An Irish American nun in Yonkers has been giving support to Irish prisoners in the U.S. for several years now. Sister Christine Hennessy speaks to APRIL DREW about her mission.
Irish Catholic bishops celebrated 25 years assisting Irish prisoners in jails throughout the world last month by hosting a conference in Dublin.
The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO), a Catholic outreach program established by bishops in Ireland in 1985, is as committed as ever to lending its support to Irish people in prisons overseas.
The theme of the conference was called "Bridging the Distance - Supporting Irish Prisoners Overseas and Their Families."
Bishop Seamus Hegarty of Derry, chair of the Council for Emigrants of the Irish Bishops' conference, said, "It is estimated that at any one time, there are between 800 and 1,000 Irish people in prison overseas."
"It (ICPO) makes no distinction in terms of religious faith, the nature of the prison conviction, or of a prisoner's status," Hegarty told the conference.
Hennessy, a social worker with Catholic Charities Project Irish Outreach since 2002 with an office at the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers, finds working with Irish prisoners very gratifying.
"I feel it’s a blessing to be able to do this type of work," Hennessy told the Irish Voice during a recent interview.
"In essence, aside from giving the prisoners the support they need and of course the companionship they seek, I also act as a connector between the prisoners and their families back in Ireland."
After a visit with a prisoner Hennessy phones the family, most of whom reside in Ireland, to inform them how their loved one is doing, passes on any significant messages and conveys her hope and optimism for their future to the families.
"It means a lot to the families, especially the mothers, to hear that their son or daughter is doing well. It's the first thing I do on a Monday morning after my weekend visit," she said.
Hennessy visits Irish-born prisoners, most of whom are serving sentences for DWI manslaughter, every few months.
She recently traveled six hours to upstate New York where she visited with an Irish prisoner who is to be released in January. He has been incarcerated for the past 25 years.
Hennessy will also be the person who picks him up upon his release and assists him in find his way back to Ireland.
"Imagine that," smiles the gentle nun.
"What a privilege it will be for me to be part of that, to be there in January to meet him and help him settle back into life in the outside world and help him get back to Ireland."
After the prisoner, who remains nameless for confidentiality reasons, returns to Ireland, a representative from the ICPO will meet him at the airport and put provisions in place to accommodate the former prisoner until he finds his feet.
Hennessy, who visits Ireland on a regular basis because she is very close to her Irish relatives, began her work with ICPO in 2002. Her first prisoner was an Irish immigrant who was incarcerated in Connecticut.
She now visits three Irish prisoners at a time and corresponds with up to seven via postal mail.
"I began with one woman Irish prisoner in Danbury back then, and since my work has developed and branched out into different prisons and prisoners," she said.
Two of the prisoners Hennessy frequently visited were released and returned to Ireland earlier this year.
"I actually miss them now that they are gone," she said.
Hennessy, who has been part of the Sisters of Mercy in Yonkers since 1961, receives a ministry fund from the order so she can purchase some luxury items for the prisoners.
"I would sometimes buy them clothing or books, but more often than not they ask for Irish products that they miss from home," she said.
Several of the prisoners subscribe to the Irish Voice and "read it cover to cover for the news in the community."
She said, “It means so much to them to know what’s going on in the Irish community, it keeps them involved to an extent.”
Hennessy works closely with Vice Consul General to New York Alan Farrelly of the Irish Consulate when a new prisoner is detained.
"We work a lot of deportation cases too when Irish people are kept in prison for a while before they are deported back home, so it’s nice to be able to be there as a support to them people too," she added.
Hennessy, Farrelly and the ICPO representatives in Ireland also act as an advocate on behalf of the prisoners.
"Recently one prisoner wasn't receiving his medication and another wasn't being treated very well, so we would each write a letter to the relevant person to try and get the situation sorted out,” she said.
A visit from Hennessy, more often than not, is the only visitor a prisoner may receive in months.
"I think my visits means a lot to them. They are lonely and love the company," she said.
"And in most cases because their families are all back in Ireland I'm the only person they see."
While in prison a lot of the inmates are given the opportunity to learn new trades or receive an education.
Through the years some of the prisoners Hennessy has come in contact with have found their creative side.
“It lifts my spirits and warms my heart when I receive such beautiful pictures or poems from some of them,” she said while holding up a religious painting done by one of the inmates.
Although there is so much more Hennessy and other priests and nuns throughout the U.S. would like to be able to do for the Irish immigrants locked up, she hopes that Irish or Irish Americans would find a place in their heart and time on their hands to reach out to them.
“They get very lonely, and hearing from members of the Irish community would be a blessing, something they would cherish dearly,” she said.
To begin corresponding with an Irish prisoner anywhere in the U.S. email Christine.Hennessy@archny.org.