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Our charity was founded in 1863, towards the end of the industrial revolution and in the aftermath of a period of unprecedented growth in Leeds. The Victorian era was a golden age for the city in many ways, but it wasn’t without its growing pains – which were becoming difficult to ignore.

The beginnings

Poor housing, industrial pollution and lack of access to good health-care were responsible for high levels of disease and premature death across Leeds, with many children orphaned and left to wander the streets alone. New machinery led to unemployment, and work for those who had it probably meant a grim slog in the mills or down the mines. The city’s many industrial plants relentlessly pumped out smoke and pollutants; for many years, the River Aire was dead because it was so polluted.

The Catholic Church: rising to the challenge

At this time, there was no NHS; no antibiotics; no welfare system; no health & safety laws. It was a very difficult time in which to be poor. So how did the Catholic Church, with its imperative to care for the poor, respond to these social challenges?

The Bishop of Beverley, Bishop John Briggs, appealed for funds to help set up a Catholic orphanage in the Diocese of Leeds. As a result, in 1863 Mount St Mary’s Orphanage for girls was opened in Leeds under the auspices of the Sisters of Mary Immaculate, and this is where our charity’s roots lie. St Vincent’s home for boys soon followed, and in the late 1890s an extension was built, enabling it to become an industrial school.

Early twentieth century

Various other homes were set up at different times in response to the challenges and changes of Victorian society. In the early years of the twentieth century, they came together as a single entity. In 1911 the first National Catholic Congress was held in Leeds, and it endorsed and reaffirmed the role of Catholic voluntary action work.

Bishop Cowgill, the third Bishop of Leeds, was influential in the development of our fledgling charity, keen for our social-welfare provision to become more centralised and more closely identified with the Diocese of Leeds rather than the city of Leeds. Under his chairmanship, the Leeds Diocesan Rescue Society was begun, and a great deal was achieved before he died in 1936. Shortly afterwards, of course, came World War II; like the first, it was a very difficult time for our society, giving rise to ‘many sorrows associated with the work of rescue.’

Mid-twentieth century

After World War II, Bishop Poskitt appointed the first professionally trained and qualified worker to co-ordinate all the homes. They would also be required to prepare the Rescue Society for the changes which came about with the introduction of the welfare state. However, the need for Catholic social action was in no way diminished by post-war social reform, and for many years there were mixed feelings about the advent of the welfare state.

Late twentieth century

In the 1950s, the first orphanage at Mount St Mary’s in Leeds was closed and replaced by 3 family group homes. This was a period of great expansion for the society, with an office opening in Sheffield in 1964 followed by new homes for children and hostels for working boys and girls.

In 1962, Mgr John Murphy was appointed as full-time assistant administrator of the society before taking up the post of administrator in 1969, a post he held until 1982 when he became Vicar General. Mgr Murphy had a clear directive, set out in the report which followed a formal Home Office inspection, and which he delivered in appeals from the pulpit:

  • To employ staff trained and experienced in child care
  • To recruit substitute parents for children who were available for adoption or fostering
  • To raise the funds needed to meet the necessary expenditure.

New legislation came into force which required the society to enter into partnerships with local authorities, a requirement still in existence today.

After 20 years at the helm, Mgr Murphy handed over to Canon Peter Maguire, who inherited a large and efficient organisation with a great reputation throughout the diocese and with the local authorities in the area. However, although the society was a major contributor to children’s welfare, requirements change and children’s homes went out of fashion. In the 1980s, Canon Maguire spent as much effort closing down many of the homes as Mgr Murphy had spent building them up.

Meanwhile, the large mental institutions for adults were being closed down and people were being relocated into small group homes. It was at this time that the society changed its remit, from only caring for children to caring for adults as well. It was also at this time that the charity took its new name, Catholic Care.

Adoption and fostering had been a major element of our work during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, but by the 1980s was declining, as there were fewer babies available than there were childless couples applying. However, a very important and growing service was emerging, with the provision of social workers in Diocesan schools. Our present large and very effective service has evolved from these beginnings.

In 1990 we appointed our first layperson as a director, Stuart Hanlon, a teacher and social worker. During his tenure, our charity expanded once again, opening new homes for adults with learning disabilities as well as supported-housing schemes for people with mental health issues. The schools service also went from strength to strength.

Early twenty-first century

Of particular significance between 2009 and 2012 was the stance Catholic Care took in relation to the Sexual Orientation Act, which required all adoption agencies to be open to applications from same-sex couples. A clause in the legislation allowed faith-based organisations to apply for an exemption, which Catholic Care did with the support of Bishop Arthur Roche. There were several court hearings, but the final verdict in November 2012 was both frustrating and disappointing. Our charity was judged to have been correct in its interpretation of the law, but the ‘weight of evidence’ was not sufficient to allow the exemption. After placing over 2,000 babies for adoption, we were forced to de-register our adoption service in March 2013.

In September 2012, Carol Hill was appointed the first female director of Catholic Care. Under her leadership, the organisation retains the vibrancy it displayed many years ago when it was founded in response to the social challenges of the times.

The Catholic Church in the Leeds Diocese continues to respond to the social challenges of today through its charity, Catholic Care. We continue to evolve our services to meet the needs of the disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalised in our own communities.