Sister of Mercy behind bars

Sister of Mercy behind bars Sr Moira Keane
Personal Profile
Colm Fitzpatrick speaks with award-winning nun Sr Moira Keane

While nuns are usually portrayed in films as hidden away and sheltered from the outside world in convents, an Irish-born Mercy Sister has instead dedicated her life to those locked-up behind prison bars.

Earlier this year Galway woman Sr Moira Keane, who has been working with Irish prisoners through the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain, won the ‘Irish in Britain’s Individual Volunteer Award’. It celebrated the life-changing work she has made in the prison system, whether it be carrying out administrative tasks or supporting staff and families.

Sr Moira’s enthusiasm for helping the incarcerated began while she was studying at All Hallows College, Dublin, where she did a ‘pastoral placement’ at Mountjoy’s women’s prison.

“I just loved them, and got to know them and understand them and get them hopefully never to go out and re-offend and also to support them while they were inside and of course their families,” she explains. After a year there, the then governor John Lonergan gave Sr Moira a reference to continue prison ministry, leading her to work as a prison chaplain in the north-east of England for 12 years.

Of course, her desire to support those in need extends far back before her experience in the prison system, instead being firmly rooted in her faith as a young girl.

“My faith was a big part of my family. You said your Rosary every night and it wouldn’t enter our heads not to go to Mass, and of course, we had the example of our mother and father, my father was very religious actually,” Sr Moira says, adding that she wasn’t impressed by the stories her older sister told her after returning from late-night dances.

“I thought I wanted to marry someone who would love me forever and I couldn’t come up with anybody except to commit myself to the Lord, who even at a very young age, I knew wouldn’t change his mind about loving me. It sounds unusually weird for a very young child,” she explains.

While the Mercy Sisters were visiting schools in the local area, Sr Moira’s name was suggested, and from that recommendation she decided to pack up her cases and travel to St Edward’s Convent in London at the tender age of 15.

“Of course we had a very bad image in our mind of what life was like in England and I had a dream of praying and working and converting them all – sadly it didn’t work out like that! That was my dream,” she says.

Understandably, her parents were upset at this momentous decision to move from home, but Sr Moira notes that they were supportive and that if she wanted to return to Ireland after six months, her father would come over to get her. Her father never needed to do so, and 2019 marks 60 years since Sr Moira left home and joined the convent.

“Convents were difficult, very tough in those days but they were good and we had companionship, there were 30 of us in the novitiate, all similar ages and what not,” she says, adding that the sisters had the support of one another and were “very happy”.

As a nun, she has worked with the homeless, set up two hostels in London, and was even given an award for her innovative approach towards homelessness. She was also a catering manager in a private hospital, which had a key focus on providing work opportunities and up-skilling people.

“It’s a great, great privilege. There were lots of problems along the way, a lot of blips but that’s what life is about for everybody,” she says.

When she retired from full-time work in Acklington and Castington prisons, Sr Moira decided to move to Essex and with all the time she had to spare, began working with the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas.

The Irish Chaplaincy offers advice, support and friendship to Irish prisoners in England and Wales, older Irish people, Irish Travellers and Gypsies and younger people with an Irish background.

While the notion of helping prisoners can be emotionally charged especially from victims who all too often would prefer little to no respite for their offender, Sr Moira is keen to stress that prison ministry affords support to both parties.

“I would like to say, while there are chaplains in the prison and while the Irish council overseas work with prisoners, we have not forgotten their families, we have not forgotten their victim, but there are other organisations that we’re in touch with who work with the victim. It’s holistic,” Sr Moira says, adding that Christianity and forgiveness go hand in hand. “It’s very, very tough to expect people to go down that road of understanding and forgiving but we’re Christians and I think maybe we have forgotten that we are followers of Christ.”

While she continues her incredible work in England, Ireland remains close to Sr Moira’s heart, and she prays that its Christian roots will begin growing once more.

“A lot of Irish sisters in the congregation were very distressed and sad about the route that Ireland is going and we do pray, we pray a lot, we pray a lot for the folks at home and I’m not sure we’re praying for the Government, we’ve given up on them…!”