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Tuesday, 21 August 2012 18:30

Time out with Sr Mary Carroll

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“One person is of greater value than the whole world.” -St Mary Euphrasia

Sister Mary Carroll rgs, 75, has been a Good Shepherd Sister for more than 50 years. For the past 30 of those years she has dedicated herself to caring for women in prison, first at Pentridge and Fairlea prisons and now at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in Deer Park, a maximum security prison which holds about 260 women, and Tarrengower, a low security prison in Maldon, where about 65 women live. In 2010 she won the inaugural Spirit of St Mary Euphrasia Award for her decades of work in the spirit of St Mary Euphrasia including her involvement with women in Victorian prisons. Sr Mary spoke to Kairos Catholic Journal’s Edwina Hall about her work and her life as a Good Shepherd Sister.

Who or what influenced you to become a nun?
I knew when I was young that I was going to be a nun. I came from a very Catholic family and I am grateful for a lot of things in my life but one of the things I am most grateful for is my family; without that I wouldn’t be where I am today. I chose the Good Shepherds because I had an aunt, my dad’s sister, who was a Good Shepherd Sister, so I had contact with the Good Shepherds and I really liked the work they did. I was not interested in a nursing order or a teaching order, I was more interested in social justice or welfare. I was educated by the Dominicans in primary school and the FCJs in secondary school and while I think both those orders are wonderful, they were not for me.

What is the best part of being a religious sister?
The best part of being a religious is that it fulfilled my life in what I wanted to do. If I had done something else I would not have had the peace of mind, the happiness that I have; I love being a Good Shepherd Sister. Our foundress, St Mary Euphrasia, taught me a lot and so did our older sisters; they passed on a lot of the legacy and I will always be grateful to them.

What advice would you give to anyone who is considering becoming a nun?
I would suggest that they really look at what it would mean and to ask questions and be sure about what they really want to do. Is that what they want to commit themselves to for life? It is for life and I sometimes wonder, do people think of marriage in that way now—talk about it and go and see what it is all about.

Tell me about your work in women’s prisons.
There but for the grace of God go I. Sometimes when these women talk about their lives I don’t know how they have survived. And they speak about their children, that’s their main thrust. Some people say, ‘Well, they should have thought about them when they were out there’. Well, you don’t know what things they were up against. There are some wonderful women in prison. St Mary Euphrasia had some wonderful sayings and one of her sayings is that ‘one person is of greater value than the world’, and I’ll never forget that. I was speaking to a woman recently who said, ‘Oh, I must let you go, I’ve taken so much of your time’, and I said to her, ‘At this very time you are the most important person in my life’; and she was. Sometimes when I talk to them I ask them, ‘Look, if I was to meet you somewhere and I didn’t know you at all, how would you describe yourself?’ They never say anything good, it really throws them.

What sort of crimes have these women committed?
A high percentage would be drug related. Some people had good positions in a bank, a high-profile position, and they get away with a little bit and it can be a bit easy to do it again.

What sort of challenges have the women faced?
They certainly haven’t had supports at home. They may be in a violent relationship and they can’t move out of it; they may have been in a family where there has been violence between mother and father and that’s all they’ve known. In my family there was peace and love; a lot of the women just haven’t experienced that. Many of them are financially in terrible situations. Once they leave prison it’s very difficult for them to get a job. A lot of it comes back to the family, what they’ve had to go through and the family background.

What have you learnt from the women at this prison?
I’ve learnt so much from them. The strength that they have to keep going and get through something. Their children are always so important. I don’t know how I would be able to manage.

What do they learn from you?
I really hope that they would see the worthwhileness of themselves, that they would be able to accept themselves and love themselves and to know that things can be different.

How do you avoid passing judgement?
The day I want to judge them is the day I will get out. It’s not for me to judge, that is something I am very grateful for.

In 2010 you celebrated your Golden Jubilee. What did this meant to you?
That I have been very privileged. To be part of these people’s [the prisoners’] lives; they have been very trusting and I am very, very privileged to be trusted by them to be part of their lives. They teach me a lot about how they manage.

Do you have any words of wisdom?
What you may read and hear in the media will only give the horrible parts of [the story] and it may be a horrific crime but we don’t know what that person [who committed the crime] has been through.

How would you like to be remembered by these prisoners?
As a person who loved what she was doing and who loved the women that she was working with; as loving, prayerful and accepting.

Building Bridges, Not Walls
The 2011-12 Social Justice Statement, Building Bridges, Not Walls, is a thoughtful and prayerful reflection on the Australian justice system, with a focus on prisons.

The Social Justice Statement identifies five challenges for the Australian Church:

  • Countering the fear campaign surrounding law and order;
  • Tackling the social factors that lead to crime;
  • Maintaining the God-given dignity of those who commit crimes, particularly those who are incarcerated;
  • Providing support to those released from prison to assist their reintegration into society;
  • Providing suitable alternatives to prison.

Between 1984 and 2008, the overall crime rate remained reasonably stable (property crimes have actually fallen). Yet in this same period, the incarceration rate has almost doubled, from 88 persons imprisoned per 100,000 to 168 per 100,000.

At present 38,000 Australian children have a parent in prison.

This interview by Edwina Hall originally appeared in the 3 August 2012 edition of Camnews, the enewsletter of the Archdiocese of Melbourne.