147 years on
The last day of February 2007 found me standing in line with the morning clients at the Dellow Day Centre. The front desk was a hive of activity as each person's needs were assessed so that, following breakfast, they would see an advice worker. Business was brisk in the canteen where Larry (catering worker), Sister Brigid, Joyce and Ethel served 30 people. It is difficult to comprehend that in spite of all the changes in our society, in spite of the enormous wealth of the City on the doorstep of Providence Row, we still have significant numbers of rough sleepers in the streets of our capital.
Providence Row began in 1860, after Monsignor Daniel Gilbert invited the Sisters of Mercy from Wexford, Ireland, to join him in responding to the appalling poverty in East London. The Sisters arrived on Thursday 23 September 1858 and opened a school for 400 to 500 children the following Monday. Like their founder, Catherine McAuley, they set about bringing care, compassion, education and hope to those in need. The night shelter, or refuge as it was called, was a stable at the back of the house where the sisters lived on a lane called Providence Row.
From the very beginning Daniel Gilbert insisted that the refuge should be open to everyone regardless of age, sex, nationality or creed. He was an efficient fundraiser and in 1867 purchased a site at the corner of Crispin Street and built a new refuge, which opened on 8 December 1868 and provided accommodation for 140 women and 60 men. The sisters built the convent next to the refuge, making sure it was funded from their own resources.
They continued to work in the refuge, always assisted by volunteers, and this partnership continues as the mark of the charity. Sr. Mary Ignatius Sherrington entered the convent in 1862 and for the next 50 years she was to work tirelessly for the homeless. When she died in 1912, having been superior for many years, she left behind a huge complex of buildings that offered:
* shelter to 140 men and 112 women;
* a training workshop for 24 women;
* a hostel for 30 business women;
* a laundry;
* a soup kitchen in Gun Street; and
* a rest home for ladies in St. Alban's.
Following Daniel Gilbert's death in 1895, she continued his work, supported by Alfred Purssell, W. Tawsey, W.F. Jones, J.W. Gilbert (Daniel's nephew) and members of the Bellord family. Good governance, careful management and enormous dedication on the part of the Sisters of Mercy have meant that the work of Providence Row has continued for 147 years.
As I came through the gates of the "new" Providence Row I gave thanks for all the staff, sisters and volunteers who give time and resources to that same cause, while regretting that the very conditions that moved Monsignor Daniel Gilbert to give shelter to a wretched woman and her baby in 1858, still exist in 2007.
Source: "Providence Row: A Place of Refuge, A Place of Hope," Spring 2007, by Sister Patricia McMahon, trustee, Providence Row