Sr Lis bringing the 'field hospital' to prisoners and the sick

Sr Elisabeth Keane loved life as a teacher and mentor of young women, and then she discovered the joys of parish ministry, but now she’s really at home in prison, The Catholic Leader reports. 

Every week for the past 18 years, she’s been visiting women at Numinbah prison in the Gold Coast hinterland. 

And, at a time when she’s celebrating 60 years as a Loreto Sister, she has no intention of calling it a day. 

Sr Elisabeth Keane IBVM .  Photo: Catholic Leader

Sr Elisabeth Keane IBVM. Photo: Catholic Leader

It’s a dedication to ministry she shares with fellow Loreto Sister Mary O’Brien who, although also well past retirement age, still takes Holy Communion to people in nursing homes and joins Rosies’ support outreach at court on the Gold Coast each week. 

“On Wednesday, Mary goes to court and I go to jail,” Sr Lis said with a chuckle. 

She and Sr Mary were pastoral associates together in Nerang parish and now Sr Lis is full-time carer for Sr Mary in their unit at a Church-run retirement village on the Gold Coast. 

Sr Lis, who was pastoral associate in Southport parish from 2002 until 2015, said finishing in that role had opened the door to possibilities “where age doesn’t matter”. 

It’s led her into grassroots ministry where she follows closely the example of Jesus in reaching out to the poor and the marginalised. 

“And I’ve been particularly inspired by Pope Francis’ statement that ‘the Church must be the field hospital for the wounded’, and that has been my focus,” she said. 

Apart from prison chaplaincy, Sr Lis in more recent years has moved into hospital chaplaincy as well and is relishing both. 

She became involved in prison ministry soon after she moved to the Nerang parish in 2000. 

“I heard there was a prison at Nerang, and the Church was doing nothing about it, so I decided I’d become involved,” she said. 

“I went in with the attitude that they were women, just like I was, and it was a case of listening – listening to their stories – and then helping them and supporting them as they re-entered society. 

“And some of them still keep in contact with me.” 

Sr Lis said her aim with the people she met at the women’s prison “is always for them to forgive themselves and realise their dignity as women, and their potential as women”. 

“And, because they’ve made a mistake, it doesn’t have to govern the rest of their lives,” she said. 

Just as she offered herself for prison ministry because there was a need, Sr Lis did the same with hospital ministry. 

Centacare was seeking volunteers for hospital chaplaincy so she put up her hand to help out at Robina Hospital. 

“I thought, ‘Well, if I’m doing prison chaplaincy, maybe I could try hospital chaplaincy as well’,” she said. 

She mainly visits two aged-care wards, and, when asking Catholics if they wanted to receive Communion, many said “Oh, no, I was a Catholic but I couldn’t keep up with all the rules and the regulations, the negativity”. 

“It worries me that here they are facing death with their negative attitude, and if the Church is meant to be ‘the field hospital for the wounded’, it seems to me that the people who are going to show the caring, compassionate face of Christ are the lay people, because (these patients) only see a priest if they’re dying, and these people are not going to ask for a priest,” she said.

This is an excerpt from a feature story written by Peter Bugden in The Catholic Leader. To read the full story, click here.