London: Daughters of Charity celebrate 150th anniversary

Fr Fergus Kelly, Archbishop Vincent  Nichols and Sister Maria Robb at celebration  lunch

Fr Fergus Kelly, Archbishop Vincent Nichols and Sister Maria Robb at celebration lunch

On 19 July 1859, Cardinal Wiseman celebrated Mass with the Daughters of Charity in the attic of their first house in London. 150 years on, yesterday Archbishop Vincent  Nichols concelebrated Mass with  hundreds of members of the Vincentian family at the St Vincent's Centre, Carlisle Place, Westminster.

Following the Mass,  there was a special reception and lunch,  after which a group of Sisters took a coach trip around London to visit the sites of some of their earliest houses and projects.

During his homily, Fr Fergus Kelly CM, spoke of the difficult conditions the first Sisters encountered when they came to London. There was terrific anti-Catholic, anti-Irish and anti-French prejudice in England at the time, he explained. Just ten years earlier there had been the restoration of the  Catholic hierarchy and MPs were so concerned about the increasing freedom being given to Catholics,  they passed the Ecclesiastical Titles Act in 1851, banning Catholic bishops from claiming the same bishoprics as the Church of England.

In response to public concern that Catholics wanted to take over Westminster Abbey, Cardinal Wiseman brought out a pamphlet explaining that he had no interest in that 'splendid beautiful building'.  Rather, he said, he coveted the countless poor people, living in conditions of wretched squalor and disease in the labyrinth of lanes and courts in Westminster.

Beginning with one small house, the Sisters went on to establish more than 50 projects in London, among them schools, hostels, hospitals and orphanages. Today their work with the poor continues to thrive across the capital as well as around the UK. Their flagship centre, The Passage, in Carlisle Place,  is now the largest homeless project in London, offering food, clothing, medical care, shelter, support and advice to thousands of people each year. 

Archbishop Nichols said that while the Sisters' first Superior in London Sr Marie Chatelaine,  had faced hostile shouts and boys  throwing stones at her when she first arrived,  when she died 46 years later,  crowds  came out to pay their respects as her hearse was taken through the streets to the church for her funeral.

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