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Sister Nelly León: Free to live and serve women in prison

By Felipe Herrera-Espaliat – Abu Dhabi

Sister Nelly León Correa travelled from the corner of a prison in Santiago, Chile, to Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, in order to be presented as a co-winner of the 2024 Zayed Award for Human Fraternity, a prize handed out on Friday, 2 February.

Smiling and humble, she appeared at the press conference with other winners at the luxurious Emirates Palace Hotel. Nothing could be further from the harsh reality of the female penitentiary in Santiago, where Sister Nelly has spent most of her last 20 years.

Born into a family of farmers, youngest of 8 children

The Award presentation’s setting was not much like the village of Peralillo, in central Chile, where she was born on 21 September, 1958.

Her father, Abel, was a hardworking farmer, and her mother, Carmen, dedicated her life to raising children in very precarious conditions, typical of rural areas.

Nelly is the youngest of eight siblings, and despite poverty, she now recounts being always happy, never lacking affection, and being grateful for being taught to love God.

A religion teacher in Santiago

Nelly lost her mother when she was 17, and although she thought she would be unable to face the pain, the suffering gave her the strength to finish her studies, something none of her siblings could do, working as domestic workers and farmers.

She then moved to the capital, Santiago, where she studied to become a religion teacher while living in a rented room. To support herself, Nelly worked as a domestic worker and later in a laundry.

Witness to abuse against a child

Once she had completed her studies, Nelly dedicated herself to imparting the love of God to the poorest girls, and while doing this service, she witnessed the abuse of a seven-year-old girl by an adult.

The crime went unpunished, and so she wondered how to help poor girls and women build a better future, not only economically but especially in terms of values and spirituality.

Decision to dedicate her life to women in need

Sister Nelly has often shared that after that dramatic event, her life changed radically because, although her plan was to marry and build a family, she felt a deep love for God and for girls and women in need.

In the 1980s, without her father’s consent, she joined the Congregation of the Good Shepherd, a community of Catholic nuns that has been dedicated to accompanying women in vulnerable situations, especially those deprived of freedom, for over two hundred years. In 1986, she took her first religious vows, officially becoming part of the community.

First women’s prison in Valparaíso

Nelly’s first mission was to serve in houses with poor girls, many of whom had been abandoned, and she stayed with them for many years, deeply experiencing motherhood and loving and caring for each girl as if they were her own.

In 1999, she was sent to the city of Valparaíso to accompany women in prison. Although this had always been her dream as a nun, behind bars, she found a reality much harsher and more painful than she expected.

Behind each woman, she saw many broken lives and so much anguish that she thought she would not be able to continue the service. But her faith and her great ability to empathise with others helped her resist and continue.

Degraded life of women in Santiago’s prison

In 2005, she returned to the mission in the city of Santiago, in the country’s largest women’s prison. This time, her heart broke when she saw the miserable conditions in which the inmates lived and the the lack of respect for their dignity.

The impact was so strong that Sister Nelly admitted to experiencing a profound crisis of faith, questioning how God allows His daughters to live in such misery. But she didn’t give up.

She decided to listen and get to know these women so that they could realise how important their lives were to her and that someone in the world cared about them.

This also prompted her to enroll in a master’s program in Psychospiritual Accompaniment to better respond to the needs of many women wounded by society and their own mistakes.

House for those released and the “Mujer Levántate” Foundation

One initial result of this new challenge is the creation of a welcoming house for women leaving prison, who need to avoid returning to the places where they committed crimes to avoid falling into the same mistakes.

With very few material resources but with the strength of conviction, Sister Nelly formed a network of collaborators that eventually gave life to the “Mujer Levántate” (Woman, stand up) Foundation.

What started as a temporary reception project became a permanent service that seeks to strengthen women in prison so that when they regain their freedom, they can reintegrate into society with greater resources.

For this reason, the Foundation is currently working on their personal, relational, psychological, spiritual, and work-related skills. The impact of “Mujer Levántate” programs is such that only 6 percent of those who benefit from this program commit crimes again, while the national recidivism rate is 50 percent.

Eighteen months as an inmate during the pandemic

Between 2020 and 2021, during lockdowns due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Chilean prisons banned the entry and exit of people. Only new inmates could enter.

Sister Nelly asked to stay inside Santiago’s female prison and spent 18 months there, never being able to leave.

Without being sentenced to any prison term, she felt free to live and serve in prison, becoming a sister to all women deprived of freedom and experiencing the drama of imprisonment in her own flesh, in the spirit of fraternity.

2018 papal visit to Nelly’s prison

Over the years, Sister Nelly has received numerous public and private awards and recognitions because she promotes a true transformation in the management of people within prisons, turning the detention period into an opportunity to heal wounds and lay the foundations for a dignified life.

Her goal is the promotion of restorative justice. Her fame grew to the point that Pope Francis visited Santiago’s prison during his trip to Chile in January 2018, giving new impetus to the efforts of this nun and the “Mujer Levántate” Foundation.

The institution, born from Sister Nelly’s conviction, commitment, and tenacity, has already turned 15, establishing itself as a national reference and attracting the attention of organizations like Caritas Milano. Her voice is heard in public debates, promoting the dignity of incarcerated women in Chile and throughout Latin America.

Future projects of the first Latin American awardee

Today, Sister Nelly is dedicated to strengthening the projects of the “Mujer Levántate” Foundation and expanding the halfway house where women transition to civilian life after regaining their freedom.

On Monday, 5 February, during a solemn ceremony at the imposing Memorial of Abu Dhabi’s founder, Nelly León Correa, a Sister of the Good Shepherd – as she likes to call herself – will be the first Chilean and Latino to receive the Zayed Prize for Human Fraternity.

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