For husband and wife prison chaplains, Edwin and Pamela Galea, the biggest part of their ministry is “just listening” to the prisoners who approach them, and giving them a space to be vulnerable in what is often a tough world.
“We’re overwhelmed by how often they thank us for what we do and say to us, ‘this is the first time anyone has ever sat and listened to me’,” says Pamela. “Listening is the biggest gift we can give.”
Edwin is employed as a prison chaplain at the John Morony Correctional Centre at Windsor and has worked there for the last three years.
Pamela has been a prison chaplain for six years, first at Emu Plains and, for the past two years, at Dillwynia women’s prison at Windsor. She also works two days a week with Edwin at John Morony. They are both retiring from chaplaincy in December this year.
Their prison chaplaincy is part of CatholicCare Parramatta’s chaplaincy program.
Edwin previously worked for 34 years in banking, and then as a pastoral associate at North Sydney Catholic Parish, while Pamela worked in the home focusing on raising their seven children, before taking up a position with White Lady Funerals.
They were drawn to prison chaplaincy through their strong Catholic faith, after volunteering for many years, first with the Catholic Cursillo movement and then with Kairos Prison Ministry. Cursillo provides short courses in Christianity and Kairos provides short courses in Christianity to prisoners, followed by a fortnightly support Program.
“The first time I went into a prison was with Kairos, to sing at a Christmas function,” Pamela says.
“I met the women and I was struck by the thought that they could’ve been my daughters. They were, in many ways, lovely young women who had made bad choices or got caught up with bad company.”
Pamela says the women’s prison is low security and the chapel sits in the centre of the compound.
“I have a little office just off the chapel and the girls are free to come and knock on my door and talk to me all day,” she says.
“There is a little nook with a library of Christian books they can borrow , and we supply anyone who wants one with a Bible.
“So, they might come and see me because something’s upset them, something’s gone wrong in the compound or with their family outside and they come because they are fearful of the emotions they’re feeling, and they want to get back in control.
“Sometimes, I’m the only person they can cry with, because in the rest of their life they are frightened to be vulnerable.”
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For Edwin, who works in a medium security facility, access for the prisoners is not so relaxed, although the introduction of a new model of prison administration is having a positive effect on the culture.
The prisoners have to seek an appointment with him through official channels, but he too says the men appreciate a listening ear and a space in which to be vulnerable.
“We see prisoners in a different light,” he says. “They’re just people like us who haven’t had a chance to be loved unconditionally often because they’ve been brought up with a mix of broken families, violence, drunkenness, drug abuse and sexual abuse.”
For this reason, both Edwin and Pamela say the men and women they work with are often thirsty to hear about the love of God.
“For a lot of them, when they come to a service in the prison, they’ve never been to church before,” Edwin says.
The prison church services are open to all and sometimes take the form of a communion service.
“It always starts with silence and meditation and then singing, they love to sing, followed by readings and a reflection and more singing,” Pamela says.
The message given in the reflection sticks pretty closely to one central theme, says Edwin: “God loves you. You are forgiven. Forgive yourself.”
Bishop Vincent Long has visited John Morony Correctional Centre a number of times to celebrate Mass, including visits on Holy Thursday, where he washed the prisoners’ feet.
Outside of the chapel services, Bible studies are popular with the prisoners. Pamela also helps the women to make cards to send to family members or friends on special days like birthdays, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Often these cards and letters also become opportunities to say sorry or thank you to their loved ones.
Edwin and Pamela agree that one of the most cherished activities they provide is to hold a memorial service for loved ones who die, especially if the prisoner is not given permission to attend the funeral.
“I had one fellow whose son died in tragic circumstances in Western Australia and it was too far away for him to attend,” Edwin says. “So, I arranged to get some photos of his son and I prepared a memorial booklet with the photos and a service, with prayers. It meant a lot to him.”
While prison chaplaincy is about meeting the various spiritual and practical needs of the prisoners, Edwin and Pamela say they also receive a great deal of joy from it.
“Of all the jobs I’ve done, this is the one with the most job satisfaction,” Edwin says.
“Because you’re having a relationship with people, often on a deep level, and you’re helping them, and so you’re receiving too.
“You see the nature of humanity. None of us can say I’m free of sin. You get a bigger picture of how God sees us – in that raw state, with empathy, love and forgiveness.”
Pamela says her chaplaincy work has helped create a better understanding of why people end up in prison.
“We need understanding in this world. I think it’s not until you’re in conversation with people in prison that you see deeper into the causes and some of situations of their lives,” she says.
“One of our young grand-daughters asked me recently ‘what is it that you do Nanna?’. And after thinking about how I could answer that, I said to her, ‘I take care of people’s hearts’. That’s how I see it.”
CatholicCare Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains
CatholicCare chaplains work in prisons in Western Sydney to provide emotional, spiritual and sacramental support to prisoners, their families, and staff. For more information about chaplaincy contact Trish Hickey on (02) 8843 2514.
For more information about other CatholicCare services, visit www.ccss.org.au.