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West Perth sister reflects on her ministry

Sister Bernardine Daly RSM of the West Perth Congregation has for many years worked with some of the most disadvantaged people in our society, particularly in Western Australia. In the following article, Sister Bernardine shares aspects of her ministry with people who are homeless and in prison.

REFLECTION by Sister Bernardine Daly RSM

My first connection with prisoners was with a place I had in East Perth for homeless, alcoholic Indigenous people, some of whom were ex-prisoners, others relatives of them, a couple were sick, frail or aged. I was licensed for nine who were named by the Indigenous leaders in Perth. Soon I had twenty and many more came to the gate for food. If we could manage, they were able to have a shower and a change of clothes. I was helped by a few Indigenous people and friends. Often mothers of past pupils and some past pupils did a few hours one night a week. They were students at training colleges or university. Some sisters helped when able.

Thinking over our vows – service of the poor, sick and uneducated – I realised there were many opportunities to practise all in a prison.

Almost everyone in prison is poor and many are mentally ill. Others have various types of hepatitis or some other illness, including AIDS. These last ones are usually in a separate section and looked down on by others too often. I was deeply saddened one day as I left the AIDS section and a doctor about to enter said in a shocked voice, “Sister, you haven’t been visiting the sinners have you?” I answered, “We are all sinners, Doctor”.

Very often prisoners are uneducated especially those who can’t read or write. Many indigenous ones are in this last category. For many years they were not allowed to go to school. Two elders between 1915 and 1917 asked permission for the children to go to school. Twenty years later they were allowed, if principals and the parents of the other children permitted, but only up to grade four. Apparently they were wanted to do work others didn’t want because it was hard or unpleasant.

This issue was brought home to me one day in Roebourne when a man visited. After a short time he said he could draw better than talk. He used to speak his own language and we found he was an artist and an expert designer on emu eggs. He asked if I had an exercise book. One of those providential moments occurred: a friend had recently given me a new one. He asked if he could keep it because he wanted to draw something of his life. On the cover he proudly wrote his name and then grade five. He was one of the first who were allowed to stay on after grade four.

In some prisons art is taught but nowhere enough prisoners have the opportunity. One prisoner, an artist, told me there would be ten times as many doing art in the prison where he was if all who wanted to be accommodated were able. Lives have been changed through art. One such man was very shy and depressed. I used try to make sure I looked at his work each week. I’m no artist, but on one occasion he said with a smile, “Now I can keep going a few days more.”

One day I saw a prisoner a long way from his home put his just-finished painting against the wall and sat on a desk close by and looked at it. Tears were running down his face. After a few minutes, I moved away in reverence. Possibly it was a sacred site.

I’m afraid I read in a report on prisons that prisoners are four times more likely to commit suicide than others. Again and again I’ve seen where a prisoner has damaged himself but thank God not succeeded. Others have talked to me about it.

On one occasion I met a chaplain who looked very worried. He told me a prisoner had committed suicide and he was going to view the body. I asked if he would like me to go with him. He was truly grateful. As I was about to enter the cell, a kind officer touched my shoulder and said, “Sister, are you all right?” I said I was and I knew the prisoner. He was a sex offender and was due out soon when I saw him last. His past employer had said he would take him on again and accommodation went with the job. I was relieved but he forgot to tell me he was changing his name. When next I came to his cell, I saw a new name and thought he had left, so I didn’t knock, as I had many to see.

I had no idea before I had the privilege of being with prisoners how difficult re-entry problems often are, although they naturally long to be free and prison is far from pleasant. In fact a report said they are seven times more likely to be murdered than others.

I remember one man’s wife writing to me to say how she and the children excitedly took him to see Karratha (Pilbara, WA), a new town since he had been “inside”. He had only been in one of the big shops a few minutes when he had run out of the shop and sat in the car. When you have accommodation you have to get used to paying for water, electricity, gas etc. and the bills all seem to come around the same time, as we know! One long-term prisoner told me he had no idea of the value of money or what to offer the first time he bought a loaf of bread.

Besides those in prison there are of course the relatives who appreciate very much a listening heart. I remember one mother being very upset because a teacher said aloud to her son before all the class, “No wonder you are as you are with a father in prison”. She told me after that she was going to send him to a Catholic school. Hopefully the lad and herself found help there. I’ll never forget a little child near the exit to the prison clinging onto his father’s legs and begging pitifully, “Daddy, come home”. It must be heartbreaking for the mother to hear that and of course the poor father.

Another difficulty which is very hard for prisoners is when some relative is dying or when there are celebrations, for example, a child’s first communion or a particular birthday, but especially it’s hard if someone is dying or if there is a funeral. I remember a couple of months ago one of the prisoner’s families I had known for years rang me up and said this prisoner’s wife was dying and he hadn’t been able to visit her. They asked me to see what I could do. So I rang up the prison that same evening and they admitted that really the man should have been able to go but there was no one to take him that night – not enough staff to permit that. So I rang up the next morning and I must admit that that prison officer was really lovely you could feel that he was sorry. He told me that they couldn’t do anything that day either but he would hopefully be able to do something later. Eventually he was allowed to have a visit. When the man was out of prison he came with his niece to see me to thank me. I had sent him a booklet earlier. He said, “You sent me a book one time, I’ve still got it [a book for prisoners] and I’ve kept the letter you wrote with it.”

I think that it’s prayers that people pray even if they are unable to visit that help the prisoners and the whole justice system, and it badly needs help. Things are just not right – very often terrible.

Then there are, of course, the victims of crime. If you don’t know them personally, you may learn about them in the paper or TV or radio. You can send them a card or a note. If names are given you can watch for funeral notices and send to the undertaker or if no notice is in the paper you can send to the police and ask them to forward it. I know it is appreciated.

This is en edited version of an article submitted by Sister Bernardine Daly RSM (West Perth).