Sister Nelly León, a woman religious from Chile, has consecrated her life to accompanying women in prison. She spent Christmas of 2020 with them during a period of 18 months when she was forced to remain behind bars with them due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Nelly León, Sister of the Good Shepherd, Chile
I have been in prison for 22 years because God loved me and gave himself for me. I am not paying a sentence. Rather, out of my vulnerability, I am trying to respond to the vocation that the Lord gave me to see him and serve him in the thousands of women deprived of freedom, the majority of them for crimes they committed as a consequence of the poverty into which they were born.
Sister Nelly León (Revista Mensaje, Chile)
My name is Nelly León. I am a woman religious of the Congregation of the Good Shepherd. I currently manage one of the wards of the Women’s Prison in Santiago, Chile. I also direct the Mujer, levántate Foundation, which promotes the reintegration into society, the workplace and their families of these sisters who, having regained their freedom after years behind bars, do not want to fall back into crime. So, every day, as the chaplain of the Women’s Prison, I go in and go out of a world filled with pain, anger, guilt, frustration, but above all with the suffering of those mothers who are separated from their children.
Sister Nelly León
The best thing that happened as a sister
When Coronavirus spread through the world in 2020, the prisons in Chile completely prohibited all visits, including religious accompaniment. Due to my insistence not to abandon the women, they offered me the possibility of remaining inside the prison without the possibility of leaving until the restrictions were lifted. I accepted, convinced that this was what God was asking of me, “for I was in prison, and you came to me”. My confinement lasted 18 months. Today I can say that that time in prison was the best thing that could have happened to me in my consecrated life. Prior to that, when I would leave at the end of the day, I had a break because I was leaving behind so much bitterness, the tears of the women, and the consoling encounters shared with them throughout the day. Having to stay in prison during the pandemic allowed me to attend to them until later in the day. I could walk the corridors during the night surrounded by a profound silence that was broken at times by the heart-breaking cries of anguish coming from the cells.
Sister Nelly greets Pope Francis during his visit to the Centro Penitenciario Femenino, 16 January 2018
Christmas cards for loved ones
This experience, which is a point of no return in my life, allowed me to get to know these women much more deeply – their stories, their pain, what was moving in their hearts. They live for years inside a place they don’t want to be, in conditions they do not want to live. This is an open wound that produces suffering and nostalgia, feelings that increase now during the Christmas Season. While families gather in all the homes in Chile, these women will follow the same daily rhythm of confinement and solitude in prison. On Christmas Eve, their greatest anxiety is not to be able to give any gifts to their children, and this anxiety was greater during Covid. So, in 2020, we collected materials and each of them prepared colourful Christmas cards for their children which were delivered to their homes through a network of collaborators. We also sent gifts on behalf of their mothers to the youngest children. Providence also permitted that we celebrate Mass inside the prison that year, even though it was simpler and less crowded – because it is a tradition that on 24 December, the Archbishop of Santiago celebrates our Christmas Mass.
Sister Nelly embraces Pope Francis during his visit to the prison, 16 January 2018
For the first time since the end of the pandemic, this year we will be able to celebrate in a larger way. We have received the permission to place inflatable games in the patios of the prison for the children where they will also be able to take photos. There will also be ice cream and treats for the inmates to enjoy along with their children. Each of the children will also receive a gift from their mother or grandmother. A liturgical celebration will also take place in each prison ward which will include a procession with the image of Baby Jesus. Interspersed with moments of prayer and reflection, we will also listen to the Word of God, sing Christmas carols. Through this, we will be able to accompany those women who suffer the most from loneliness either because no one comes to visit them or whose families are in other countries because they are foreigners.
Nativity scene in the prison chapel
Between anguish and hope
During this time of preparation for Christmas, which we have lived solemnly by lighting the candles on our Advent wreath, you can sense mixed feelings in the atmosphere – between the anguish of being behind bars, and the hope the Saviour brings. Undoubtedly, however, there is greater willingness to live in harmony and be at the service of others. And, thus, the deep sense of humanity that dwells in this inhospitable place becomes evident. Their humanity has been wounded, but it cries out for dignity. The women remember well what Pope Francis said to them personally when he visited them in January of 2018: “You have been deprived of your freedom, but not of your dignity”. This is why many of them stive to move forward. Christmas of 2022 will be a new opportunity to foster this dignity they have as beloved daughters of God. And I, together with them, will be able to pray once more, this time next to the Child Jesus: “Thank you, Lord, for one more day of life and one less day in prison”.