Of all the stories I’ve read about the mother and baby homes, one in particular has haunted me, that of a young woman who kept her pregnancy secret to the end, and, when labour began, went quietly to a local mother and baby home, gave birth, left her child with the nuns, and went back to her family within hours, her secret kept, their respectability intact.
I can’t stop thinking about the hidden, lonely pain of that girl. Nor can I stop thinking about the sheer cowardice that prevented people from questioning the injustice of a society which left vulnerable women so alone, so unsupported, so unloved.
As followers of Christ, we should rejoice that the stories of these women and their children are being heard. Throughout the Bible the Lord speaks consistently of his concern for the most vulnerable, and Israel is repeatedly reminded of the special care that should be given to women raising children on their own (Ex 22:22, Deut 10:18, Is 1:17, Zech 7:9).
This constant divine concern for women and children on the margins becomes vibrantly visible in Jesus Christ, who defends and embraces them on multiple occasions in the Gospels (Jn 4:1-42, Jn 7:53-8:11, Mk 14:3-9, Mt 18:1-7). It is a good and godly thing, then, that the women and children abandoned by 20th-century Irish society are now being listened to, and that their mistreatment is being lamented. “God casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly” (Lk 2:52).
Nevertheless, we’re rightly sensitive to the ways in which these stories are used to discredit the Faith. “This is what a Catholic society looks like”, many critics claim, “and all this cruelty is simply a consequence of Catholic teaching”. We rightly respond that such cruelty arises from a distortion of Catholic morality, and is not its consequence, but such claims still get under our skin and shake our confidence in the truth and beauty of the Catholic worldview.
In thinking all this through we could remind ourselves, of course, that similar institutions were a feature of many non-Catholic societies, and that Ireland was learning, in this case, from the “foundling hospitals” of Victorian Britain. We could recall that “post-Catholic” Ireland has its own dark stories too in relation to the vulnerable, from family homelessness and direct provision, to the clinical injustice of abortion.
But it seems to me that the best way to deal with our doubts is to examine carefully the example of the Regina Coeli hostel, founded by Frank Duff and run by the Legion of Mary since 1930. There, as the commission’s report makes clear, and as Dr Finola Kennedy has laid out elsewhere in great detail, women with crisis pregnancies were treated in a way that was faithful to the example of Jesus. The general atmosphere of the hostel was evidently vastly different from that of the mother and baby homes, and Frank Duff was clear from the start that everything should be done to keep mother and child together.
The Regina Coeli hostel is, of course, just one residence among the many covered by the commission’s report, but it is an important minority. It is important because it shows that the mother and baby homes, with all their attendant indignity, were not simply “the” Catholic answer to crisis pregnancies in modern Ireland. There was, in fact, another way.
Right at the heart of the Church, members of the Legion of Mary, utterly committed to the truth of the Catholic Faith, discerned a path that was compassionate, courageous, and Christlike. This path was taken by few of their contemporaries, and that is tragic testimony to the blindness of humanity, but that fact need not rob us of confidence in the truth and beauty of our Faith.
With that confidence intact, it is for us then in our time to do what Frank Duff and his colleagues did in his: to see clearly the problems of contemporary society, and to respond to them with the unbounded compassion of the heart of Jesus.
Consider supporting Regina Coeli’s works of mercy
The Regina Coeli hostel is different from the mother and baby homes in another respect too: it has outlasted them. It continues to this day to be a haven for women who find themselves without accommodation. I’ve been blessed to be involved in the hostel in recent years, providing spiritual support to volunteers there, and I’ve been consistently amazed at the love and dedication that keeps the hostel running, above all during this pandemic. The Regina Coeli is always looking for volunteers, and gladly accepts donations. Why not consider supporting this work of mercy in 2021?