did Sr Dorothy Barden who was appointed to Emu Plains Correctional Centre and Sr. Claudette Palmer to Mulawa Women’s Correctional Centre at Silverwater.
Sr Germanus McQuillan, a worthy descendant of the pioneer Sisters was presented with the Minister of Corrective Services Citation in recognition of her outstanding ministry to prisoners over thirty years.
Growing numbers in gaols necessitated the widening of Chaplaincy, funding was increased, new gaols opened and Sr Adele Cottrel Dormer was appointed as the Catholic Chaplain to the new Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre at Silverwater.
In 1987 the ministry of the Sisters took a slightly different turn and through Justice Health and Sr. Maureen Walters was appointed as the Asst Director of Nursing at the new Long Bay Prison Hospital.
In January 1988 Sr M. Pauline Staunton was appointed by the then Commissioner as the Administrator of NSW Chaplaincy Services, working with Chaplains, the Churches and Corrective Services NSW.
In emergencies she had access to the gaols on the complex in the absence of Chaplains. She worked in that role at Long Bay until her retirement on 16th June, 2015 and was the last Sister of Charity to minister there. She received the Commissioner’s Citation for her 27 and a half years in Corrective Services.
When three of the pioneer Sisters moved to Hobart, they continued this valuable ministry in the Cascades Female Factory, and then at the Campbell Street site.
To learn of the continuing work of the Sisters of Charity in prison ministry, click here.