Man who saved Sunderland’s Little Sisters of the Poor says goodbye

Austin Donohoe with (left) former Holy Cross manager Amanda Head and curerent manager Pam Jobling.
Austin Donohoe with (left) former Holy Cross manager Amanda Head and curerent manager Pam Jobling.
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THE man who helped to save a Wearside institution is retiring.

Sunderland’s Little Sisters of the Poor home in High Barnes seemed doomed to close after 130 years of service, when the order announced there were no longer enough nuns in the city to continue their work.

The home was saved by North East charity St Cuthberts Care which stepped in to buy the home in Ettrick Grove after chief executive Austin Donohoe answered a personal plea for help.

The firm was already running St Catherine’s Nursing home in Newcastle.

“I got a call from the bishop to say the Little Sisters were moving out of Sunderland and would I take a look at the home,” said Austin.

“It was clear why they were selling up – the home was not viable. They didn’t have enough sisters and it was losing hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.

“We believed we could probably make it pay its way. We were already running St Catherine’s, and had been looking at opening another nursing home, not necessarily in Sunderland.

“I hummed and hawed for a day or two but that was all – pretty quickly we decided we would give it a go.”

Two years on, the Holy Cross Nursing Home – as it was renamed – is flourishing and 61-year-old Austin is retiring.

“The home is now full,” he said.

“We did have 44 bedrooms. We managed to rejig things to make it 45 or 46 and we’ve added another five rooms.

“We predicted losses in the first year of £600,000, which is a huge loss for a charity to bear.

“It turned out to be just under £500,000 and we are now breaking even financially.”

Austin was taken aback by how much the home meant to Wearsiders.

“There was just so much goodwill for the people of Sunderland,” he said.

“It was clear the home was embedded into the city’s history. It was incredible and we felt we were doing the right thing because of the reaction of people.”

Austin may be calling it a day, but there are still ambitious plans for Holy Cross.

“The third floor here is unused – it used to be accommodation for the sisters’ relatives when they came to stay,” he said.

“It needs a bit of work but we are thinking of turning that into some sort of assisted living, for people who don’t need residential care but do require some support with independent living.

“Then there’s the bigger question of the five acres here.”

St Cuthberts runs a variety of services alongside its homes for the elderly, including children’s residential services and the Alan Shearer Centre for the disabled.

Austin believes the grounds of Holy Cross could house one of these services, but was quick to put residents’ minds at risk.

“We would never sell the site for housing,” he said.

“There may be a little bit of housing to finance the development, but we would not sell the site – that would defeat the object to taking over here.”