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Why I volunteer: “To support those who are traditionally isolated"

Author: Saint Francis Hospice
05 March 2018

Sister Philomena Purcell is volunteer chaplain at Saint Francis Hospice in Essex. She was recently awarded The British Empire Medal by Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II for her work as a chaplain with HMP Chelmsford.

Aged 77, Sister Philomena is the middle child of a family of 17 children from Co Kilkenny in Ireland. She came to England as a teenager in the 1950s, where she joined the Ursuline Convent in Brentwood, Essex.

She trained as a teacher, working in schools before retiring in 2001, but decided that she was not ready for a quiet life just yet and joined the chaplaincy service at HMP Chelmsford in 2002, where she is now affectionately known as ‘Sister P’.

She volunteers at Saint Francis Hospice every Wednesday, her day off at the prison, as she enjoys the change of pace. Here she works with patients who are dealing with life-limiting diagnoses; supporting them and their families.  Her gift is her ability to connect with people of all ages from all walks of life.

She has provided chaplaincy services at the prison every Christmas day for the last 15 years.  She says:

“This can be a difficult day for the men and I am grateful that I have the support of my Ursuline community when I return home.

“The most rewarding part of my job is the people I meet, I see them through highs and lows and I get to accompany them on their good days and bad days.

“Sometimes I get to tell them good news, like the birth of a child, or I may have to deliver bad news like the death of a loved one.”

In addition to receiving the British Empire Medal, last year Philomena received the High Sherriff’s award for Lifetime Achievement, having been given the award 10 years previously for her work on ‘Fathers inside,’ a training programme helping prisoners to become better fathers.

Commenting on the award, the Governing Governor of the prison said:

“Sister P is the longest serving member of the chaplaincy team at HMP Chelmsford, and continues to offer exceptional service to both staff, prisoners and the community at the age of 77 with an enthusiasm and energy which is seldom seen in people thirty years younger.

“She is an extraordinary woman and has always had a knack of knowing when perhaps I have been distracted or slightly low in mood. She regularly sends me positive emails and cards whenever I have done anything of a positive nature for staff or prisoners, she has a natural gift for raising people’s spirits and uses this for the benefit of all, but especially those groups who traditionally are isolated.

“Sister P is a great advocate for all the prisoners of all religions and none. Chelmsford prisoners have a great respect and love for her.”

When asked how the prisoners reacted to her award Sister Philomena said “they clapped and clapped.  I told them that I accepted it on their behalf and not to worry that I would be keeping it real.”

For more information visit Saint Francis Hospice

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