From our earliest days in Newfoundland a number of Sisters of Mercy visited inmates of the various prisons in the town of St. John’s and at the Salmonier prison farm. In more recent years Sisters also provided pastoral care and education to those detained at the West Coast Correctional Centre in Stephenville and the women’s prison in Clarenville. this ministry continues today in Stephenville and St. John’s.
History of Sisters of Mercy of Newfoundland in Prison Ministry
Founded in 1831 in Ireland, the Sisters of Mercy were founded to “serve the poor, sick and uneducated”. Since their arrival in Newfoundland in 1842, visiting those imprisoned has been an integral part of ministry. Sisters walked every Sunday from Mercy Convent to conduct prayer and to visit with both male and female inmates (separately) at the penitentiary. It is well documented in the Sisters’ Archives and in Paul O’Neill’s A Seaport Legacy that sisters were present on several occasions to support inmates prior to their executions in the 1800’s. In the mid-1900’s, Sister Mary Francis Hickey ministered at His/Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) and the Men’s Correctional Centre in Salmonier where she offered wise counsel, offered the resources of other sisters for education and programming and treats. One of the jobs of novices and young professed sisters in the 1960’s was to roll cigarettes and bag candy for inmates. Penitentiary guards formed her honour guard and many former inmates attended Sister M. Francis’ funeral in 1973.
Sisters served in full-time pastoral care at HMP until 1991. Having completed her Program in Prison Ministry offered by Correctional Services of Canada at Kingston Penitentiary and Queens University in Ontario, Sister Esther Dalton served in full-time prison ministry as chaplain with a focus on restorative justice model at HMP and Salmonier Correctional Institution from 1986 until 1990. Sister Margie Taylor then visited and conducted religious services at HMP and worked with families on a part-time basis prior to COVID (2019). Since 2017, Sister Margie is volunteering in a weekly support group of Stella Burry Community Services The goal of this group is to assist women involved with the law.
In 1993, in the Women’s Section of the West Coast Correctional Centre in Stephenville, Sister Margaret Rose began helping with high school completion and computer programming as well as compassionate listening. When the women were moved to Clarenville in 1996, Sister Margaret moved with them until 2001. Sisters Margie Taylor then assumed ministry as chaplain until 2007 with ecumenical prayer services and personal and social programs. Sister Alicia Linehan was then chaplain from 2010 until 2019.
Sister Marcella Grant served as full-time chaplain at the West Coast Correctional Centre in Stephenville in Pastoral Care from 1994-2001. Sister Esther Dalton also served there from 1996-1998 and did ministry with youth in conflict with the law in Stephenville from 1999-2001. Since 2001 up to the present – 2024, Sister Rona O’Gorman has been doing this ministry at the Centre with the men. Sisters have always ministered to the families of the inmates as well.
Turnings (whose purpose is to reduce community members re-offending and thus prioritizing an end to victimization at every level) was founded in 1994. Turnings focuses on conversation with individuals (offenders) in the St. John’s area. These Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) are a Canadian born concept that relies on a restorative justice framework. Restorative justice focuses on rehabilitating offenders through reconciliation with victims, as well as the community at large. In its founding years, Sister Esther Dalton served in volunteer ministry with Turnings through Metro Chaplaincy. A member of the Leadership Team of the Sisters of Mercy has served continuously on the Board of Turnings with Sister Elizabeth Marrie currently serving on the Board. Sister Elizabeth Marrie serves as a member of a Correctional Facility Working Group initiated by Turnings in 2022 that seeks to influence the proposed new correctional facility in St. John’s.
Among the Sisters in prison ministry