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Founded in this country in 1844, the SVP was very quickly into its stride in trying to provide practical assistance to those in need.  We saw in the last ‘chapter’ how the SVP helped combat the massive health and hygiene problems faced by the poor.  This next instalment looks at how the SVP promoted the Catholic faith through supporting church attendance and education.

Concern for the instruction in the faith of Catholic children

  Catholics were very much in a minority, and therefore were easy prey to religious prejudice.  They found themselves in much less of a minority after the great Irish influx, which began principally in the year 1847.  By 1851, the population of England and Wales was 18million, of which 1million were Catholics.

St Marie’s Church, Sheffield

  St Marie’s (originally St Mary’s) in Norfolk Row, Sheffield was opened in 1850 and attracted newly emancipated (1829) Catholics in their thousands, including the Irish poor immigrants from The Crofts.  Their treatment by today’s values was unbelievable.  Their obvious poverty and shabby condition generated open hostility and resentment from their fellow Catholics from the more prosperous parts of the parish who came to worship.  A form of segregation was introduced to keep people separate.  This societal attitude from the time is indicative of the way the poor were perceived and treated.  It permeated across all forms of life where those less fortunate were denied any form of advancement, improvement or betterment.

  For us today an obvious factor for success in life is education but this was something that, for virtually all of the poor, was unavailable.  It is no surprise then that when we look back at the treatment of Catholics, we can now understand why much of the earliest SVP work was concerned with Catholic education.

  There were no Government grants for any school buildings – Catholic or non-Catholic – before 1833.  Until then, only voluntary organisations provided school places.

  In 1851, there were still 3.5million children, of all religions, not attending school.  Education, not yet compulsory, had to be privately financed.  The concern shown by the SVP in efforts to educate the poor was following in the footsteps of St Vincent de Paul himself, who had always stressed this as one of the two major works of his priests and the Daughters of Charity.

Certificated masters would run school classes to provide ‘basic’ education – funding for this was provided by the SVP

  SVP brothers went into some schools to instruct children in their religion, but, most often, they tried to ensure that Catholic children were placed in a position where they could be taught by others.  This did not simply mean actually putting children into schools.  It was normally more a case of giving gifts of clothes to children who would otherwise have been unfit even to leave the house.  One Sunderland SVP report stated that £17 – a huge sum at the time – had been collected to provide clothing for around 70 children to enable them to attend school.

  In some instances, the SVP founded schools.  In Bristol, they opened an evening school.  Numerous cases are recorded of catechism lessons being given.

  In 1866, Cardinal Manning said that Catholic schools in London could accommodate only about half of the Catholic poor in that City.  In 1874, an evening school in Camberwell, supported by the SVP, paid for the services of a certificated master, who received a weekly salary.  In 1879, the SVP opened an evening school in Sheffield, where over a thousand attendances were recorded for the 3 nights per week it was in use during 10 months of its first year.

  SVP Conferences continued to help with provision of clothes and the payment of school fees (these would not be abolished until 1892).

  A report for 1881, from Manchester, shows that brothers paid school fees for one third of all pupils in the area.  If they had not done so, Catholic children would have attended a local “free” school or “Board” school, with no access to a Catholic education.

  North Shields brothers taught in Sunday schools.  They also helped with religious instruction for:

  • Catholic boys on the Training Ship ‘Wellesley’
  • Care for young prisoners
  • Helping adults to attend Mass – and providing clothes for this purpose.

  Many brothers used to accompany Catholic inmates of workhouses to Mass.  If they had not done so, Catholics would have been unable to attend.  Even so, despite such offers by accompanying brothers, permission seems to have been refused more often than it was granted.

  In the late 1860s there was more religious freedom.  Cardinal Manning succeeded in obtaining legislation to allow Catholic children in workhouses to be brought up as Catholics.  Separate places of worship were also provided for Catholics, who were allowed more free access to their own clergy.

  Clothes also were provided to combat some of the issues faced by poor Catholics who missed Mass.  There were numerous  examples of parish priests saying a very early Sunday Mass specifically for people who refused to appear out-of-doors later on a Sunday because they had no “proper” clothes.

  Because of the attitude typically exhibited by the well-to-do parishioners of St Marie’s and churches up and down the country, many poor folk felt too embarrassed to attend church with their (so-called) betters!  This is among the reasons why one SVP work was the setting-up of “wardrobes” to supply clothing to the needy.

  In the following ‘chapter’ we will look at how the SVP broadened its range of support and services to those in need and one might be forgiven for thinking it could be a template for the welfare state!

  If you are enjoying this series of ‘chapters’ and would like to find out more about the SVP or are interested in joining, please contact Lance Philpott – SVP Membership Development Officer for Hallam Diocese at lancep@svp.org.uk.