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Dedicated Centacare prison chaplains reaching out on the inside to those who need it most

Reaching out: “The chaplains provide pastoral care to ‘all faiths and none’ and don’t necessarily know what religion the prisoners are.”

RETIRED engineer Bernie Piovesan admits that he often doesn’t feel like getting up early for work on Saturday morning. 

But at the end of the day, he’s always glad he did. 

Mr Piovesan has been volunteering as a prison chaplain at Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre for eight years and says it’s one of the most rewarding things he’s ever done. 

During National Volunteer Week (May 20-26) Centacare is celebrating the vital contributions of its 600 volunteers, who give their time, talents and skills to help those in the community who need it most. 

While their roles are many and varied – from prison and hospital chaplaincy to gardening, bus driving and court support – they share a generosity of spirit and a passion for making a difference in people’s lives.

Josephite Sister Chris Symonds also volunteers as a prison chaplain. 

She’s based at Queensland’s largest prison, Woodford Correctional Centre. 

A primary school teacher by trade, Sr Symonds has a rich history of giving tirelessly to her community. 

As a volunteer for the MacKillop Gate Ministry, she helped co-ordinate Blue Bags – a mercy pack of essential items to help prisoners start anew following their release. She was asked to volunteer in prisoner education but declined the offer, arguing you can do more for prisoners as a chaplain. 

Both Mr Piovesan and Sr Symonds believe their ability to make a difference lies in the sense of normalcy they provide to prisoners. 

“We’re the only ones on the inside who don’t wear a uniform,” Sr Symonds said. “And once we’re through the gates (which, at Woodford, requires two rounds of fingerprint scanning) we can move around freely, which differentiates us from all other prison staff and volunteers. 

“We aren’t seen by the prisoners as part of ‘the system’ so they feel as though they can let their guard down when they talk to us. 

“It wouldn’t be a stretch to say we’re often the only people they can trust.”

Mr Piovesan, who was drawn to the ministry after hearing a prison chaplain speak at Sunday Mass, said listening and being present to people’s stories is a key part of their role. 

“They’ll talk to us about anything and everything,” he said.

“We play chess and cards with them – anything to help them pass the time – but really we find they just want someone to have a yarn with.

“They’ll talk to us about anything and everything. At Arthur Gorrie, they’ll often want to talk about their legal situation. 

“Being a remand centre, the inmates are generally waiting to be sentenced. 

“Often they are from disadvantaged backgrounds and have little or no awareness of what’s going on with their case. 

“It’s an awfully tense situation for them as they wait, in limbo, for their future to be decided on. 

“While we can’t intervene in any way in the legal process, being able to provide a non-judgmental listening presence to support them emotionally and spiritually and relieve some of the pressure is vital.” 

Sr Symonds also distributes Holy Communion and conducts ecumenical services every sixth Sunday. 

The chaplains provide pastoral care to “all faiths and none” and don’t necessarily know what religion the prisoners are. 

Pastoral carers aren’t able to promote Christianity but can answer questions about it. Both Sr Symonds and Mr Piovesan agree that people want to know more. 

“The red tape involved in securing the required clearances was astounding,” he said, reflecting on the challenges he faced when becoming a prison chaplain. 

“Over the years I’ve realised there is a method to the madness, however.

“The frustration helps you to grow in patience and prepares you for what lies ahead.”

Sr Symonds agreed. 

“Prison is a different world,” she said. 

“Things don’t happen quickly, if at all. Apart from overcrowding, which is an issue common to all prisons, the most consistent thing about prisons is their inconsistency.”

The tendency for convicted prisoners to reoffend is another issue both Bernie and Sr Symonds find challenging.

About 50 per cent of all Australian prisoners return to jail within two years of release. 

“The odds are often stacked against them,” Mr Piovesan said. “I knew one young man, a father of four children, who was released from prison and returned shortly after. 

“He was full of shame, but he couldn’t cope with the demands and pressures of everyday life on the outside.”

Sr Symonds said the criminal activity and problems in their lives were often drug-related. 

“We get to know them ‘off the drugs’ and see them for the wonderful men that they are,” she said. “Many of them get out and go back to their old mates and their old lives because they don’t know any other way.

“It’s a case of better the devil you know.”

Despite the challenges and frustrations inherent in their line of work, neither of them have any plans to give it away. 

“I’ve learned so much about my own faith through this line of work,” Mr Piovesan said. 

“I’m rewarded by the valuable insights they give me. 

“Someone will say something and I’ll find myself thinking about it for days.”

Centacare has 31 chaplains working in 11 prisons across the archdiocese. 

Find out more about volunteering at Centacare at https://centacarebrisbane.net.au/get-involved/volunteer/

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