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Former Dagenham teacher turned prison chaplain awarded British Empire Medal

PUBLISHED: 10:01 27 December 2017 | UPDATED: 10:13 27 December 2017

Sister Philomena Purcell (left) with Sir Trevor Brooking at the hospice. Picture: Saint Francis Hospice

Sister Philomena Purcell (left) with Sir Trevor Brooking at the hospice. Picture: Saint Francis Hospice

Saint Francis Hospice

A former Dagenham teacher has been recognised by The Queen for her work as a prison chaplain.

Sister Philomena Purcell's British Empire Medal. Picture: Saint Francis HospiceSister Philomena Purcell's British Empire Medal. Picture: Saint Francis Hospice

Sister Philomena Purcell, 77, was awarded the British Empire Medal (Civil Division) for her work within HMP Chelmsford.

The middle child of 17 children from Mullinavat in County Kilkenny, Ireland, Sister Philomena came to England as a teenager in the 1950s, where she joined Ursuline Convent in Brentwood, Essex.

She trained and worked as a teacher in schools in Elm Park and Dagenham, retiring in 2001.

She decided she wasn’t quite ready for a quiet life and the following year joined the chaplaincy service at HMP Chemlsford, where she is now affectionately known as ‘Sister P’.

Her duty to helping those behind bars does not end over the festive season, having lead services at the prison on Christmas Day for the last 15 years.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

Earlier this year she received her second High Sherriff’s Award for Lifetime Achievement, the first awarded 10 years previously for her work on Fathers Inside, a training programme helping prisoners become better fathers.

Governor Rob Davis said the Sister had “a natural gift for raising people’s spirits” with “an enthusiasm and energy which is seldom seen in people thirty years her younger”.

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

On her day off, Wednesday, Sister P volunteers at Saint Francis Hospice, an Essex charity providing free care to those with life limiting illnesses.

She was nominated for the award in September but sworn to secrecy until now.

Fittingly, her medal was present at this week’s prison carol service.

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