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Prison visiting nun dies at 90

PUBLISHED: 09:29 27 November 2009 | UPDATED: 08:55 01 August 2010

WHEN a nun writes an autobiography, you do not expect it to be called The Men in my Life.

But then again, not many nuns are sent to prison by their Reverend Mother just after they have entered the convent.

WHEN a nun writes an autobiography, you do not expect it to be called The Men in my Life.

But then again, not many nuns are sent to prison by their Reverend Mother just after they have entered the convent.

Sr Winifred Mary CAH MBE, who has died at the age of 90, joined the Community of All Hallows at Ditchingham when she was 49.

Her sister was already a member of the Community, but Winifred Mary felt she should care for her mother before following her own vocation to the religious life.

Before arriving at the Convent she had trained and worked as a teacher, and she expected that she would continue this work when she joined the Community.

God had other ideas however, and in 1972 the Community received a request from the Chaplain at Blundeston Prison to help with the pastoral work with the prisoners.

For the next 26 years Sr Winifred Mary visited prisoners and listened to their stories.

She realised that many of them could not read or write, and so she taught them, encouraging them to express themselves in poetry.

In her autobiography later penned by Pat Richards, who edited their conversations to turn into a book, she wrote: “Not all of them took to it but some did. They liked it. I started off with Kipling, who was one of my favourite poets - his poems often tell a story.

“Very gradually, some of the men began to write poetry for themselves. I was amazed at the quality of some of them. And when they got the hang of it, all their pent-up feelings began to come out in their writings: they could pour it all out. It was as though they had to empty themselves before they could take anything different in, any new way of life or a new attitude. And for those men who found a faith, that seemed to happen automatically.'

In 1990 she was awarded the MBE for her prison work.

Speaking at the time she said: “I took an old prisoner with me to the Palace because I thought 'He's part of the reason I've got the MBE so why shouldn't he come with me?' And he did and he said it was the happiest day of his life.”

She was not only a teacher and prison chaplain, she trained as a horticulturalist under Percy Thrower, and put her skills to good use in designing the rockery in the Sisters' garden at Ditchingham.

Her friend, Sister Violet said part of her teaching also extended to children in hospital or those that were blind: “Sister was a gifted artist, producing lively and amusing cartoon drawings. One of her best was of Mother Mary learning to drive at Seething and her pupil discovering a small plane landing on the airstrip containing illegal immigrants behind her.

“She was musical, playing the violin in her youth. Her one-to-one contacts prepared her for her life in prison as did her great sense of humour and compassion'

Sr Winifred Mary died on November 11. Her funeral takes place at the convert chapel on Monday at 11am. She will then be buried in the convent cemetery next to her sister.

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