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Josephites’ ministry on the margins

Sr Margaret Le Breton RSJ and Sr Marcia Cox RSJ
Sr Margaret Le Breton RSJ (left) and Sr Marcia Cox RSJ. Photo: Virginia Knight.

Prison chaplains sharing God’s love

By Virginia Knight

Josephite sisters Sr Margaret Le Breton RSJ and Sr Marcia Cox RSJ are living witnesses to the Mary MacKillop spirit, working in their ministries to turn around people’s lives.

They are both prison chaplains in the Diocese of Parramatta: Sr Margaret has been working nearly seven years at John Morony Correctional Centre at South Windsor and Sr Marcia for five months at Parklea Correctional Centre.

Both said they were called to a religious vocation early in their lives, and although they grew up in very different parts of Sydney both attribute their childhood interaction with the Josephite Sisters through education and family support as a major influence in their decisions to embrace a religious life.

Sr Margaret Le Breton RSJ

Margaret was born in Paddington and as one of eight children grew up in rural Horsley Park. In her primary years she was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph at Rooty Hill. The family moved to Campbelltown where she completed her secondary education with the Good Samaritan Sisters.

The move to Campbelltown was for the family to be closer to health services as the youngest child was deaf, blind and chronically ill. It was during those early years at Horsley Park, while her mother and father were constantly at the hospital, that Margaret cared for her younger brothers and sisters.

The Sisters and the Parish priest were a great support to the family, travelling out to visit them and often staying with the children until a parent arrived home, praying the rosary with them and occasionally bringing a meal. Margaret was impressed with the ‘faith in action’ of the Sisters and Father.

At the age of 14, Margaret entered the Josephites’ Juniorite, where she could finish her studies and prepare for religious life. “I couldn’t really concentrate on my studies,” she said. “All I could really see was the benefit of supporting people in trouble.”

After graduation she went into teaching, but it became clear that her real interest lay in the pastoral care of those in the community who were struggling. Like Mary MacKillop, she wanted to work with the poor and disadvantaged.

Margaret worked with young people in education and as a youth worker before becoming involved with Fr Jim McLaren’s Radio 2SM program in the late 1980s.

Later she worked with the St Vincent de Paul Society as Co-ordinator of Rendu Youth Services, which included the Radio Out There program. Through the radio studio/program such skills as voice production, script writing and music were great tools for boosting confidence and creativity.

It was a multi-faceted approach to rehabilitation and a complete welfare package, Government funded too, with supported accommodation, job-finding skills, assistance in budgeting, preparation for job interviews and literacy classes. Building self-esteem and confidence was vital for these young men who had been through drug and alcohol rehabilitation or recently exited prison.

“One of the most difficult things when you come out is to get a job because of your history and lack of a CV,” Margaret said.

So assisting the men to get jobs and thereby maintain themselves in the community remains one of society’s great challenges and responsibilities for keeping them out of prison, according to chaplains Margaret and Marcia.

These programs always include teaching gratitude, how to be respectful and how to respond rather than react; simple techniques that both women use in their prison ministry.

Sr Marcia Cox RSJ

Marcia grew up in Concord and was educated in her early primary years by the Sisters of Charity. The family then moved to Sefton and later to the Central Coast where she was taught in both places by the Josephites at The Entrance and then completed her secondary schooling at Gosford.

All through her primary years Marcia said she thought about becoming a nun. She was deeply impressed with the spirit of the Josephite Sisters, who were down to earth, caring of everyone regardless of position, supportive and happy.

Both Sefton and The Entrance were Church schools at the time. The children sat on the kneelers and worked on the seats. Marcia has since been in a similar situation as a teacher and principal and realises how difficult it can be and yet special. She felt united in spirit with Mary MacKillop and the lovely Sisters who taught her in difficult situations.

On a visit to North Sydney she and a friend were invited to the chapel to see one of the Sisters who had died. “I was praying under my breath for Monique to say ‘no’, as I was accompanying her that day as she sought information about entering. I found out later she was praying the same prayer about me, however, she said ‘yes’ because she was being polite,” Marcia said.

“The Sister looked so peaceful and beautiful, I found myself saying to Mother Leonie ‘what do I have to do to enter?’ I was 16 and I entered six months later.”

Marcia spent 30 years in education as a teacher and principal in both city and country schools. After completing a CPE course she moved into pastoral care in hospitals and for a time worked in a nursing home.

It was during her sabbatical that she felt herself being drawn towards working with people on the margins, the outcasts of society, and it was then that God steered her firmly into prison ministry.

Marcia said the primary role of the prison chaplain was showing the men you respect them, giving spiritual and temporal support, and caring about their wellbeing. As she interacts with them she looks on them as nephews or brothers.

Chaplains also offer opportunity for prayer groups, liturgy, the Seasons For Growth program and Bible studies, and one-on-one contact and follow up where and when necessary. Chaplains also facilitate others denominations offering services to their group.

“In our role, if the men allow us to, we get to know other lovely aspects of who they are. They are now in a place paying the price for their crimes. As chaplains, we pray and try to facilitate that they will take this as an opportunity to turn their lives around, to allow God to love them into a new way of thinking and being,” Marcia said.

“If we, the chaplains, love them, how much more does God love them and want what is best for them! Jesus Christ came for everyone; we are all imperfect and need God in our lives. Jesus said, ‘I came that you may have life, and have it to the full.’ ”

Chaplains make connections with the inmates’ families at their request and with their knowledge. “It is our way of showing respect and supporting them towards having a future, not just doing time,” Margaret said.

One of the biggest hurdles is that for some men prison is their only secure place. For many reasons they cannot make it on their own outside and so they come back. A kind of mateship exists in prison where there is the sense of security, a bed and a meal.

There is lack of resources and community support projects to assist them in adjusting to life outside prison. Other problems are the number of mentally ill men who are not receiving proper care in the community and, subsequently, find themselves in prison.

As chaplains, Marcia and Margaret hope they can make a difference to the men’s lives while in prison, and enable them to embrace their future.

« Return to Catholic Outlook August 2010