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Listening the key to prison chaplaincy


An enduring memory from Helena Sweeney’s time as a prison chaplain is watching a woman being escorted by officers on her way to freedom.

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The prisoner called out to the other women in the exercise yard ‘love you’ and the women yelled back ‘love you too’.

Helena said to the woman sitting next to her ‘they really mean that, don’t they? They really do love each other?’

“She turned to me and said ‘Helena, I’m in my 60s, I hate being here in jail, but I can honestly say that this is the first time in my life, here in this place, that I have ever felt loved’.”

Before returning to the United Kingdom last month after 40 years in Australia, Helena said prison was the place where she has “seen the Gospel come alive”.

“In prison, everything that acts as a prop or mask in life is taken away; you actually have to face yourself, your choices and what’s going on in your life,” she said.

“Everyone has the same clothes, the same routines, the same bare essentials – and the time and space to think.

“As a prison chaplain in the Women’s Prison, you are privileged to be invited into a sacred space with women as they reflect on their lives, their relationships, their choices, their losses, their pain and their fears.”

Helena said several women spoke of an unexpected awareness of something much bigger than themselves, which they may or may not name as God.

“It was an awareness of being known and cared for, at a time when they felt there was nothing worthwhile in their lives,” she said.

While there were similarities with her work as a hospital chaplain, Helena said prison chaplaincy had its own characteristics.

“Relationships with clients in prison chaplaincy may be very long term, sometimes years long, whereas in hospital you may see a patient or their family only a few times, albeit at a very vulnerable time.

“In prison, a chaplain must first earn the women’s trust, and that takes time. Many of the women have fine-tuned antennae – they have often experienced being let down or used by others. They are rightly not interested in anyone who is coming in as a ‘do gooder’.

“Most importantly, we are never there to proselytise or impose beliefs. We work in ecumenical and interfaith teams with clients who may be from diverse traditions or none, and the bottom line is respect,” she said.

“Once you’ve earned trust, simply by listening, and listening, and listening again, there is the real gift that happens of accompanying someone through whatever is happening for them and assisting them in making meaning, reconciling, drawing on their own wisdom and resources.”

After 26 years of teaching in regional SA and Adelaide, Helena was first drawn to chaplaincy after her husband of only a few weeks died in 2008. Mark Sweeney, a former Christian Brother, was diagnosed with an aggressive type of leukemia and died within nine months. The couple was married during the illness and Helena said the experience was “an extraordinary journey”.

“Mark taught me a lot about living and dying; he died the way he lived. He was a man of great faith,” she said.

“Sitting in the hospital with Mark, day after day, I realised the importance of good pastoral care.

“A chaplain can help you explore the feelings and fears, and ‘name the un-nameable’. A chaplain can help you recognise the light in the darkness, without telling you what to think or believe.”

Helena completed a Clinical Pastoral Education certificate and worked initially at Calvary Hospital followed by the Flinders Medical Centre until the opportunity to work as a prison chaplain came up about three years ago.

“Right from the start it was where I felt very much at home,” she said.

As well as responding to individual requests from the women, prison chaplains are trained to deliver a personal development course dealing with areas including stress, anger, grief, assertiveness
and decision-making.

Helena said friends often asked how she could work with someone knowing they may have killed a person or hurt someone badly, but she is quick to point out that’s not her business.

“We deliberately don’t go down that path because that’s not what we’re there for. A woman may be in prison because she hasn’t paid some fines, she’s abused drugs or she might have harmed or even killed someone, but that’s her story and confidentiality is really important,” she said.

“We are not there to judge, fix or in any way intrude on the work of the whole team of people in the prison who do address those issues. We’re there to listen to the heart. We encounter the person, not the crime.

“You do learn an awful lot about the impact of lack of education, patterns of relationships that have been repeated, the effect of domestic violence, and growing up in homes where there hasn’t been safety or security, and where life is basically a battle for survival.

“Over and over again there is this deep longing in practically every woman I met for connection, acceptance and hope.”

Since Helena left prison chaplaincy, and because of COVID restrictions brought into place to protect the prisoners and officers, there has been no Catholic presence at Northfield. As restrictions are now slowly being lifted, the Adelaide Archdiocese is looking for volunteers or paid staff to join the team.

All Catholic volunteers and paid chaplains must be accredited by the Prison Chaplaincy coordinator at Yatala, and by the Archdiocese of Adelaide.

In addition to a well-grounded theology, Helena said a chaplain needed “patience, humility, a good sense of humour and life experience”.

“And you have to be willing to learn. You definitely gain much more than you give!”

For more information on prison or hospital chaplaincy contact Sarah Moffatt on 8210 8110, or



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