Prisoners’ almighty effort restores historic church pews

Female prisoners have answered the prayers of Leyburn’s Catholic Church in the Southern Downs Region, restoring the chapel’s century-old pews as part of the Queensland Corrective Services’ Work Camp Program.

Five low security prisoners worked with an expert French polisher to restore 19 pews at Saint Matthew’s Catholic Church.

Warwick Work Camp Field Supervisor Kushla said the church pew restoration project provided an opportunity for prisoners to develop employment skills and give back through a work project unique to the location and the local community’s needs.

“The work camp provides a valuable source of labour and assistance, including in times of natural and other disasters, and the work carried out by prisoners includes things like maintaining fences, cemeteries, heritage sites, playgrounds and showgrounds,” Kushla said.

“Community service is a way for supervised offenders to make reparation to the community affected by their offending behaviour and to learn new job-ready skills.”

Warwick Show and Rodeo Society Treasurer, Gerard O’Leary, whose great grandfather had a hand in helping to build Saint Matthew’s Church through fundraising efforts in 1900, instigated the church pews restoration project in 2020.

“I attended a committee meeting a couple of years ago and asked Queensland Corrective Services whether the women prisoners from the Warwick Work Camp could lend a hand at the church in Leyburn and they were very supportive of the idea,” Mr O’Leary said.

“This is a very important project for the local Leyburn community because it’s such an old church and it’s also an old town. The church is looking great for another 100 years.”

Warwick Community Engagement Committee community supervisor and French polisher Vince, who has worked closely with the Warwick Work Camp prisoners for the past 24 years said the intensive restoration project took about four weeks to complete.

“The women (prisoners) worked long hours spray painting, sanding and varnishing the pews; they were long days,” Vince said.

Vince also taught the women the art of French wood polishing, which involves the use of shellac, imported from India, dissolved in methylated spirits and then applied to the wood repeatedly.

“They (women prisoners) got a good appreciation of the work and picked up a lot of trade skills along the way, which will be useful to them outside of prison, when they look for work opportunities,” he said.

“The best part about this project is that we worked on pews that are over 100-years-old.”

Throughout Queensland, there are currently 13 work camps operating.

Situated 130km southwest of Brisbane, the Warwick Work Camp, which was established as Australia’s first female work camp in 1995, is a 10-bed facility operated as an option for low-risk prisoners from Numinbah Correctional Centre to assist with their transition back into the general community.

In 2021-22, prisoners on the QCS Work Camp Program completed 144,223 hours of community service which is equal to $4.0 million worth of labour provided to support regional Queensland.

The Work Camp Program has been making a difference to Queensland for more than 30 years – the first one rising from the devastating floods at Charleville in 1990 when 40 prisoners from Brisbane went to help with the flood clean-up.

To learn more about Warwick Work Camp click here: https://fb.watch/isfiovHYfB/