The Royal Foundation of St Katharine was brought back to the East End from Regent's Park by Father John Groser. Asked in 1946 to formulate ideas for an East London community, he wrote:
The basic need of Church life in East London is to strengthen the central core of the life of each parish and borough….The centre would contain all the essential accommodation for a real Christian community life….It would provide for a far wider fellowship than just that of the residents. Christians in all walks of life in the locality would be encouraged to come there and feel part of the fellowship of the place. Christian groups would meet there, discussions be held, lectures and talks given. The best Christian thought and experience would be brought into East London.
He proposed that such a centre be:
For the help, encouragement and co-ordination of the activities of clergy and lay workers.
For the training of men and women for religious and social work and for leadership in public life.
For promoting educational and cultural activities among adults.
For evangelistic work among people not in touch normal parish life.
For furthering the spiritual and bodily welfare of the aged.
This scheme was accepted in 1947, and to further distinguish the work to be done there, both Father Groser and the Chapter agreed that what would become the Royal Foundation should not
conflict with the work which the parish priests and their staffs were doing, but, on the contrary, its main concern must be to assist them in every way, and to undertake those tasks which they themselves were unable to perform, but which were increasingly recognised to be vital to the success of their work.
They moved into Church House in 1948, with a chapel set up in the bombed-out vestry of St James Church as they began to rebuild and build anew.
This story is written in a chapter by Dorothy Halsall, part of a book edited by Kenneth Brill to remember and celebrate Father John's contributions to the East End and the Church. A sister of the community and one of the key figures from this same period of St Katharine's history, Halsall worked with the Stepney Old People's Welfare Offices — we have her memoirs in the archives to be explored in further posts. She writes:
Father John's gifts as a gardener gave us beautiful surroundings. We always said that his flowers thrived on love, and they needed plenty of it in that rather discouraging East London soil. But he went on undaunted, eager to show us his Christmas roses when they first appeared, the first tomato, or his record-size bunches of grapes in the greenhouse. House and garden were the setting for discussion and study, and for the lighter side of community life. Croquet and Canasta were played. John Groser rushed about the croquet lawn, cassock tucked back, as absorbed in winning the game as he was when pacing the same lawn preparing his next sermon or lecture. He joined wholeheartedly in parties and drew others in to do the same.
They were heady days. In the response to what they actually did at St Katharine's, Dorothy writes
Father Groser had said that 'a great deal of experimentation and ready adaptation will be needed, and a willingness to adapt ourselves to changing circumstances', and that the new community must not be 'inhibited by precise and invariable terms laid down'.
It was only in 1949 that two main projects began to take shape: the Mission to London taking place in May of that year, and the inauguration of a comprehensive service for old people. Thus St Katherines would come to house the Stepney Old People's Welfare Association as well as a club for the elderly in the local area.
This quickly expanded with the support of the Council, and St Katharine's came to host a number of volunteers, academics, and a growing staff running a meals-on-wheels program, continuing with the club and visiting the elderly in their homes. Father John was to remain the Association's chairman until the end of his life.
It's particularly touching that all visitors were encouraged to participate in these activities themselves to learn more about the East End.
An old pamphlet from Father Groser's time show some of the changes: From Stepney East Station to Limehouse DLR, from being just off Cable Street to being cut off by Butcher Row, and the old school and schoolkeeper's cottage that would house the Old People's Welfare Offices and Hall that used to stand on the site are here no longer:
Father John and Ethel Upton, another key woman who helped St Katharine's enter this new period in its history, both maintained their strong ties to trade unionism as well. The felt that
its primary role would be in research and study and in learning to understand the industrial worker….A number of trade unionists were invited to St. Katharine's to help in this study.
A W.E.A. (Worker's Educational Association) Centre was established. This was only part of the series of courses and training hosted, which included: a yearly course for the newly-ordained on 'The Task of the Church in Industrial Society' (partially taught by students in the W.E.A.); a series of seminars on 'The Church and Society' and another on 'The Church and the Trade Union Movement'; gatherings of public school chaplains to experience East End life leading to an annual course for thirty sixth-formers to study East London; conferences on the conditions and traditions of East End workers; and a growing number of residential conferences.
For over five years St Katharine's hosted informal and confidential meetings between men and management from the docks as they gradually learned to work together. Halsall writes, 'A leading member exclaimed, 'We couldn't meet like this anywhere else!'
The London Industrial Council met here too, and a consultative council called the Metropolitan Industrial Mission was formed and also met here regularly, made up of representatives from London, Southwark, Chelmsford, Rochester, Oxford, Chichester and a Free-churchman from Luton.
Through hosting of the Old People's Welfare Offices, health and wellbeing became increasingly important as well. In a fascinating foreshadowing of our thoughts today around Whole Person Health and social prescribing in 2015, Halsall writes:
A group of clergy and lay-people, psychiatric workers, doctors, nurses and social workers formed a 'Total Care' Group, to consider the contribution made by each worker in personal care, and the need to work together, whether as a team in a hospital, or as clergy, doctor, or social worker helping people in their own homes.
Father John retired at the age of 72 on the 28th of June, 1962. Halsall quotes Father Groser himself, these words written a year after his retirement:
It has been our aim to make this place a centre of life, Catholic in the deepest meaning of the word, concerned not only with the enriching of the life of the Church, but always looking outward in concern for the world and forward in adventure, believing that the Holy Spirit, active both in Church and world alike, calls for such adventure for the Kingdom of God.
Her final words are moving:
These are the foundation he laid in the reforming of he Royal Foundation of St Katharine in East London. We pray that others may build on them.
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