It is a Christmas paradox that the birth of the homeless is celebrated in almost every home. For Mary and Joseph, there was no room at the inn – but the innkeeper provided them with a temporary shelter, even if only a stable. Be it ever so humble, anywhere the heart is warm, generous and forgiving can rightly be called ‘home’.
This coming year will see a major anniversary of our own ‘Family Home’, as Leeds Cathedral celebrates its Centenary of Consecration. Like any home, a Cathedral is more than just fine architecture and furnishings. Our ‘Mother Church’ is a place of nurturing and unfailing help for anyone coming home to seek God’s mercy and forgiveness as well as share a joyful Feast in His presence. Leeds Cathedral is dedicated to St Anne, who, after years of being childless, became the mother of the Virgin Mary and therefore grandmother to Jesus. She and her husband St Joachim are the Patron Saints of all grandparents, as well as all those who have no family of their own.
Throughout the ages, Christianity has provided not only places of worship, but also sanctuaries where the poor, widowed and aged could be cared for. As with all human institutions, we know life could sometimes be hard and comforts basic in such places – but better than the streets or the workhouse, which is where secular societies routinely condemned the most vulnerable to end their days.
Now a separate charity, St Anne’s Centre for the homeless was originally founded at the Cathedral in December 1971 to provide shelter and support for those experiencing the isolation and danger of life sleeping rough. For the past 158 years, the Little Sisters of the Poor have also provided a home for some of the most vulnerable in our communities. The nuns and staff at Mount St Joseph’s Care Home in Headingley tend to the physical and spiritual wellbeing of low-income elderly people, of any faith or none, who need varying degrees of care.
Last month, RAAC concrete was found throughout the roof of Mount St Joseph’s, so this Christmas, the sixty two current residents, including several of our retired priests, have been coming to terms with finding new homes. Of course, no-one will be on the streets, but moving house is stressful at any age. Some have no relatives who can assist them or help find the specialist residential care they need elsewhere. Two residents who have no family – one 105 years old and the other in her late nineties – have been found places at the Little Sisters’ care homes in other UK cities, and their Christmas has been spent amongst strangers.
To ensure the safety of residents and staff, the Sisters have taken advice from RAAC specialists, architects and insurers. All the upper floors have been evacuated, the main hall and chapel are closed and only the ground floor is in use. With substantial support structures now strengthening the building, what was once a community of comfort and joy at all times of year is now marred by the intrusion of metal girders.
Rehoming the residents is underway, working with families to get the best solution for their loved ones. The Little Sisters’ other homes are holding rooms for any residents without local ties and are opening up areas to create additional care beds. Leeds City Council has pledged to help other residents stay local and close to family and friends. Many people are working hard to find rooms at the inn, or at least temporary ‘stable’ accommodation.
The financial cost of hiring the girders to allow continued use of less than half the building has so far reached £200,000. The Sisters have started urgent fundraising to pay for providing the extra accommodation needed, but the building which has provided a place of sanctuary for generations of local men and women will have to be demolished.
The bricks and mortar will be swept away, but the love on which this home is truly built will stand firm. Like everything material at Christmas, our gift wrap and leftovers are thrown away and even the sturdiest toys and presents will one day be lost or broken – but the God given skill, care and love through which our gifts are made, given and remembered is eternal.
As we wish a blessed Christmas and hopeful New Year in all homes and all hearts across the Diocese of Leeds, please consider supporting the Little Sisters of the Poor with the costs of keeping Mount St Joseph’s safe until all the Leeds residents have been found new homes …