Text: Fr Fergus Kelly at Daughters of Charity Anniversary Mass

Father Fergus Kelly, Provincial Director of the Daughters of Charity, gave the following homily at a Mass  at St Vincent's, Carlisle Place,  celebrating the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Daughters of Charity in London on Sunday, 19th July 2009.

Your Grace, Archbishop Nichols, I thank you for your presence here today and your willingness to celebrate this Mass of thanksgiving.

The Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul (DC’s) came to London in 1859.  More than 10 years previously, the DC’s had been chased out of Salford and they went back to France.  In 1857 they returned to England and began their work in the city of Sheffield.  As they walked the streets of that grey, industrial steel town, bodyguards made up of Irish Catholic navvies sometimes protected them from a small element of the population who were anti-Catholic, anti-French and anti-Irish.  Cardinal Wiseman welcomed the Sisters to London in 1859 and assured them of his support and protection.

Only 9 years previously in 1850, there had been a great rumpus when the Catholic hierarchy of England and Wales was re-established.  Some of the anti Catholic elements were up in arms at the presumption of what they saw as the Irish and Italian immigrants getting above their station.  Catholics, perhaps, in their minds, were hewers of wood and drawers of water.   If they kept their heads down and worshipped in their little chapels quietly that was acceptable.  But they now wanted to give their bishops big titles – Archbishop of this and Primate of that and maybe even in due course a Cardinal would be resident in London.  The thought was so intolerable that the parliament saw fit in 1851 to pass the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill, which forbade any Catholic Bishop to take a title for his diocese already held by the Church of England.  This act of parliament was a sop to the extremists – it was a dead letter from its beginning.  Cardinal Wiseman was accused of wanting to take over Westminster. He was accused of “having his eye” on Westminster Abbey.

In response to all this uproar Cardinal Wiseman wrote a pamphlet – he was always writing pamphlets – and it gives his description of what this area, i.e. Westminster, was like in those days when the Sisters of Charity – as they were then called – came here.   He wrote:

“Yet, this splendid monument (Westminster Abbey), its treasures of art, and its fitting endowments form not the part of Westminster which will concern us.  For there is another part which stands in frightful contrast, though in immediate contact, with this magnificence.  In ancient times, the existence of an abbey on any spot, with large staff of clergy and ample revenues, would have sufficed to create around it a little paradise of comfort, cheerfulness and ease.  This, however, is not now the case.  Close under the Abbey of Westminster there lie concealed labyrinths of lanes and courts, and alleys and slums, nests of ignorance, vice, depravity and crime, as well as of squalor, wretchedness and disease, whose atmosphere is typhus, whose ventilation is cholera, in which swarms a huge and almost countless population, in great measure, nominally at least, Catholic, haunts of filth, which no sewage committee can reach, dark corners, which no lighting board can brighten.  This is the part of Westminster which alone I covet, and which I shall be glad to claim and to visit, as a blessed pasture in which sheep of Holy Church are to be tended, in which a bishop’s Godly work has to be done, of consoling converting and preserving.  And if as I humbly trust in God, it shall be seen that this special culture, arising from the establishment of our hierarchy, bears fruit of order, peacefulness, decency, religion and virtue, it may be that the Holy See shall not be thought to have acted unwisely, when it bound up the very soul and salvation of a chief pastor with those of a city, where of the name, indeed, is glorious, but the purlieus infamous, in which the very grandeur of its public edifices is a shadow to screen from the public eye, sin and misery the most appalling.    If the wealth of the Abbey be stagnant and not diffusive, if it in no way rescues the neighbouring population from the depths in which it is sunk, let there be no jealousy of anyone, who, by whatever name, is ready to make the latter his care, without interfering with the former”.

So the Sisters came to London, at first to York Street in Marylebone, and then in May 1863 to Carlisle Place to where we are today.

How did the little group of Marie Chatelain, Anne Farrell, Georgina Robinson,  Georgina O’Shea, Mary Clarty and Fanny Piperson feel during these early months and years?  Some of them came from well endowed middle and upper class backgrounds.  They were dealing with the poorest of the poor.  In 1875, Sister Chatelain wrote to one of her friends and great helpers, Lady Herbert:

“Last winter between 300 and 400 poor were relieved by our soup kitchen every day…about 200 were children. who would otherwise have nothing but a piece of dry bread for their dinners, their parents all being out of work. In another room, we had the poor mothers with little ones at their feet who would swallow up the mother’s portion.  Further on were the sick men. and none were refused whilst we could fill a basin.   Those who were too ill to come and fetch the soup were fed in their own homes.  We are touched by the sight of little boys carrying a baby and helping a little brother up our steps.  We had no need to ask what they wanted.  Their pale and starved looks spoke what they did not say”.

How did those early DC’s do it?  That first group of six were only in their 20’s and 30’s.  They were inexperienced but they did it. They did it by putting their trust in God under the patronage of St Vincent, and by rolling up their sleeves and, as the man said, they “put one foot after another”.

They had soup kitchens and orphanages and hostels and elementary schools.  Sisters went out and visited in the parishes all around this area.  Who remembers the little church at Abbey Orchard St. – chapel of ease to the cathedral where Sister Patricia played the organ?  There was a commercial college and the Children of Mary and The Marillacs.

Many sisters have served here.  One of them was Sister Mary Howard.  She wrote in the 1880’s

 Our order of day is like this.  Rise 6.  Mass 7.  Breakfast at 8.  then I do the refectory which takes till nearly 9 30 when I go to the school until 1. 30.  Then comes dinner, after which washing up and recreation until 2 30.  I go to the babies until about 4. Odds and ends, laying tea things occupy the time until 5 30.  Tea is a little after 6 and after tea there is recreation until 8.  If I have not been out during the day I go into the field; the children are always out there…we go to bed about 9”.

 And so it was, day after day after day.

St Vincent de Paul on many occasions used the phrase “kindness is the key go hearts”.  He knew that the kind of cold charity sometimes meted out in orphanages and workhouses did not move the recipients to smiles and laughter.  The love of Christ – which is a heart bursting with kindness – was what was to urge the Daughters of Charity on.  Whether it was to be in the Crimea or Cork, Lyon or Liverpool, Westminster of Washington – it was to be the love of Christ, which was to
spur the Daughters of Charity to greater efforts to serve all people with kindness.

In our days St. Vincent’s, Carlisle Place, has been a beacon of light in a city that has not always been a welcoming place for the immigrant or stranger.  What an ecumenical contrast we have today to those rigid days of 1859! For example, in a few days time Westminster Abbey will host a garden party in their grounds to aid the work of the Passage and the descendents of Rev John  Wesley – the Methodists – from the end of Victoria Street -- actively support the work of St Vincent’s, Carlisle Place.  I think Cardinal Wiseman would have been very happy.

The Passage Day Centre, has for almost 30 years, been serving our brothers and sisters who need food, clothing, a listening ear, a place to pray and a place to sleep.  Groups have held their meetings here and always been welcomed.  I name but a few:

Vincentian Millennium Partnership
Vincentian Volunteers
Prayer groups
Shri Lankan Association
Ladies of Charity
St Teresa’s Society for Priests
Society of St. Vincent de Paul
Pax Christi
Secular Franciscans
Secular Carmelites
Helpers of Mother Teresa
Communion and Liberation and
Last but not least The Bee Keepers Association.

There have been interim children and girls’ hostels and small work rooms and Sister Ether Lodge and Mgr Ralph Brown and Mr Bartlett and Father Kevin Cronin and Sister Peter McCarthy and big work rooms and play rooms and everything that could be thought of to serve the people of this area and the boys and girls and young adults who for a time called this place their home.

When the sisters came to London, there was great suspicion.  In a way, they were lucky that they came back to England from France as the soldiers from the Crimea were also returning.  Those poor infantrymen remembered the lady with the lamp – Florence Nightingale (who herself very nearly became a Daughter of Charity) and they remembered the nuns with the butterfly wings who nursed their French allies.

In 1898 after 41 years in London, Sister Chatelain died on 6th February.  A few days later Sister Mary Howard wore to a friend:

“We buried Ma Soeur (Sr Chatelain) yesterday.  Everything was most touching.  I remained at Carlisle Place to help the poor sisters who are quite broken hearted, poor things!  On Saturday evening, we put her in the coffin and carried her to the chapel, but she was so exactly as if just in a peaceful sleep that we left the coffin open all night and during Mass the next morning, so she lay there in the midst of her children.  At ten we took her to the church at Palace Street, the white coffin in an open hearse, and followed by the Sisters and the children walking four and four.  One thought how nearly forty six years ago she used to pass through these same streets with the people shouting after her and the boys throwing stones and mud at the Sisters and now what respect was shown by all”.

Today at Mass our Psalm is number 22 “the Lord is my Shepherd”.  The writer is sure that God will care for him – protect him- guard him.  I hope that all who have worked and served in various capacities in St. Vincent’s, Carlisle Place, over the past 150 years would have known the truth of the last verse of this psalm.

“Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life
In the Lords own house shall I dwell for ever and ever.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son….

Father Fergus Kelly, CM

Share this story