From its earliest days the Mercy Congregation valued visitation of poor and sick families among its ministries. The Community based Social Services movement was initiated largely by local bishops in co-operation with the statutory authorities.
In 1960s Ireland Sisters in various dioceses, often at the request of their local bishop, and influenced by the documents of Vatican II were taken from the teaching and nursing apostolate and sent to train as professional social workers. This was described at the time as ‘doing for visitation what we had done for teaching and nursing i.e. ‘bringing professional skills to this apostolate’.
Visitation had shown that families were trying to cope with a wide range of difficulties: unemployment, poverty, handicap both physical and mental, child neglect, emotional disturbance, desertion, alcoholism etc. The experience of other countries indicated that these kinds of social need are best met by a unified approach in a community context. The general aim of this approach was to create the structures by which the ‘social needs’ of the community could be catered for in the community. This required resources and people and a caring and informed community.
Spafield Family Resource Centre
This awareness in local convents coincided with a growing awareness at local parish level that some families were not benefitting from the gradual affluence that industrialisation was bringing to Ireland. It also coincided with the setting up of community based Social Services Councils. These councils acted as co-ordinators for the voluntary organisations in an area. They were very glad to have available to them these newly trained social work Sisters, often at no cost or for a nominal stipend.
The social worker Sisters of that era wore many ‘hats’ ranging from coordinating services to families thus preventing overlap between organisations, setting up new services e.g. preschools, cookery classes, women’s groups and eventually parenting groups etc. This community development work was ‘fed’ by listening to individual families who came to talk about various family difficulties. (In those days this work was called ‘casework’) it was an exciting and worthwhile time and the work of the individual Sister was greatly helped by the amount of voluntary work done by the other Sisters and by the support for the ‘lone worker’ generously and graciously given by other sisters.
None of this could have happened without the generous help also of many volunteers who with ongoing training helped to run these services once they were on a firm footing. Neither could the services develop without the support of parish based groups and social service councils.
This work is ongoing. Some of the Social Services Centres begun by the Sisters have been continued on by our colleagues such as those in Ennis, Limerick, Tipperary and many more. Others are still run by Sisters, or Sisters work in the Centres.
Sisters continue to work in preschools, in day care centres, or with those suffering from addictive behaviour of various kinds and in general where people in the community need help.
Working with people who need care is where Catherine McAuley began. She famously said:
“God knows I would rather be poor and hungry than that the people of Kingstown, or elsewhere should be deprived of any consolation in our power to afford them”
Today the need might have different faces and different expressions but the call to respond is equally urgent.
Templemore Social Services Centre