Still lighting fires at 90

Published on 6th Mar, 2020

At ninety years of age, Josephite Sister Josepha O’Connor looks back on six years of teaching literacy at Whanganui men’s prison.


Sr Josepha O’Connor, Prison Chaplain. Photo: Supplied

The prison gates clanged behind me for the last time. Usually people coming through this gate for the last time are over the moon with happiness. Not I today. I am sombre? nostalgic? After six years of teaching literacy at Whanganui Men’s Prison, I have said goodbye. Plenty of pressure from the programmes department to continue but this is it. At 90, it is time to move on.

Since 2013, this is where I have been every Tuesday and Wednesday morning at the Visits Department in a small room furnished with a table and two chairs. One side of the room, a large window facing a corridor where officers pass frequently for a quick check that all is well within. Over the six years, I’ve met with 24 clients here, men who have accepted the chance of one-to-one help from a volunteer through the prison programmes department.

It is amazing the number of young men (and not so young) who can’t read, struggle with reading, can’t spell and can’t write but in the prison, away from the public eye and away from family watching their struggles, they welcome one-to-one help and come on in leaps and bounds.

The man across the table was never a prisoner to me but someone seeking literacy help. Sounds, sentences and syllables were the order of the day. Double sounds, triple blends, vowels and consonants flowed freely. Capitals and full-stops – most important. Punctuation perfect. So many laughs. Profuse apologies if a swear word slipped out – and slip out they did. They were in earnest. Wanted to improve. Wanted to read.

They enjoyed the time out from their over-crowded Wings. Came in with a cheery ‘good morning’, always wanting to know what I had been up to over the last week – garden, any new planting? How was the River looking? Had I walked around the Lake? Were the turtles on the log at the Lake? The birds in the aviary? When Shrapnel, the cat, died they took it as a personal loss. Eric said, ‘I can’t read today. I’m too upset’.

All conversation was general and one-sided. I knew nothing of their crime or length of sentence and, of course, was not permitted to share personal matters, especially addresses or where I lived in Whanganui. But a chat now and again about the turtles at the Lake or a new geranium cutting for the garden did no-one any harm and went a long way towards creating a good atmosphere and taking a break from the work ethic. Sometimes it evoked a past memory – ‘my daughter once had a cat’… or … ‘I lived near a river’ … or …’my partner liked gardening’.

I liked these men. They were all so different, yet respectful, grateful – and they enjoyed a laugh. They endeared themselves to me and I may have endeared myself to them too.

Go well Richard, Keanu, Elisha, Eric … I remember you all. The main thing is to keep up the reading, read every day, read at the library, read in your homes, read within the prison walls (those of you still there) … and all remember to stop at the full-stops! There’s no hurry!

My hope is that I’ve lit a few fires out at Whanganui Men’s Prison and set a few sparks flying around too, as I recall these words of Victor Hugo: ‘To learn to read is to light a fire/and every syllable spelled out is a spark.’

Published in WelCom March 2020

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