Sister Bridget & Sister Bernadette at Providence Row
The Sisters of Mercy set up Providence Row in Spitalfields back in 1860 as the first non-sectarian shelter to offer support to the homeless, and I was very curious to meet the Sisters still working here today because I have such respect for the honourable undertaking they have pursued over all these years.
The very name of this place, Spitalfields, is a contraction of “Hospital Fields”, referring to the Hospital of St Mary set up as a refuge here for the vulnerable in 1197 by Walter and Roisia Brunus. Regrettably, the transitional nature of the area, situated between the wealth of the City of London and the poorer outer boroughs, has required the existence of such a refuge for nearly a thousand years. This could change if the government achieves its declared ambition to end homelessness by 2012, but in the meantime the essential work of caring for the growing numbers of dispossessed goes on here in Spitalfields.
Sister Bridget (above) works in the kitchen and Sister Bernadette (below) runs the laundry at the Providence Row Day Centre on Wentworth St. They work as volunteers at the centre, now run by an independent charity, where every day two hundred homeless people arrive for breakfast. Nowadays, as well as providing immediate relief like food and laundry, the centre offers long-term support – everyone that turns up begins a conversation to get them back into permanent housing and employment. Recently, around half of those arriving at Providence Row are Polish or Romanian, legal economic migrants who are victims of the recession, ineligible for benefits, they quickly become destitute without work. Sometimes the solution can be as simple as providing transport home to Poland and Providence Row works with a Polish charity to provide this lifeline.
There is a hush in the centre around midday, once most of the visitors have returned to the streets with their pack lunches and it was at this time I was able to enjoy a quiet moment with the two Sisters. These bright-spirited women recited their life stories to me quickly without embellishment, all the time cradling modest sandwich lunches wrapped in cling film. After years of education and preparation, each has devoted their entire life to hard work in the service of others without any reward beyond the satisfaction of the task itself. Although they gave up wearing habits fifteen years ago, they still pursue an ascetic existence based upon their three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Sister Bernadette sums it up for me,“Instead of getting married and having children, these are our children”.
Sister Bridget joined the Sisters in 1966 in London and after working first in Dorset came to Spitalfields sixteen years ago. “I like helping people”, she says lightly, by way of understated explanation – but you know it is her absolute vocation. One hundred and fifty years after they set up Providence Row, there are just four Sisters in Spitalfields now, whereas twenty years ago there were eight and without new recruits their days here are numbered, because the appetite for this life of complete sacrifice has gone from the world.
Hailing from Dublin, Sister Bernadette entered the order in 1969 in Leamington Spa and worked first in Birmingham with children from broken homes before being sent to Spitalfields fifteen years ago. “I always wanted to work with homeless people ever since I was child”, she explains simply.
Sister Bernadette was enthusiastic to show me the cramped room where she spends all her days moving clothes between two machines and two driers in an endless sequence of laundry. She had only managed ten loads of dirty laundry that morning, she says. Not so many among two hundred clients. “I could do a hundred loads of laundry if I only had the machines!” she adds enthusiastically. “Quite understandably, sometimes they get angry with you if you can’t do their laundry and I try to be as polite as I can” she confides. “But there’s great respect for the Sisters” she qualifies, then with a wry smile adds, “An Australian once said to me, if anyone comes near you or lays a hand on you, call me and I will deal with them!” and she rolls her eyes in amused acknowledgement of the sometimes challenging nature of the work.
For the Sisters, their faith is expressed through an energetically practical ministry, getting up early (5:30 or 6:00) and doing what needs to be done – because somebody has to do the washing for people without homes, year in, year out, and send them off with clean clothes, a packed lunch and a new pair of socks to continue life’s journey in the hope of better times. In spite of a grinding routine that many would characterise as mundane, there is nothing cynical or weary about Sister Bridget or Sister Bernadette. I have always believed in the notion of everyday heroism and these two enigmatic women exemplify it for me.