by ROWENA OREJANA
AUCKLAND — Auckland prison chaplain Mary Thorne is one of the lucky ones. She has strong community support from St Mary’s parish in Papakura.
“There has always been a strong awareness in our community of our neighbours: the women of Wiri Prison,” Mrs Thorne told NZ Catholic.
Prison chaplains care for the emotional and spiritual needs of the inmates, and yet they are often forgotten as society often forgets about the prisoners. Chaplains’ needs are often intertwined
with the needs of the people they serve.
Years ago, there was a diocesan gathering that raised awareness about prison chaplaincy, Mrs Thorne said. There they heard former senior prison chaplain Greg Murphy talk about how the evangelicals were so good at supporting their prison chaplains and how he felt alone.
“We formed a group called the Wiri Womens’ Support Group. Initially, we would just go and accompany Greg on his rounds,” she recalled.
Later they would have a cup of tea and a debrief. From those meetings grew a number of projects that included teaching women inmates arts and crafts, giving prayers cards to members and assigning them to pray for a particular prisoner, to asking for gold coin donations for Christmas gifts.
When Mrs Thorne took over as prison chaplain, their work as volunteers was already strongly in place.
Senior Prison Chaplain Sr Veronica Casey, PVBM, said this community serves a model that can be replicated by other communities.
Sr Veronica said there are 21 Catholic prison chaplains throughout New Zealand. When she spoke before the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference, she told them one of the biggest challenges facing
chaplains is isolation.
“Prison chaplains and the people who they deal with are part of the community. Once they actually go into prison, once anybody goes into prison, they get forgotten largely by everybody,” Sr Veronica said.
“The chaplains feel as though they’re behind the walls as well and they don’t have any support outside.”
The media’s portrayal of prisoners had not helped, too. “People get very nervous and think that they can’t go in and do anything, ” she said.
And yet, Sr Veronica said, one of the things that the people in prison need is that people from all walks of life actually work with them and help them find a new path.
People in prison mostly come from disadvantaged lives. Most are not the “hardened” but people who have just lost their way. “A few are
problematic, but not a lot,” said Mrs Thorne.
“Most just want to get back to their lives and be ordinary.”
Mrs Thorne said one of the more traumatic things that happens to the chaplains is when they hear from people recently released that
they don’t have anywhere to go. “That weighs heavily in our hearts. We can talk to them about trusting God and holding on to God. But what they really need is to experience the warmth of the Christian community.”
Auckland Bishop Patrick Dunn said the bishops have expressed their full support for the great work that prison chaplains do.
“A suggestion we have made, which I passed on to Sister Veronica, is that when prison chaplains are commissioned in the prison, it will be good for them to be commissioned also in their home parish. So the parishioners know,” he said.
Sr Veronica encouraged communities to ask their prison chaplains what they need, because each area would have different needs.
“Volunteers just need to be able to be themselves, well-grounded and willing to be of assistance in whatever way,” she said.