The International World Congress of Prison Chaplains was held in Sydney, Australia from Sept. 19th to the 24th with 50 countries in attendance. Sr. Teresa Doherty (California) and Sr. Pauline Staunton (Australia) represented the Religious Sisters of Charity.
Teresa Doherty, chaplain at a youth detention facility for over 40 years, said that she has always had a great interest in the Australian mission where our sisters were sent by Mary Aikenhead specifically to serve the many Irish convicts. 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.* After a 15 hour plane journey Teresa was met by Sr. Margaret Beirne rsc. The following day the sisters took Teresa to St. Ignatius College, Riverview, a Jesuit high school for boys where the meeting was held and the chaplains stayed in the students’ rooms.
“Tell Your Story” was the theme and a song was commissioned for the occasion. You can listen to the song below. Each night the chaplains gathered for Night Prayer. Updates were given on the global prison situation and attention drawn to the U.S.A. and African countries. The United States with its 2 ½ million prisoners as well as the continent of Africa were cited with the worst conditions for prisoners with no provision for aftercare when prisoners finish their terms as well as the practice of the death penalty and executions. Teresa said most countries have some program to help prisoners when they are released - unlike the U.S.
The emphasis was on Restorative Justice – making prisoners feel responsible for what they did, having them pay restitution and recognize the victims of their crimes.
There were many workshops offered and Teresa chose: Prophetic Witness. The example Teresa gave of prophetic witness was w hen chaplains see a prisoner not treated properly they are encouraged to report it - but the issue is complicated since some chaplains are paid by the State. Teresa is free of that restriction and feels free to speak up for the prisoners. Some chaplains have to get permission from superiors to make a complaint.
Teresa was on a committee that helped to write the Statement issued from the conference. The statement challenged the idea that “imprisonment is a successful way to solve the problem of crime in every society.” They reiterated the inherent dignity of all prisoners. The statement reflected the migration of peoples and the unacceptable detention centers for refugees and migrants. The chaplains questioned the treatment of prisoners who are conscientious objectors and committed no crime. They issued a strong call against the death penalty and asked for a moratorium on executions.
The chaplains enjoyed a two hour Tour of Sydney Harbor with a guide who described conditions of early prisoners who worked in factories, broke stones and made roads. Sr. Pauline Staunton rsc who worked in prisons took Teresa outside her prison and pointed out the admissions building, rehabilitation center and prison.
Teresa spent a few days at Edgecliff with rsc’s after the conference. Sr. Moira O’Sullivan generously gave her two days of exploring Sydney and took her shopping to get her brother a genuine Aussie hat! Teresa was mesmerized by the extensive underground parking and shops of Sydney. One of the most impressive sites was the Cathedral with its steeples, exquisite interiors and quite a tribute to the early settlers.
Margaret Beirne took Teresa on the feast of St. Vincent to St. Vincent’s Hospital Teresa’s word for SVH: “Magnificent!” What struck her was the openness to all nationalities from Mary Aikenhead’s time. It is the custom each year to have Mass in the clinic in the doctors’ area downstairs. Teresa was moved by the priest’s stole on the feast with St. Vincent on one side and Mary Aikenhead on the other. At the liturgy, each person brought something for the poor. After the Mass, all enjoyed cake and tea. Teresa was invited by Congregational Leader, Clare Nolan to cut the special cake decorated with Caritas on it.
Teresa could not say enough about the hospitality of the Sisters of Charity in Australia during her stay from being picked up at the airport by Margaret Beirne to being dropped by for her return by Pauline Staunton.
Maura Sullivan, shared her thesis on early life of our sisters and correspondence with the Bishop and Rome……
Teresa said the charism was so alive and she felt very much at home.
“The charism is the very same and you’d think you’re in one of our own places!”
* from the rsc Australian website http://www.sistersofcharity.org.au/today/ministries/prison-ministry/