Tuesday 23 July 2019

Caring for the less well off

Looking after the poor, the sick and the elderly was part of daily life for the Nazareth Sisters

Margaret Murphy

You never, ever saw a nun on her own in Ireland in those days. They were always in pairs, and there were lots of them about.

They seemed to be everywhere, and you would even find them out begging in the middle of nowhere.

Paddy Baker's (1923-1997) description of encountering his former Nazareth Sister carers tramping county Sligo, begging for alms in the late 1930s, opens up the practical nature of the Work of The Poor Sisters of Nazareth.

Every Nazareth Sister received her training at the Congregation's Hammersmith Headquarters in London.

This article outlines the practical, 'corporal acts of mercy' work that is common to all Nazareth Sisters with a glimpse into Hammersmith House.

The Hammersmith 'Homes' were located in a poor area in factory-like, vast, dark buildings that could accommodate the 400 plus pauper and destitute inmates: old men, old ladies, and girls. There was also a school, a dispensary and an infirmary on site.

The poetess, Alice Meynell, visited the 'Homes' and reported her observations of the Sisters' practical work: "In this Order there are no lay Sisters.

"The whole service of the house is fulfilled by these educated ladies-the cooking, the washing and ironing, the making and mending, the personal care of the throng of children, some of them infants in arms, their education, the nursing of the sick, the tending of the frequent death beds, and that special work which the Nuns share with very few other Communities-The Quest".

At a time when women were not generally credited with possessing the organisational and managerial abilities of men Meynell used the example of the Nazareth Sisters' work to scotch this view.

She pointed out: their organisational, managerial, fund raising and communication skills; their capacity for co-operative working; their willingness to subordinate their individuality for the common good; how serious a sense of mission they possessed; and finally, how they required considerable physical strength, stamina and fortitude to be able to cope with the unremitting and depressing monotony of their daily lives.

Many of these qualities were needed for 'The Quest'.

This was the term used for the 'seeking' of alms, including food, clothes, and money, to feed and care for girls and elderly residents.

The Nazareth Sisters, were Mendicants, relying on begging and soliciting charitable donations, as, in the early days at least, they had no endowments or fixed income.

The Quest involved pairs of Sisters collecting scraps and leftover food in baskets and hampers from households, hotels and other premises in London.

The Sisters, pioneers of recycling, were accompanied by a horse-drawn van to bring the leftover food back to Hammersmith.

There it was carefully picked-over and sorted and re-used to feed residents and Sisters and for a soup kitchen.

Hammersmith Houses, including Sligo, also usually provided some form of 'outdoor relief' to local paupers.

In London this took the form of a daily soup kitchen in winter months.

The Sisters started the huge soup cauldrons at 4.30 in the morning. Men, the overwhelming majority of recipients, tramped great distances across London, often in bitter frosts, for their daily dole of hot broth.

Several hundred each day came although on one occasion as many as nineteen hundred were fed.

When the soup kitchen was swamped with low-waged workers at lunchtime the feeding hour had to be changed from noon to late morning to prioritise the feeding of the unemployed and paupers. Within the Hammersmith 'Homes' one can detect efforts made to humanise the large-scale 'warehousing' of so many people with disparate needs.

The very old men read the newspapers while some of the younger elderly chopped wood for the house.

Some of the old 'ladies', as the Sisters referred to them, kept linnets or canaries in bird cages fed from scraps from the table. Many old ladies sewed patchwork pieces to keep occupied.

In the 'Incurable' Children's Ward were children who were dumb or blind, the blind being more numerous.

A girl born without arms had been taught by the Sisters to write with her mouth.

Meynell commented that: "An incurable child, once received, need never leave. If her incurable life is long, she grows up and passes into old age and dies there".

All Nazareth Homes sought to provide what former Sligo Nazareth Homeboy, Willie McGowan (1921-2007) recognised was most needed in the immediate after-care years: a placement that combined 'bed and board'.

One fifth of all unmarried girls in England and Wales worked as indoor domestic servants in 1901.

That is why, after leaving school, the pauper and orphaned girls were given domestic skill experience within Nazareth House to fit them for work as domestic servants at the age of 16 or 17 years.

Domestic service also seemed to offer a safer and more protective environment. Some of the girls had entered care to remove them from moral danger and a particular concern was to ensure that they were not drawn into prostitution as teenagers, especially as homelessness and poverty greatly increased the risk of prostitution.

The Salvation Army's General Booth had calculated that there were 3000 prostitutes in London in a population of 5.5 million with many others involved in casual prostitution.

Nazareth Sisters kept in touch with the girls after they left and girls could return to Nazareth House to be nursed back to health if they fell ill (and therefore might be put out by their employer).

Mother General reported: "We never lose sight of one of them .... we keep up a correspondence with them, and when they have holidays they come and see us".

Sligo Champion