Pope Francis visits prison with Good Shepherd ties

Last month Pope Francis visited the women’s prison of San Joaquín in Santiago Chile. Sister Nelly Leon Correa, RGS, is head of the chaplaincy of the prison. She told the Pontiff upon his arrival that “All of us here — of many religions — wanted to be here, because we recognize in you a man of good, peace and justice.”
Approximately 500 inmates greeted the pope and welcomed him with a hymn. Sister Nelly led the choir during practices and on the day of the pope’s visit. She said, “The first verse is beautiful. It goes, “I am a trapped bird with a hidden pain and with my broken wings. I receive you, pope.”
Other verses declare that “God looks at me through your gaze. It illuminates my beauty. Today I trust in myself again, the sadness disappears, another day of life, one less day of sentence. Your visit is my joy, shepherd with smell of the sheep.”

Losing freedom is not the same as losing dignity

In addressing the women, Pope Francis said, “Losing our freedom does not mean losing our dreams and hopes. Losing our freedom is not the same thing as losing our dignity. That is why we need to reject all those petty clichés that tell us we can’t change, that it’s not worth trying, that nothing will make a difference.”
Speaking to an audience that included the pope and Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet, Sr. Nelly said that poverty is put in prison in Chile. Ninety percent of the women who are imprisoned in Santiago suffered abandonment by their parents and come from very poor sectors. Sr. Nelly has reported to the media on many occasions that there is inequality in who gets punished in Chile, stating that television looks for the morbid, but does not deliver this hard information.
Sister Nelly has distinguished herself as an advocate of vulnerable women. Her most pressing goal is to ensure that female prisoners are safe and treated with dignity. To stem violence that may arise, she and her team of nearly 40 workers (three Sisters from other Orders and 34 non-consecrated women) have begun working with prison guards to provide protected spaces for inmates who have mental health concerns.
Sr. Nelly also created the foundation Levantate Mujer (Woman Standing Up) to better support women in prison. The foundation has started a collaboration with students in their last year of law at the Catholic University to help inmates who need legal aid but cannot afford to pay for a lawyer.
The foundation also helps take care of the practical needs of the prisoners, such as keeping in contact with their families and coordinating campaigns to get hygienic supplies and clothes for the women. In Chile, the prisons are only responsible for providing inmates with shelter and food. Because most of the women prisoners are poor, their visitors have no means to help them. The foundation also maintains a temporary shelter for women inmates who have nowhere to go when they are released to freedom.

Sr. Nelly also works on building a spiritual community among the prison’s Catholic armed guards as another way to help improve the living conditions of women prisoners.
“We now have a beautiful chapel for the exclusive use of Catholic pastoral care. We have Mass and confession every Sunday, and we celebrate all of the liturgical celebrations,“ Sr. Nelly said.

Jeanette McDermott

Jeanette McDermott

Jeanette is the Communications Coordinator for Sisters of the Good Shepherd Province of Mid-North America. She is a career photojournalist who has served in various capacities of print, broadcast, and corporate communications. Jeanette is devoted to creation and is particularly focused on saving pollinators and other wildlife species and their habitat. She is an ethical vegan and created the website veganstoryteller.com