Lord Provost Bob Duncan hosted a Civic Reception in the City Chambers in Dundee to mark the 150th Anniversary of the arrival of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Dundee.
In the winter of 1839, Jeanne Jugan, the daughter of a fisherman, from Cancale in Brittany visited an elderly, blind, paralysed lady, who was abandoned, cold and hungry. Jeanne took her on her back, carried her up the narrow stairs to her attic room, where a rope served as a handrail, and put her in her own bed. This one act of compassion marked the beginning of the work of the Little Sisters of the Poor, now an international religious Congregation dedicated to the care of the elderly.
Twenty four years after Jeanne received the first old lady on that winters evening four Little Sisters and two novices arrived in Dundee to continue her work. Sister Emmanuel, the first English Little Sister of the Poor, was in charge of the foundation. All they had was their simple baggage. Like Jeanne they would trust in God’s Providence to provide for the elderly who would come to them for help.
Mr Thiebault, a rich industrialist, who had heard of the Little Sisters in his native France, wished to see them installed in Dundee. In conjunction with Fr Ernest Lelièvre, a priest Associate and adviser of the Congregation he offered to buy the property known as Wellburn in the name of the Little Sisters. One of the conditions of sale was that the small chapel, serving the growing community of Irish immigrant Catholics of Lochee, could continue to be used. This building still exists and is now used as a laundry. A circular stained-glass window is evidence of its former use.
The records of the home tell us that on April 15th 1863 they were met at the railway station by Mr Thiebault and settled in their new home that very evening. After setting up their beds they went to the chapel, but as they had had “a substantial meal at midday with Mr Thiebault”, there was no need to occupy themselves with a preparing a meal.
Formerly known as Wellwood House, Welburn St Joseph’s was occupied successively by Mr Peter Mitchell, a farmer, Mr Peter Brown, a well known architect in Dundee, who converted the farmland surrounding the house into a beautiful garden, watered by the Lochee burn that ran through the property and finally by a Mr Pritcairn, son of Provost Pritcairn who renamed it Wellburn. Fr Stephen Keenan, of St Andrew’s Cathedral acquired the property in 1847 with a view to providing an orphanage and an academy for Dundee. The property changed names once more and became St Clement’s Academy for young men. The Sisters of Mercy took charge of it from 1859 to 1861 and the property reverted to the name Wellburn.
Thanks no doubt to the influence of Mr Thiebault, The Courier and The Advertiser of the 27th April 1863 published a fairly lengthy article on the Little Sisters and their work, to introduce them to the people of Dundee and to encourage the people to help them. They were ready then, to start their collecting rounds. They were a curiosity in their white bonnets and flowing black cloaks. People followed them to see what they were doing, but no one was unpleasant to them and they were well received by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Their first donation of £1 came from a gentleman who called to see them – an important amount at that time! It is touching to note that it was a non-Catholic lady who insisted on choosing the biggest and best basket in her market stall for their collecting rounds, and so it went on, in one shop they got a cooking pot, in another a few pieces of cutlery. The two principle hotels gave them left-overs and invited them to return. The local barber asked them to call every week for a loaf of bread as did the school-master, both non-Catholics. They received pennies in donations. The first important donations recorded in the annals of the Home are £8.20 following the publication of the newspaper articles and £6.00 from a Christmas Concert. Their first collection in Lochee was “a great success” amounting to £2.00, people dropping their “small coins” into their hands, as well as some bread! These gestures were repeated over and over again as they became known in Dundee.
The first task of the Little Sisters was to have the roof repaired and other essential renovations carried out so that some residents could be received as soon as possible. By the 25th April five ladies had been received, all Irish, four described as Weavers and the fifth a domestic worker. With the help of a donation of £30.00 from a benefactor in Belgium the Sisters bought 20 beds. At this time the Sisters noted that “that they were almost destitute and the linen room was empty, the elderly coming into the home bringing nothing but their misery”. Even so, soon the number being cared for increased to 12, and by the summer of 1864 there were 39, then 45.
In 1865, as the number of elderly increased plans were put in place to build an extension for the men. It was completed in 1868 with accommodation for 70 – 80 residents. By 1873 the number had increased to 97 making further extensions necessary. A new chapel was built in 1893 and the old chapel converted into a laundry and by 1902 a further extension for the ladies was completed.
The work continued to prosper. God’s Providence provided the means of continuing Jeanne Jugan’s work, day by day and year by year. Extensions were added, facilities installed, large dormitories were divided and today private en-suite facilities are provided to the residents.
The generosity of the people of Dundee has never failed. Their pennies and pounds continue dropping into the collecting boxes of the Little Sisters on their weekend Supermarket collections. Friends and benefactors send their contributions or come to the Home themselves bringing gifts in kind. As water passes by a channel to reach our homes, so the goodness and kindness of the people of Dundee and the surrounding areas are “channelled” through the Sisters who serve simply as the “conduits” for the love and generosity of those who share their care for the elderly. Without them there would be no Wellburn St Joseph’s, so in a certain sense Wellburn is the home of the people of Dundee, it would not survive without them.
To all these people, to those who have gone before them, the Little Sisters extend their heartfelt and prayerful gratitude.