franciscan - January 2004
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2003
Plaistow Friary - An Update
The train emerges from its burrow at Whitechapel and rumbles eastwards towards the Essex suburbs. There are no gradients on these reclaimed Thames mudflats - we leave the city and enter another world, another village, different concerns, different gossip. The visitor alights at Plaistow, passes the East London Cemetery - and near the junction of Balaam Street and Barking Road stands the House of the Divine Compassion - no. 42, for short.
Once the home of a retired sea captain, since 1894 it has been continuously a Franciscan friary. For the first fifty years or so it was the home of the, now sadly no more, Society of the Divine Compassion; since 1950 brothers and sometimes sisters of C/SSF have lived there and worked among the people of Plaistow (now a part of Newham). For the first two decades our life was bound up with St Philip's Church across the road - since we relinquished that responsibility the house has developed a life of its own, as a manifestation of the Divine Compassion in the neighbourhood where brothers and sisters (some in habits, some not) encounter and share God's love.
On his way from the station the visitor passed the last resting place of Father Andrew SDC. On arrival at no. 42 he is admitted by Daphne to the … waiting room? At any rate, there he waits in comfort and watches. A photo of Father Andrew gazes down. Old clothes are being sorted in a room beyond where people chat. Beyond again, the rain forest looms. Brother Arnold appears, and soon four of us - Arnold, Penny, Brother Julian and the visitor penetrate the forest, following the path to the chalet chapel for Midday Prayer at which the reading is Father Andrew's poem 'Southend on Sea'. So - the Divine Compassion is alive and well and active at 42, Balaam Street.
Above the entrance to the house are two symbolic logos - clasped hands, and a tau cross; the cross for Francis, the hands for 'Helping Hands'. 'Helping Hands' is an organisation which has the use of the premises, is over 20 years old, and originated as an experiment in community self help. Brother Julian SSF was its founder, and has been living with it ever since. The values by which it lives are as follows - they make a lot more sense if you read them on the doorstep at the house, or in the 'waiting room' as people pass through - but here they are for you to read at home:-
>Sharing and reflecting compassion.
>Seeing everyone as important, as an individual, and as a member of their community.
>Believing that everyone has something to give.
>Loving and caring for our neighbours as we would want to be loved.
>Helping people to overcome loneliness and social isolation.
>Belief in the value of volunteers and their contribution.
Helping Hands encourages volunteering, whether for gardening, odd jobs, housework, simple repairs or befriending, and depends on responsible, committed helpers - the volunteers. Daphne and Doreen work in the office, on the phone, keeping the lines of communication open, boiling the kettle - Daphne mornings, Doreen afternoons. Penny comes in from Southend and offers cooking, cleaning and - legal advice. Lots of people volunteer for practical jobs, and need to be connected with the customers - the elderly, the lonely, those in need of a helping hand.
Since 1995 the SSF component of no. 42 has been Julian, with a few brothers who have used the house as a base - perhaps most notably Brother Donald who for many years expressed the divine compassion as a prison chaplain from his home round the corner at 'The Hermitage', a nearby terrace house. He is living there now and celebrated his Golden Jubilee of priesthood in September, 2003 with a glorious Mass of Thanksgiving at St Alban's, Ilford.
Back to no. 42 which has been home to so many - brothers and sisters of C/SSF, other sisters and brothers many of whom have for the time had no other home. By the year 2001 the house itself was in need of tender loving care which could be postponed no longer, and was occupied by the builders. Unplanned delays meant that it was not until March, 2003 that it could be properly used once more, and there was an opportunity to make changes and have a fresh start. Helping Hands is re-established with some new volunteers, it is hoped that a link will be made with Age Concern as much of the 'helping' is directed towards the elderly and often lonely of the neighbourhood.
And behind no.42 - the garden, conventional in the days of the friary - is now, the 'rain forest'. With expert help spectacular shrubs have transformed the approach to the bungalow at the bottom, creating a series of three arbours in which Moslem, Sikh, and Buddhist friends can sit quietly and feel welcomed by a manifestly Christian household. We can no longer look on the chalet itself as fit for human habitation (until drastic measures are taken), but the house chapel remains there, more of a tent than a temple!
42, Balaam Street proves to us that in these days of fewer brothers the divine compassion still overflows in Plaistow, and endorses the words of St Paul - 'When I am weak, then am I strong.'
P.S. Hidden Lives, - Stories from the East End, published in 1994 - 'A wonderful collection of faces and voices', writes Archbishop Rowan Williams - is available from Brother Julian at the Plaistow address, price £7. f
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