Francis' visit to Chilean prison shines light on Sr. Nelly Leon

by Soli Salgado

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Inside the chapel of the San Joaquín central women's penitentiary in Santiago, Chile, the handful of female inmates who met Pope Francis gathered to discuss their awe of and gratitude for the personalized Jan. 16 encounter.

And nearly every woman who shared her experience with the Chilean media surrounding the inmates also thanked Good Shepherd Sr. Nelly Leon, head of the country's pastoral efforts in the jail system. As one woman said, Leon is "the light within the darkness of these prison walls."

"I want to thank [the pope] for the blessing and message of peace, but also I want to thank Sister Nelly because she never judges us for once having fallen and instead just focuses on our next step forward," said one of the women who participated in Francis' gathering at the prison.

"She looks forward for our children, for our family, for ourselves."

In hosting Francis — his first time visiting a women's prison — the San Joaquin women's prison and Leon selected about a dozen inmates to share a private session with him before he blessed and spoke to the rest of the prison population.

"Not all of them are Catholic, but they understood that the pope is a transcendental personality and that he didn't come just for the Catholic women," Leon told Global Sisters Report. "He came to see all the women whose freedom has been taken from them, independent of their religions. But the message of the pope is transcendental: He came to show Jesus' mercy, to accompany. It was like seeing the papacy back in its original purpose, among the poor."

One woman who participated in the session with Francis said she never thought she and her toddler son would have the opportunity to receive the pope and thanked Leon for her support in advocacy. "Things aren't always easy for us, so this was special."

Officials at the San Joaquín penitentiary center found out about the pope's planned visit in July. To prepare, prisons all over Chile held penitential liturgies throughout Advent, reading texts on forgiveness and the past, such as the story of the prodigal son.

"The most beautiful thing we've done is have the women create a hymn, asking them to write what they'd like to say to the pope," Leon said. "We collected their thoughts and put together a hymn that, in my opinion, became the most beautiful song in all of Chile."

As far as Leon and her interaction with the pope, she said the only thing Francis said to her was "Vos sos una campeona" — "You are a champion."

Leon calls herself the chaplainess — "a term that doesn't exist," she joked — of the women's prison. For the past 13 years, she has not only introduced the women to God, she said, but also taught them that "God happens when you live a more dignified life than before."

In his address to the women, Francis echoed that sentiment, telling them, "No one can take away your dignity."

"Losing our freedom does not mean losing our dreams and hopes," he said. "Losing our freedom is not the same thing as losing our dignity. That is why we need to reject all those petty clichés that tell us we can't change, that it's not worth trying, that nothing will make a difference."

In her speech to Francis, Leon lamented that poverty is a form of incarceration. In all her years working in Chilean prisons, she told GSR, "I've never had a person who came from a place of privilege."

"So, by deduction, Chile imprisons its poor," she said. "They come from the peripheries of Santiago, from a world impoverished not just materially, but of values, too: They grow up in families where no one worries about the kids, ensuring that they go to school."

Leon pointed out that inmate Janeth Zurita, who spoke to Francis on behalf of the imprisoned women, had been visiting her father in prison since the age of 1.

But Leon said she is wary of the laws that allow children to continue to live in the prisons with their mothers at a later age, "which is something I don't really like. After a certain age, the child realizes where they are; they pick up on the fact that they're living with Mom in prison," she said, though she added that it should be decided case by case.

Leon said the succession of children of prisoners going to prison themselves is "a circle, a revolving door."

Trying to prevent the cycle, she founded a charity in 2009 called Mujer Levántate (Woman, Get Up) to support women after they are released from prison to prevent them from returning, mainly providing housing to a handful of former inmates.

"Without Sister Nelly, I wouldn't be where I am today," one of the inmates said. "She's been my guide and strength."

Leon said while the women come from poverty, it goes beyond the material: "The poverty is also moral and spiritual. It's not that they don't believe in God; nobody's ever shown them God, brought God to them. And the country doesn't work [to fix this] on any level. That's why I say Chile imprisons its poor."

That most of the women in this institution are mothers was not lost on Francis, who told them that motherhood is one of the most wonderful gifts they can ever have. Leon said she hopes the fact that these women have children for whom they're responsible will be "strongly considered" in future prison sentences.

Zurita reiterated that concern after the pope's visit: "We really need opportunities and help to raise our children, who are the ones who most suffer by our imprisonment. When you imprison a mother, you imprison a family. … All we ask is for opportunities to move forward, for our children to have a chance to move forward, so that they don't have to pay for our mistakes. That's what we asked of the pope."

[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter: @soli_salgado.]