Sister Mary Nerney, Advocate for Women in Prison, Dies at 75
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: December 5, 2013
Sister Mary Nerney, a Roman Catholic nun who was a nationally known advocate for female convicts, in particular those who were survivors of domestic violence, died on Nov. 27 in Manhattan. She was 75.
Clarence Sheppard/New York Daily News
Her death, from cancer, was announced by the Edwin Gould Services for Children and Families, a New York social services organization with which she was long associated.
At her death, Sister Mary was a consultant to Steps to End Family Violence; she was also the program’s founder and former director.
Established in 1986 under the aegis of Edwin Gould Services, the Steps program provides legal assistance and psychological counseling to battered women, including those imprisoned for killing their batterers.
It also assists battered men, as well as family members who witness domestic violence.
Sister Mary previously founded Project Green Hope, nowGreenhope Services for Women. Begun in New York in 1975, the organization helps reintegrate female ex-convicts into society, or serves as an alternative to prison, by teaching women the construction trades.
Her efforts through that program to establish a halfway house for women released from prison inspired a television movie, “Sister Margaret and the Saturday Night Ladies,” first broadcast on CBS in 1987. The film starred Bonnie Franklin in the title role and Rosemary Clooney as a former convict.
In real life, Sister Mary did establish such a house, a brownstone on 120th Street in East Harlem. Needing to renovate the building — and knowing that without marketable skills a great many former convicts return to prison — she started a program to teach female ex-convicts trades like carpentry, masonry, plumbing and electrical work.
By 1980, The New York Times reported, a group of those women had moved into affordable apartments in the building they had renovated, and many went on to careers in construction. Project Green Hope later acquired and renovated three more apartment buildings in the neighborhood.
The daughter of Irish immigrants, Mary Nerney was born in Manhattan on June 8, 1938, and reared in the Washington Heights neighborhood there. After graduating from St. Jean Baptiste High School on the Upper East Side in 1956, she joined the Sisters of the Congregation de Notre Dame.
“She’s only going to last two weeks,” Sister Mary later recalled her father saying. “She likes fun too much.”
But she persevered, taking her vows in 1958. She later earned a bachelor’s degree from Catholic Teachers College in Providence, R.I., and a professional diploma in school psychology from St. John’s University in Queens.
Sister Mary began her working life as a teacher, psychologist and principal at Catholic schools in New York City and elsewhere; in the mid-1970s, she started counseling women at the Rikers Island and Bedford Hills correctional facilities.
At Edwin Gould, Sister Mary established the Incarcerated Mothers Program, which helps keep the children of inmates out of the foster care system by placing them with family members. Otherwise, as she told The St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1997, “when you sentence women to jail, you sentence the whole family.”
Sister Mary, who lived in East Harlem, is survived by a sister, Nancy Balboni, and two brothers, Thomas and James.
To prepare for her role in the telefilm, Ms. Franklin, who died in March, spent time watching Sister Mary at work. “She was very soft-spoken,” Ms. Franklin told The Los Angeles Times in 1987. “Yet she had to be as tough as the women she was dealing with. They weren’t Sunday school kids.”