SR Elisabeth Keane loved life as a teacher and mentor of young women, and then she discovered the joys of parish ministry, but now she’s really at home in prison.
Every week for the past 18 years, she’s been visiting women at Numinbah prison in the Gold Coast hinterland.
And, at a time when she’s celebrating 60 years as a Loreto Sister, she has no intention of calling it a day.
It’s a dedication to ministry she shares with fellow Loreto Sister Mary O’Brien who, although also well past retirement age, still takes Holy Communion to people in nursing homes and joins Rosies’ support outreach at court on the Gold Coast each week.
“On Wednesday, Mary goes to court and I go to jail,” Sr Lis said with a chuckle.
She and Sr Mary were pastoral associates together in Nerang parish and now Sr Lis is full-time carer for Sr Mary in their unit at a Church-run retirement village on the Gold Coast.
Sr Lis, who was pastoral associate in Southport parish from 2002 until 2015, said finishing in that role had opened the door to possibilities “where age doesn’t matter”.
It’s led her into grassroots ministry where she follows closely the example of Jesus in reaching out to the poor and the marginalised.
“And I’ve been particularly inspired by Pope Francis’ statement that ‘the Church must be the field hospital for the wounded’, and that has been my focus,” she said.
Apart from prison chaplaincy, Sr Lis in more recent years has moved into hospital chaplaincy as well and is relishing both.
She became involved in prison ministry soon after she moved to the Nerang parish in 2000.
“I heard there was a prison at Nerang, and the Church was doing nothing about it, so I decided I’d become involved,” she said.
“I went in with the attitude that they were women, just like I was, and it was a case of listening – listening to their stories – and then helping them and supporting them as they re-entered society.
“And some of them still keep in contact with me.”
Sr Lis said her aim with the people she met at the women’s prison “is always for them to forgive themselves and realise their dignity as women, and their potential as women”.
“And, because they’ve made a mistake, it doesn’t have to govern the rest of their lives,” she said.
At the Sunday services she conducts as one of the chaplains, she encourages the women to believe in themselves.
“I always say to them, ‘What I would like you to be able to do while you’re here is to name for yourself what it was that got you into prison’,” she said.
“‘Don’t say it was a magistrate, on a bad day, who didn’t like women’.
“‘Don’t say it was drugs. Go back a step before; what was it that made you turn to drugs?
“‘So, if you can name for yourself what it was that got you here, we can do something about it’.
“And the other thing I always say to them is, ‘Can you change (the act) that got you here?
“‘It’s happened; you can’t (change it), so why do you wear it like a heavy weight around your neck?’
“And then I say to them, ‘You’ve got no control over the future. You can’t control it …
“‘All you have is the present, and God gives you a new present every day, so all you have to do is get through today.’”
Sr Lis tries to be practical in her ministry but she said she could never say to the women, “I know how you feel”.
“Because I have not been through what they have been through,” she said.
“All I can do is listen to their story, and encourage them, support them, and point out they are still a woman of integrity and how they can grow, by believing in themselves, through any incident.
“But I have not lived through anything like the trauma they have lived through, and I hear people criticising women on drugs – ‘Oh, you know, if they could pull themselves together …’
“One woman told me her mother died of an overdose, her father is in jail for dealing but the one who ran the business was her grandmother, so she was third generation … What else would she know?”
Just as she offered herself for prison ministry because there was a need, Sr Lis did the same with hospital ministry.
Centacare was seeking volunteers for hospital chaplaincy so she put up her hand to help out at Robina Hospital.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I’m doing prison chaplaincy, maybe I could try hospital chaplaincy as well’,” she said.
She mainly visits two aged-care wards, and, when asking Catholics if they wanted to receive Communion, many said “Oh, no, I was a Catholic but I couldn’t keep up with all the rules and the regulations, the negativity”.
“It worries me that here they are facing death with their negative attitude, and if the Church is meant to be ‘the field hospital for the wounded’, it seems to me that the people who are going to show the caring, compassionate face of Christ are the lay people, because (these patients) only see a priest if they’re dying, and these people are not going to ask for a priest,” she said.
Sr Lis also met many patients angry with the Church over child abuse.
“That is what I see pastoral ministry is about – (showing people) the caring, compassionate Christ, they haven’t found in a Church situation,” she said.
“And it seems to me the people who are doing the face of Christ are the lay people who are taking Communion (to the sick and the elderly), … and thank God for pastoral carers in hospitals and prisons.”
And Sr Lis is happy to walk among them for as long as she can.
“I’ve asked Mary if she’d like to go back to Kirribilli where she went to school (with the Loreto Sisters in Sydney), and Mary’s wish is – no, this is her community,” she said.
“We’ve been here since 2000, and, for both of us, this is our community – the Gold Coast is our community – and so we want to stay here.”