Bognor Regis — and it isn't for the Beatles. This queue is one of the most tragic in the land. It is a queue of old people looking for a home.
The queue is in fact on paper. Men and women with no home of their own and often facing the bleak alternative of "workhouse" conditions in a Local Authority Institution, arc adding their names by the dozen awaiting the day, now only four or five months hence, when Sister Mary Garson opens yet another "Home from home".
"I could open ten more homes tomorrow—if I had the staff and the money", Sister Mary Gerson, modern apostle of the elderly, told me this week. Sister Mary, already wcllknown for the homeliness of St. Mary's Dower. that rambling house perched on the edge of the Downs near Hassocks in Sussex. plans to open St. Joseph's, Bognor—near sea, shops and Servite Church— in March or April next year.
But first, she said, we must put in central heating. "That'll cost £1.000 to start with", then they'll redesign the stairs to suit old legs; they'll modernise the kitchen, "We like to serve tasty meals". and they'll divide up the rooms into single where possible. The house. and a former museum, all as yet without electricity has been paid for by a charitable trust. but alterations will cost another L5,00048.000. 1 he Sisters, hard at work themselves on alterations and decorations. arc hoping that many local people will come forward and lend a hand.
There's hope too that organisations such as UCM. CWL, YCW etc. might like to help furnish a "roomlet". This would include bed, table. comfy chair, linen, chest of drawers. rug and lino. Plans are already being made to convert the garage into a chapel. Most of the accommodation will be in single or double rooms, though there may be a few flatlets a married couple have already applied for one.
There's a waiting list at St. Mary's Dower as well. Over 100 names each representing a hopeful man or woman. But St. Mary's, with 32 old people in residence and accommodating the novitiate for the community as well, is bursting at the seams. Sister Mary Garson's community numbers 15. Their Constitutions are to be presented at Rome by Bishop Cowderoy. If approved by the Holy See as a Diocesan Congregation, they will be known as the Sisters of Our Lady of Grace and Compassion.
They hope to be aggregated to the Servite Order with whose spirit they feel themselves to be most in sympathy. They say the Divine Office in English and pray especially for priests.
Their work is not limited by denomination, or geography. They will gladly work for the old. the handicapped, children, missions. wherever they are needed. An invitation to work in Africa has had to be postponed. There are no Sisters to spare.
For nine years Sister Mary Gerson. University graduate and psychologist. has campaigned for the elderly. Ever since that day in 1954 when a Brighton priest asked her "How much do you think you would need to open a house to care for old people?"
The priest put £800 on the table. That exact sum had been given to him by an anonymous person to give to any charity he wished.
It was enough for a deposit on 38 Preston Park Avenue, Brighton. The old people came, and they stayed.
The house next door came up for sale, It was ideal as an extension. But it was sold before Sister Mary could raise any money. In the time-honoured manner of other founders and foundresses she was not put off. She buried a picture of St. Joseph in the front garden of the house next door and confidently asked him to make the owners move on quickly.
Within a ygar they moved—and rang her to ask did she want to buy the house. Today there are 40 residents at St. Mary's, Brighton.
Another little house acquired in Gordon Road has become Margaret Sinclair House where capable old ladies care for themselves in self contained apartments. They pay a peppercorn rent.
Then one day in 1957 Sister Mary stood in the bar of the Country Club near Hassocks. home of a famous popular singer. "This," she said "will do very well for the chapel."
She had decided to buy the large rambling house set in 37 acres of glorious Sussex countryside.
Any more projects? Yes, and a temporary setback. Plans for flatlets for old people at Woodingdean. Brighton, have been deferred. But they'll try again.
And how do they keep going? More than 2,500 N7ewsletters go out each quarter. there is a quarterly draw and a quarterly bazaar. The homes are registered under the National Assistance Act and receive part of the old people's pensions.
Sister Mary Gerson in smart navy modern-style habit with a small blue and white veil, has the last word: "I could open 10 more houses tomorrow if ..."
The address of St. Mary's Dower is Underhill Lane, Clayton. Hassocks. Sussex.