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Tuesday, 07 April 2015 14:02

Caring for kids who need nurturing

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Sr Frances Flemming rsj2Josephite Sister Frances Flemming, chaplain at Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre in Airds ministers to detainees aged 12 to 16 years and considers her role as being a bit like grandma, writes Elizabeth Scully.

Sister Frances Flemming RSJ lives in a tidy townhouse in Quakers Hill. There’s a pile of plastic dominoes on her kitchen bench, the kind that come free with your groceries at Woolworths. Kids love them, and Sr Fran works with children.

For the past three years, Sr Fran has been working as a chaplain at Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre in Airds. The detainees are boys who are mostly between 12 and 16 years of age. On occasion, boys as young as 10 are held at the centre because there is nowhere safe for them to stay.

“These are children who have not had the advantages that the majority of children have,” Sr Fran said.

“These kids are kids in need. I don’t think about what they’ve done. They’re here now. They need nurturing, they need to know that God loves them and that there’s a way out of what they’re in … we’re there for them.”

When she first heard that Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre needed a new chaplain, Sr Fran was working in Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in the Mt Druitt area.

Some of the Aboriginal women in the community told her: “You’ve got to go for it, sister. That’s where we need the help with our young fellas.”

Across NSW, about half of all the children and young people in prison are of Aboriginal descent.

Sr Fran spent 12 years working with Aboriginal people in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia before her work in Mt Druitt. She likes to tell a story about George, an Aboriginal man from Bourke, who was asked by her chaplaincy colleague Pastor Lee Bromley what help his community needed.

He said to her “Lee, you’ll have to sit in the gutter for three years with me and then you’ll know what to do,” was George’s laconic response. Sr Fran understands exactly what George meant.

Though most of the boys at Reiby come from dysfunctional backgrounds, the chaplains work hard to provide a family atmosphere. “I’m a little bit like the grandma,” she said warmly.

Sister Fran, who recently celebrated 50 years as a Sister of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, often returns to the example of another keen prison visitor, her order’s co-founder, St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.

When I ask her about Pope Francis washing the feet of young men and women in prison on Holy Thursday, Sr Fran seemed a little overwhelmed. It means a lot, this “going to the edges”, as she described it. “You get a better view from the edge.”

Reflecting on consecrated life, Sr Fran comments that her vows include a commitment to making a difference. “It’s looking at and being with those who are on the fringes, on the edges, who have fewer opportunities than others,” she said.

Of her ministry to the boys at Reiby, Sr Fran said these young people need to be given a go. “They’re God’s children and He loves them. What can we do except love them too?”

Read more information about the ministry of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

This article by Elizabeth Scully was first published in the April 2015 edition of Catholic Outlook, the official publication of the Diocese of Parramatta.