The Catholic Building Society was founded by an Irish war hero to help the homeless and disadvantaged. It continues to have a very distinctive mission says Frank Miller F( F(
w of the clients who the Catholic Building Society CBS) today krtow of its radical past — built on traditions of social justice and equality among the sexes. Yet for over 40 years the Society, tucked away in Strutton Ground, a short walk from Westminster Cathedral, has offered financial support to men and women turned away by High Street lenders. Significantly it did not discriminate against single women and allowed them to be homeowners in their own right. Its founder was Wing Commander Vincent Byrne, a mercurial Irishman.
Vincent Byrne was born, in 1908, on the family farm in Ballyjamesduff, , County Cavan. He loved life and loved his neighbours but he was restless to travel. When his schooling finished he went to London and took a job working in a hotel.
He became friendly with the vicar of St Martin-in-thefields who encouraged him to join the forces. Four years before the outbreak of the war, in 1935, Vincent joined the Royal Air Force as a pilot officer and was accepted on a four-year commission.
Vincent became a Spitfire pilot and wasshot down over France in 1940 when his squadron was supporting the Dunkirk evacuation. Taken prisoner of war by the German command he spent four long years in Stalag Loft prisons.
At the end of the war he returned home to England. and was received back into the Air Force, but sadly not to fly. He then met Nona Lawrence, who became his wife on February 8. 1945.
The Byrnes started their married life together living in Pont Street Mews in SW1 and that was where Vincent started to look out for and cam for people who had been wounded or distressed by the Many were homeless and women, he discovered, were particularly vulnerable. Some of the women the Byrnes met were war widows with families to support but financial institutions would not lend to single women even if they had the means to make the mortgage payments.
Vincent opened his first Society in 1960 from his own office on Harrington Road.. MrsWatson, Vincent's seemtar', undertook the office work. Aided by business professionals and with the assistance of his wife and her sister Sara, the Catholic Building Society was born.
Things moved forward and in 1976 a manager, Francis Higgins, was recruited. He was keen to promote a Society that was different — a caring organisation, where people and their housing needs really mattered and where low-income families could find help to get a home of their own.
To Francis's great credit, he picked up the vision of Vincent and Nona and carried it forward right up to his retirement in 2000.
Vincent Byrne retired from the Society in 1967 and was awarded the titleHonorary President, a post he served with distinction until his death, aged 70, in 1978. He was succeeded by His Grace the late Duke of Norfolk and subsequently by Nona Byrne, who is President to date.
ithn 1972 Nona also became e first woman to be lected chairman of a building society. Although small, the Society continues to champion the cause of progressive housing policy, particularly with women in mind.
"Catholic" is slightly a misnomer. Today a quarter of the members are not Catholics and the Society, its Directors and staff always take the broad view in matters of faith and membership.
Yet the creed, at its heart, is Catholic with a commitment to justice and the enfranchisement of women. As Nona says: "Home is the most important thing for a woman to enjoy and make secure for the family."
The Society continues to help those rejected by the mainstream lenders. Recently it granted a mortgage to a young woman with a baby. She was in rented accommodation and on a low income but she needed security and wanted a home of her own. The CBS recognised that the rental assistance she was receiving more than matched the interest that she would pay to a lender. She had approached many of the larger national building societies but in every case her application for a mortgage had been refused.
There are new faces at the Catholic Building Society but the ethics and vision that drove Vincent Byrne remain.
Current Chief Executive James Gilbounie says: "Today, the Society continues to attract new members who share the ethos of the organisation, both in its lending to those with specific housing needs but also in its support of char
ities involved in -1 homelessness and — poverty in Britain and abroad. Although small, the Society
offers a wide range of savings and deposit accounts for individuals, groups, charities and churches to help fund the type of lending it undertakes.
"We are one of the last remaining independent building societies in the country."
To contact The Catholic Building Society telephone:
0207 227 3109