Sister Nelly, a mother for women prisoners.

For more than twenty-five years, Sr. Nelly Leòn Correa from Chile has accompanied inmates in and outside the prison and created the “Mujer, Levántate” (Woman, Stand Up) Foundation for them. A testimony of faith and courage.

An open smile and eyes that exude sweetness. A sweetness that she inherited from her mother. But at the age of 17, she lost her mother and thought she could not cope with such great pain.
Instead, this suffering would give her the strength to continue. She moved to the capital Santiago and studied to become a religious teacher, living in a rented room.

To support herself, she worked as a maid and then in a laundry. Once she finished her studies, Nelly dedicated herself to teaching the poorest girls and while she carried out this service, she witnessed the abuse of a seven-year-old girl by an adult. The crime would go unpunished and this set Nelly wondering how she could help poor girls and women build a better future, not only economically, but above all in terms of values and spirituality. She began to talk to a priest who suggested a path that she had never considered, the religious vocation.

In the 1980s, without her father’s consent, she joined the Congregation of the Good Shepherd, a community of Catholic nuns who for over two hundred years have dedicated themselves to accompanying women in vulnerable situations, especially those deprived of their freedom.

In 1986 she took her first religious vows. Her first mission was to serve in a shelter for poor girls, many of whom were abandoned, and she remained with them for several years, deeply experiencing motherhood, loving and caring for each girl as a child of her own heart.

In 1999 she was sent to the city of Valparaíso, to accompany women in prison. And although this had always been her great religious dream, behind bars she found a much harsher and more painful reality than she expected. Behind those women, she saw so many broken lives, and so much anguish, to the point that she thought she could no longer continue her work. But her faith, and her great ability to empathize with others, helped her to resist and continue.

In 2005 she returned to the city of Santiago, on a mission to the largest women’s prison in the country. This time her heart broke as she saw the miserable conditions in which the inmates lived and the lack of respect for their dignity. Her impact is so strong that Sister Nelly admits she experienced a profound crisis of faith, questioning how God allowed his daughters to live in such misery. But she didn’t give up.

She decided to listen to those women and get to know them so that they would realise that their lives are important to her, and know that someone in the world cares about them. This also moved her to study for a master’s degree in Psychospiritual Accompaniment, to better respond to the needs of many women wounded by society and
by their own mistakes.

The first fruit of this new challenge was the creation of a shelter for women who are released from prison and who, in order not to fall back into the same mistaken ways, should not return to the places where they committed crimes.

With very few material resources, but with the strength of her conviction, Sister Nelly formed a network of collaborators that eventually gave life to the “Mujer, Levántate” Foundation. What was initially just a temporary reception project, became a permanent service that seeks to empower women in prison so that, when they regain their freedom, they can be better prepared to integrate into society. For this reason, the Foundation is currently working on their personal, relational, psychological, spiritual and work skills.

The impact of the “Mujer, Levántate” programs, which assists 250 women every year, is such that only 6% of those who benefit from this program commit crimes again, while the national re-offending rate is 50 percent. “It is not a personal goal, but that of the professional team that accompanies the girls. When they arrive, they are shattered into pieces and the Foundation tries to put them back together again.”

The meetings with psychologists and social workers are fundamental, but equally so is the embrace of God through the smile, the welcome and the trust that Sister Nelly accords to each one of them when they arrive at the Foundation’s house for their journey of reintegration into society. “It is perhaps the only occasion in which they experience the goodness of the Lord in their lives, despite the mistakes they have made and without being asked for anything in return”, the Sister continues.

Between 2020 and 2021, during the lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, Chilean prisons prohibited people from entering or leaving. Only new inmates could enter. Sister Nelly asked to remain inside the women’s prison in Santiago and spent 18 months there, without ever being able to leave.

Without having been sentenced to any prison sentence, she felt free to live and serve in prison, and became a sister to all women deprived of freedom, experiencing the drama of imprisonment in her flesh, in a spirit of fraternity. Sr Nelly comments: “Having shared imprisonment with the inmates was the most beautiful experience of my life”.

Today, Sr. Nelly is involved in strengthening the projects of the “Mujer, Levántate” Foundation and in expanding the shelter, where women make the transition to civilian life after regaining their freedom. Last February in Abu Dhabi, Sr. Nelly received the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity. (R.L.)
(Photo: Zayed Award for Human Fraternity)


Sister Nelly, a mother for women prisoners.

For more than twenty-five years, Sr. Nelly Leòn Correa from Chile has accompanied inmates in and outside the prison and created the "Mujer, Levántate" (Woman,…

Read more


The Mask of Genius.

It was a scorching dawn. Scattered across the vast grassy savannah beyond the rocky mountains, the villages seemed to bleach under the thick blanket of clay…

Read more

Youth & Mission

A ‘Catholic Toolkit for Young Europeans’ ahead of 2024 EU…

As the 2024 European elections approach, COMECE (Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union) has released the ‘Catholic Toolkit for Young Europeans’. This comprehensive toolkit…

Read more