“We can do no great things, only small things with great love”

This post is not about somebody from North Wiltshire – it’s about somebody who lived near my origins in the South London / Surrey borders. And my main aim is to pay tribute to a remarkable lady who has recently died.

Sister Joan O’Donoghue died on August 2nd 2010, age 76. after suffering a stroke. She had dedicated the last 25 years of her life to helping people in New Addington and the homeless in Central London. The nun, from the Order of the Daughters of Mary and Joseph, had lived and worked in the area since 1985. As part of the Good Shepherd Roman Catholic Church, she worked with refugees, single mothers, and victims of domestic violence in New Addington. In 1990, she founded the Good Shepherd Mission to the Homeless, a weekly soup run which distributes food, clothes and companionship to the homeless around London.

She was awarded an MBE in 2007 for her work with homeless people and the community of New Addington. This is one of the large estates built in the 1930s on the edge of what became Greater London, similar to St Helier, on whose edge I spent my childhood. They were built to house people from the overcrowded slums of London, and, in New Addington’s case, Central Croydon. They were built with good intentions and high hopes, but people often felt increasingly the severance from their roots, and could feel surrounded by people and yet alone in many ways. 

To quote from Wikipedia:

“By 1939, when the outbreak of World War II suspended construction, 1023 houses…had been built. The new estate was popular, but the provision of amenities had not kept pace with the house building. Only one of the proposed schools and few of the shops were in operation. For employment, decent shopping, and entertainment, the residents had to travel off the estate. This heralded a long history of isolation for the estate, then nicknamed ‘Little Siberia’. “

(This geographical isolation was significantly eased by the linkage to Croydon by frequent trams, as opposed to unreliable buses, when Tramlink opened in 2000. The standing joke in other areas of Croydon was that they should have border posts on the tram line)

“New Addington has suffered a bad reputation in the neighbouring areas because of a spate of anti-social behaviour and gang violence involving youths on the estate from the 1970s to the present, as well as the perceived poor standard of schools. The area has received mixed press over the years, with educational and health standards low, with a high number of teenage mothers.”

But: “Its isolation has perversely given it a strong sense of community and independence” . Youth Clubs, a Community Association have flourished. And Churches. And Sister Joan fulfilled her vocation.

So, writing this piece, it strikes me that roots and community are a major factor in human contentment. I wrote this piece because I read about Sr Joan’s death via a friend from my football supporting community, a community which has given me support through some bad times. My friend Joyce, when her husband died, had herself received huge suppport from Sr Joan. I wrote it because of the nature of Sr Joan’s work, given the nature of our work at Doorway. Maybe it struck me because it’s a story from ‘my neck of the woods’. Or maybe even because Joan was my mother’s name. Roots and communities come in different forms.

Roots are important, but many of the guests at Doorway have shallow or no roots left in their lives. Their childhoods may have been unsettled or insecure. In many cases, they spent part of their childhood in care. Guests may have been uprooted by major life traumas, or may have needed to uproot themselves to escape abuse, violence, false friends.

And, as in New Addington, houses themselves do not make a community. And isolation can be a state of mind, not just of geography. But a sense of community, a sense of belonging, and also the laying down of fresh new roots, can be created by people and nurtured by love.

Love is clearly something Sr Joan had and gave. Her motivation was presumably largely a religious one, and there are certainly words in the Bible that match her work with the homeless:

Matthew 25:34-5: “Then the King will say to those at His right: ‘receive your inheritance…for when I was hungry, you gave me food; when I was thirsty, you gave me  drink, when I was homeless, you gave me a welcome’ ”

A religious motivation for charitable works is criticised in some quarters, particularly if it is perceived that there is an obligatory coating of religion to be taken by the recipient with the charitable gift. Indeed I chose for the title of this post a quotation by another nun, Mother Teresa (Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu), who attracted some criticism in her time. I have no intention whatsoever in getting involved in that debate in this forum.

Also there have been arguments against the giving of food rather than money or other goods or instead of persuading people into hostels (would that there were enough anyway), or the giver choosing the sort of food of gift to be ‘doled out’, or the motives behind the giving act. Again, I shall not involve myself in these debates, but commend  reading of posts and comments such as are to be found here and here.

All I will say is that Sr Joan certainly GAVE. And with love. And people were touched enough by her help and love to say things like this to the local papers:

“Joan committed herself totally to the .. homeless and refugees…the pivot of so much social out-reach…tremendous compassion, warmth and dedication will be missed by all”

“She helped traveller communities and did a huge amount of work for the homeless. She never shouted her own praises. She just quietly got on with her work”

“She was a totemic figure in New Addington whose mission to the homeless in London was renowned. She also had an excellent sense of humour and was marvellously sceptical of politicians” (That was from the previous MP for Croydon Central, Andrew Pelling, and made me laugh….)

“She was extremely broadminded and knowledgeable…an impish sense of humour…made everyone feel that they were loved”

And in the words of my friend Joyce: “She was wonderful! Had a terrific sense of humour and was very compassionate. She helped me enormously when I lost my husband, and we will all miss her”.

Heartfelt praise indeed. We can’t all do as much as Sr Joan. But we can do what we can. And do it with love.

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About calneeagle

Volunteer at Doorway. Health care professional. Degree in sociology and politics.
This entry was posted in Charity, Homelessness and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “We can do no great things, only small things with great love”

  1. calneeagle says:

    Joyce went to the Memorial Mass last night, and the church was packed. The request was for no flowers, but for donations to the Homeless Project. Fittingly.

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