by PETER NOLAN
Before GKC's centenary year closes, some mention needs to be made of the work begun for the homeless women of London by his sister-in-law, Mrs Cecil Chesterton, OBE.
Mrs Chesterton, a journalist, spent a fortnight living with destitute people long before such forays became fashionable and described her experiences in a book "In Darkest London." This so moved people that in 1926 she decided to open a hostel and today 250 women are catered for in five Cecil Houses in London.
Sister Mary Bernardine, a Sister of Mercy, whose letter outlining the qualities she thought necessary for an Archbishop of Westminster appeared on page five last week, is matron of the Cecil House in Waterloo Road.
Described by the Cecil House charity, rather grimly, as a "lodging house for 44 nomadic women", in the year she has spent there Sister Bernardine has been busy transforming it from an impersonal and cheerless sleeping centre to one with a growing community atmosphere, where few visitors object to helping out a little with the chores.
"I inherited 44 quarrelsome, bitchy women who never really talked to each other," said Sister Bernardine. The halfdozen or so women I talked to were not like this at all and were busy chatting to each other.
Despite the dormitory accommodation, with facilities limited to a TV lounge and dining room, with a washroom where clothes could be washed and dried, all said the atmosphere of the house made it preferable to others they had known and seemed to find a special welcome there. Most who use it are referred there from other social agencies and except for alcoholics and a minority of others who have little control over themselves, it is open to all. They come from all walks of life, some from the very top of society and vary in age from early twenties to late seventies, most aged between 35 and 65.
All have encountered what they call "hard times", the majority having some history of mental disturbance and having
quarrelled with or been rejected by their relatives.
Length of stay averages around three months, sometimes longer, with a "shifting" population of about nine who come for a night or two only. The house is kept in spotless condition, largely thanks to the lodgers themselves, each voluntarily taking on a small task. Sister Bernardine summed up the problems common to all those she called her "clients" as homelessness, poverty and an inability to live alone."
Sister provides breakfast, including cornflakes or porridge and a filling evening meal with meat and vegetables. About half the women work and some of the others spend their time at a local reception centre, where other activities are available or just walking the streets while the house is closed to them, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Since Sister's arrival, this routine has been broken up by organising trips to the country, and the sixth trip arranged this year will bring a number of her clients to Glastonbury and Bath in Somerset this month.
A special Christmas dinner has also been organised. Such events enable the women to meet each other in a new atmosphere and Sister observed: "When people begin relating to each other, they become transformed."
Born in County Longford, Sister Bernardine has spent 40 years of her life teaching in Australia. Corning to Britain, she took some courses and graduated from mother and baby homes to Cecil House 15 months ago. The charity is strictly non-denominational and nothing resembling proselytisation is permitted.
"If ever they ask themselves 'Why does she do it?' then my aim is fulfilled," she said. "We religious are too comfortable. I sometimes think if we get to heaven we will find ourselves looking up at the soles of the shoes of some of the women here."
If anyone can do a few hours typing every so often, Sister Bernardine would be glad to hear from them. Not a voluntary helper, but on a commercial basis, she said.