In Southsea, Portsmouth, three sisters have demonstrated just how much individual nuns can do to help solve community problems by opening their doors to all. PETER NOLAN reports —•
It can almost be guaranteed that if an idea is described as "new," someone will write in to tell you they have been acting on it for years.
So soon after Sister 13ernar,dine's ideas for a community whose members would serve all of society's greatest needs were outlined in the Catholic Herald on January 3, a letter arrived from Sister Apnuntiata of the Sisters of Mary on the writing paper of Portsmouth's child guidance clinic.
A visit to Southsea, Portsmouth revealed that not just one but three sisters were running houses to care for the homeless, the alcoholic and others with social problems.
Entering Sister Annuritiata's council house, distinguishable From its neighbour only by a pottery plaque on the door inscribed with her name, I was immediately led into the prayer room.
After a few greetings, all those present in the house — a young man, a future nursing student whom Sister Annuntiata was coaching for extra ALevels and Sister Francis, another Sister of Mary — gathered to join in a number of psalms read from the books provided, ending with a hymn. "Everyone who comes here joins in the prayers," said Sister Annuntiata, leading the way to the kitchen, where a splendid light lunch had been prepared. But more surprises were yet in store. As we launched into the food, the doorbell rang. "Tell whoever it is come in and join us," said Sister Annuntiata.
Sister, who puts up about ten people nightly in the old council house that she and her helpers have redecorated, using every inch of space, keeps an open house. Anyone who calls is welcomed, as was the young sailor who joined us, demonstrating a Christian generosity that few communities dare to practise today. "Our Order is very enlightened. Its policy is to fit into the local Church and its needs, no matter what they are," said Sister Annuntiata. She had begun teaching at her community's school outside Portsmouth and became involved with the cases of problem children.
This began to absorb more of her time, and she learned that really to help she needed to be available all the time. Working with the city's child guidance clinic, she came to meet children who were finally re jected by their school as being unteachable.
Often at the bottom of this was a family problem, as with the very intelligent girl she had seen the day of my visit. The father beat both wife and children, and the girl needed immediate help. It was to aid such cases that Sister Annuntiata sought a house where she could be readily available and perhaps put up teenagers whose family situation had become impossible. Not far away, a Franciscan sister, Sister Anna, who was born in Sicily, runs the St Petroc Community, a home for 14 male alooholics.
Last summer Sister Annuntiata and Sister Anna took a party of 13 alcoholics to France on a holiday. taking a house near Lyons and later visiting Taize, the ecumenical community founded –by Brother Roger, which all enjoyed very much, impressed by its air of easy informality. "Alcoholics feel different, they feel rejected," said Sister Annuntiata. "One cannot just take away things like drink and drugs and not put anything in its place." The holiday worked wonders, all talking freely about their problems, none getting drunk. "They have never stopped talking about this holiday," she said.
Sister Anna herself then appeared having finished feeding the 30-odd men who come to St Petroc's for a midday meal every day. She said the "soup run" they had formerly run in the city would soon he starting again. She thought those who lived at St Petroc's found it easier to talk to her about their problems because she was a nun, "They give us everything," shesaid, brushing aside any praise of her work. She emphasised that St Petroc's was a home, not an institution. She had met with little difficulty running it and had been able to put a number in contact with their families again. Sister Francis, after a lifetime spent teaching, went to Portsmouth from London some years ago to run a hostel for the Free Church Women's Council. Two years ago she got a council house which now acts as a home for five young girls who have a variety of problems. It is listed as a short-stay hostel, and Sister Francis' first task is to get her charges a job. "Any kind of job at first, just to get them started," she said. Family troubles were one of the main causes of their being homeless. Some had over-strict parents and ran away. In other cases, the mother re-married and they were resented by their stepfather.
One of her latest arrivals was an unmarried girl, with a sevenmonth-old baby, who had had to leave home. Others had gone to Portsmouth to visit boy friends at the naval base and found themselves penniless with nowhere to go.
Sister said her approach was one of complete acceptance to those with problems. "We all make mistakes," she said. One of the things her work had taught her was that those religious and others in more comfortable circumstances "ought to be down on their knees thanking God they had a roof over their heads," Sister Annuntiata said their work would not have been possible without the support of the local community — not just the Catholics, who are a tiny minority in Portsmouth. It was they who had helped pay for the alcoholics' holiday and many other things. Hampshire County Council's grant of £7.50 a person a week failed to meet all the expenses.
One of the ways in which the local people have been involved is through "Pray-Ins". A speeial day is set aside for prayers and readings and everyone is invited though the communities' many contacts. It is an idea which has proved exceedingly popular.
To list all the sisters' activities would be to list most of the community's social ills, But one unexpected task undertaken by Sister Annuntiata is to provide a free bed for the night for those visiting relatives in the local prison, where she is a visitor.
When I met her last week she had recently returned from a special course designed to help those Leaching illiterate prisoners. She s'aid this experience would help her in her work.
While in many areas such activity as the sisters' would be regarded with suspicion as avant-garde and even deviant, in Portsmouth.it has the support of Bishop Worlock.
Last week he paid one of his regular visits to the community to celebrate Mass and no doubt to enjoy some of Sister Annuntiata's cooking. She is a former domestic science teacher who has not lost her culinary gifts.