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franciscan - September 2004

The Society of Saint Francis, 2004

Stepney - then and now

 Nestling in the shadow of the City of London's NatWest building and the new giant gherkin, beyond the Tower lies Stepney, for generations a home for refugees - Irish, French, Jewish, Bangladeshi.  It has been a place of poverty, deprivation, neglect, rags, starvation, filth - and of fierce family and tribal loyalties, of warm hearted generosity, of humour and of organised crime.

Nestling in the shadow of the City of London's NatWest building and the new giant gherkin, beyond the Tower lies Stepney, for generations a home for refugees - Irish, French, Jewish, Bangladeshi.  It has been a place of poverty, deprivation, neglect, rags, starvation, filth - and of fierce family and tribal loyalties, of warm hearted generosity, of humour and of organised crime.

The social conscience of the Victorian philanthropists prompted efforts to alleviate the misery - William Booth, Dr. Barnardo, the Barnetts spring to mind - and as a twentieth century Franciscan answer to the needs of vulnerable Asian and African seamen who found themselves stranded and destitute and unable to communicate, 84 Cable Street was established after the Second World War and was, until the redevelopment of the area in the 60's, a centre of ministry to these men as well as a 'praying presence'.  Frs. Charles and Neville and a succession of other brothers loved and laboured heroically.  That was then.

After a twenty years' absence from the neighbourhood two brothers and two CSF sisters with the enthusiastic support of Donald Chesworth, then the Warden, made their home at Toynbee Hall in 1979 and then moved in 1982 to 10 Halcrow Street very near the Royal London Hospital.  Twenty more years have passed and have seen continuous change and development in the population as well as in the environment - Canary Wharf to the east, the 'gherkin' to the west.  A large Sainsbury's has been built in Whitechapel, and the Royal London Hospital is now undergoing extensive and overdue rebuilding which includes a high rise block very close to where we live in Halcrow Street.  The huge crane with its illuminated NHS sign has been a kind of 'icon' around for the last six months.  We've had our share of noise - from that, from the corner of our street where the road level has been raised for disability use, and from either side of us where new occupiers are enthusiastic DIY practitioners.

Twenty years ago the immigrant Bangladeshis were new and few spoke English.  Now with the third generation most do, and many of the children go to mixed schools.

Some older women still need an interpreter, for instance when seeing a doctor, and the 'Well Babies Clinic' set up by Sister Leonore in the early 80's still functions. 

From the outset the intention was to have a group of two brothers and two sisters who would worship together, share the housework, and minister in the neighbourhood.  At present, Sisters Chris and Elizabeth with Brothers Jason and Kentigern John share the common life, and work as described below:

CHRIS  'I am involved in the local Parish Church (St Dunstan's) and am available for missions, etc.  My work with DeafBlind UK became ever more challenging as government restrictions became tighter, but it is still very rewarding and full of surprises.  I recently took advantage of a local 'Learning for Life' offer to do a British Sign Language Course free of charge.'

ELIZABETH  'I've been back in Stepney for about a year and am happy to be here;  I enjoy the group in the house and feel we get on well together.  I am beginning to build up some local ministry and spiritual direction, and I now spend quite a few Sunday mornings presiding at services in the Deanery when the parish priest is unable to be present.'

JASON  'Since moving to London in the spring of 2002 I have worked part time in two parishes - Our Most Holy Redeemer and St Mark's, Clerkenwell, and St Andrew's, Holborn.  Both ministries involved pastoral and administrative tasks.  Last November I became Personal Assistant and Chaplain to the Bishop of Stepney, in whose Episcopal area we live.  This full-time work is very interesting and brings me into contact with Christians throughout this part of the Diocese, Anglicans and others.  I continue to worship at St Andrew's on Wednesday evenings, and on Sundays I am free to accompany the bishop.'

KENTIGERN JOHN  'I've had my first year living in another of Great Britain's  capital cities - this one a little smokier, dirtier and bigger than Edinburgh!  I've been working as chaplain of the London City YMCA, part time.  I've been heavily involved with the anti-Iraq war protests, and am still active politically.  I've explored London's galleries, museums and parks.  I've attached myself to St Giles', Cripplegate Church where I'm enjoying the low key approach to worship.  I have helped with setting up an ecumenical and multi-faith sensitive chaplaincy for a local children's hospice.'

Members all our houses, share a common rule of life, say the same offices, wear the same habit (when appropriate) - and in most other respects are different.  Houses are in different settings, have different people living in them who do different things and relate in different ways.  10 Halcrow Street  is our only house in which, from the beginning, sisters and brothers have together lived the Franciscan way of life.  Readers, please pray for them. f

 

General Information about this site from: websterssf@franciscans.org.uk

Copyright 1998-2010 Society of Saint Francis, European Province

CSF European Province First Order Sisters: Registered Charity Number 286615
SSF European Province First Order Brothers: Registered Charity Number 236464
SSF Central Fund (for supporting SSF worldwide): Registered Charity Number 280238