Wearside Echoes: At home with the Little Sisters

FIFTIES SCENE: Little Sisters of the Poor, September 1953

FIFTIES SCENE: Little Sisters of the Poor, September 1953

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THE decision to close Sunderland’s Little Sisters of the Poor home hit the headlines this week. Today we take a look at the history of an organisation which has helped generations of Wearsiders.

BUSINESS may have been booming when the Little Sisters of the Poor first arrived in Sunderland 130 years ago – but the majority of Wearsiders were certainly not getting rich.

Indeed, as factory owners and business leaders embraced the Industrial Revolution, many of their workers lived hand-to-mouth existences in cramped and dirty tenement slums.

And those too frail or elderly to find work faced even bleaker futures – until the Little Sisters of the Poor stepped in to offer a helping hand to Wearside’s needy, whatever their religion.

“There is no doubt the inmates are well looked after by the patient Sisters, who have sacrificed everything to carry out this work of mercy,” reported the Echo in April 1939.

“A visit to the Home on any Sunday afternoon will show that it is not really a gathering of “inmates,” but one big, happy family.”

The origins of the Little Sisters of the Poor date to 1839, when a Catholic foundation for women, aimed at caring for the “impoverished elderly,” was set up at St Sevran, in northern France.

Initially the dedicated band of nuns found fund-raising a struggle, even taking to the streets to beg for money, but today the Little Sisters serve in 31 countries worldwide – from Hong Kong to India.

“The order speedily gained a foothold in England, and before the Sisters came to Sunderland, there were two homes in the diocese – at Newcastle and Carlisle,” according to a 1932 Echo report.

“Thousands of the poor folk of the town and district, Catholic and non-Catholic, have had reason to bless their ministrations since they first arrived in Sunderland.”

It was in November 1882 that the Little Sisters moved to Wearside, renting a house at the Causeway in Monkwearmouth, next to St Benet’s Church, for use as a residential home.

“There were five Sisters that November day – invited by Bishop John William Bewick to establish a home to look after the deprived elderly,” said John Bailey, former features editor of the Echo.

“Mother Celestine du Sacre Coeur was the Superior, and Sisters Maire Arsene, Maire Gonazales, Praxede de Ste Anne and Martine Ste Therese accompanied her.

“They weren’t long in finding their first resident – John James Greeg, who arrived on December 12. Within a short time, the home – later used by Monkwearmouth WMC – was full with 28 residents.”

Six years later, a generous benefactor enabled the Sisters to purchase Ettrick Hall at High Barnes – the former home of the Ettrick family – for £5,250, and turn it into a new residence for the elderly.

“The Little Sisters became an accepted part of Sunderland,” the Echo stated in 1939. “Thanks to the generous help received, they were able to carry on their work of looking after the aged poor.”

Ettrick Hall served the Sisters well for 11 years but, as the number of needy people continued to grow, it was eventually decided to create a purpose-built residential home instead.

“There came a time when the hall proved inadequate. It was demolished and a building scheme, costing £14,000, was embarked upon,” a report in the Echo 1939 recorded.

“When the Reverend Mother was asked by an anxious inquirer where they hoped to get the money from, she replied: ‘ God will provide ways and means.’ And she was right.”

Building operations began in 1899 and continued until 1908. Once completed, the new Holy Cross Home offered dormitory accommodation for 160 people who were “over 60 and destitute.”

“Religion does not enter into the consideration for entry. Indeed, non-Catholic inmates are in the majority,” reported the Echo as part of 50th anniversary celebrations in 1932.

“The Sisters are still largely French, and conduct their good work with the aid of funds subscribed by both Catholic and non-Catholic benefactors.

“No fewer than 1,919 people passed through the home during its first half-century, and 730 inmates died during that time within its walls.”

The kindness and care shown by the Sisters was eventually to help generations of Wearsiders – including many who served in the two World Wars of the 20th century.

But changes to privacy standards eventually saw the huge dormitories removed, cutting places by more than half, and the Sisters also battled through several cash crises over the years.

It was a shortage of nuns, however, which was to prove the final nail in the home’s coffin, leaving Sister Mary Chantal to tell the Echo on Saturday:

“The Little Sisters of the Poor regret to announce that we are obliged to withdraw from Holy Cross Home. This decision has not been made lightly, but is the result of much prayer and reflection.

“With sisters getting older, and no replacements in view, it is becoming more difficult for us to manage the home.”

Around 20 residents are believed to be affected by the decision, and the Sisters are now appealing to any firms interested in buying the home and continuing its caring traditions to come forward.

“If it is possible to find an organisation to continue the care of the elderly here in High Barnes, then we would be very happy about it,” added Sister Mary.

** Do you have memories or old photographs you would to share about the Little Sisters? Email Sarah Stoner on sarah.stoner@northeast-press.co.uk

Sidebar: Timeline

* The first five Little Sisters arrived in Sunderland in November 1882

* The first home was set up next to St Benet’s Church, Monkwearmouth, a month later

* The first resident was John James Greeg

* In 1888 the Little Sisters bought Ettrick Hall, High Barnes, for £5,250

* In 1899 work on a purpose-built residential home at the site started

* The original hall was demolished and the new home was completed in 1908

* In 1939 the “uncrowned King of the Little Sisters” was 101-year-old resident Mr Folan

* The home was threatened with closure in 1979 due to delays in fire prevention work

* In 1982 the Little Sisters celebrated the 100th anniversary of their arrival with a party

* A £250,000 appeal was launched in 1986 to help restore the home

* The £250,000 appeal doubled to £500,000 in 1988, to convert dormitories into bedrooms

* One resident died and another left seriously ill after a fire at the home in December 1988

* Eurythmics star Dave Stewart donated a gold disc to be raffled towards repairs in April 1989

* A “desperate cash crisis” was reported in 1989 – after just half of £500,000 appeal raised

* An appeal for 998,400 Green Shields stamps was launched in 1990 – to help get a car

* The closure of the Little Sisters home was announced on February 4, 2012