Looking out for the Irish prisoners
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."
The highest numbers of Irish prisoners abroad are in the U.K., followed by the U.S. and then Australia.
"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.
Sister Christine Hennessy, whose mother immigrated to New York from Co. Galway and father from Co. Cork, is one of the ICPO representatives in the U.S.
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.
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