Sisters’ 40 years of care for women in need

It was 1972 and Sr Colette Hickey of the Good Shepherd Sisters saw an urgent need to provide a shelter for women and children in Cork who couldn’t remain in their own homes due to domestic violence.

And so she opened a refuge in the Mardyke providing a place of safety for families too terrified to remain at home.

But once she had opened the night shelter, she realised she was casting these families adrift by day: releasing them onto the streets so they could loiter around the back of churches and wander in and out of shops repeatedly with kids in tow.

It was a daily ritual that just served to heighten their sense of exclusion, rejection and helplessness.

And, not unexpectedly, many chose to return to the man who was breaking their jaw, snapping their fingers and burning them with boiling water.

As a result, a workman’s shelter on Adelaide St was acquired and a day centre, fully manned by volunteers, was opened by Sr Colette.

Forty years later, the Good Shepherds Sisters in Cork are still the organisation that vulnerable local women and their children turn to when they have nowhere else to go.

The workman’s hut is now Edel House: a centre which last year provided 3,000 bed nights to the homeless women of Cork, looking after 344 women and their 102 children. Edel House has nine family rooms and beds for another 24 women who have nowhere else to go.

Some of these women and their families may be on the street due to serious mental health problems, some may have found it impossible to pay rent due to alcoholism or drug problems. Others have been evicted for antisocial behaviour.

On the other side of the River Lee, the Good Shepherds now have further specialist accommodation for homeless children who can’t live at home due to family conflict or whose foster care may have broken down. Up to six girls can stay there at any one time, for periods of three to six months.

They’ve also opened Bruac, a training and education centre for the teenagers and women that use their services. In the vast majority of cases, these women came from such chaotic homes that they don’t have a formal education, which further increases their vulnerability. Last year, 31 girls completed training courses at Bruac.

Sr Jane Murphy is the Good Shepherd’s mission leader in Cork. She is adamant that homelessness is not caused by lack of housing. It is far more complicated than that.

“Rather, it arises from vulnerability caused by one or more problems in the girl, in a parent or husband or partner. These problems can include mental ill health, substance abuse, intellectual disability, antisocial behaviour and very often severe family conflict.

“She might lose her home due to alcoholism but find a new place to live afterwards. But her vulnerability does not end there. More than homelessness so, it is the vulnerability that demands our support.”

Forty years of Good Shepherd services in Cork was celebrated at Cork City Hall last night.

The organisation’s volunteers, board and training volunteers, were thanked for all they have done to ensure the continued work of the vital services.

Sr Colette Hickey, now aged 94, was also in attendance.

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