Feeling good by doing good13 Apr 2022
Charity is about doing what you can to ensure others get their chance to have ‘something more’.
On the corner of Sister Clare’s desk a small red cardboard box with a coin slit in the side, stood importantly. The Mission box was handed around each day after we came in from lunch break. We were encouraged and praised if we had halfpennies, pennies and thrupenny bits to offer, and sometimes Sister mentioned that we might like to bring a little something from home to put in the Mission box for the poor children.
I was never sure where the assiduously collected tuck-shop change ended up. But we very much enjoyed hearing the grand totals we had sent to the Missions. Doing good felt good.
Sometimes the ante was upped with the announcement of a toffee day. This involved our poor mothers spending the afternoon the next day stirring up a batch of home-made toffee, which was then poured into paper patty-pan cases, sprinkled with hundreds and thousands, left to set, and sold for tuppence each the next day at school. It all added up to a good cause, and what are teeth for, anyway?
Care for others
Raising money for charity, working for the good causes of others, and caring about those less fortunate than ourselves was inculcated in my generation.
In those days, it went with the territory of cash-strapped outer-suburban Catholic parishes. Fundraising was the major activity of the community, and looking back, what a slog it must have been for large families on single incomes, finding shillings every week to pay for an education that might have been had for free at the local State School.
Our fathers and mothers donated in kind, in work and in time to build simple brick structures, devoid of beauty or luxury, that became our church on Sundays, and then our school during the week, by pulling back the room partitions, and folding down the desktops to make pews. On Saturday afternoons, an almost perpetual working-bee saw our fathers cleaning second-hand bricks, or working as brickie’s labourers to build the next block of classrooms to house classes of 60 or more, as the school grew.
Alongside all this work was the planning and preparation for the annual fete – the biggest thing on the calendar. On the day, teams of mums would ferry to the school dozens of filled sponges, trays of lamingtons, table-loads of jam, bags and bags of sweeties of all kinds, until close of trade.
There would be donated plants and veggies at the plant stall, and tables full of home-made aprons, pot-holders, tea-cosies and knitted baby wear, cardigans and berets, and home-made novelties. For us kids, the dizzy whirl of pony rides in the paddock, the ‘Guess-how-many-lollies’ jar, Lucky Dips, raffles, the fairy-floss machine with the pink-faced mum who twirled stick after stick into the gossamer-pink depths of spun sugar (slowly being candy-coated herself from head to toe), was as thrilling as Christmas Eve. At seven o’clock, the Big Raffle Winner was announced, and the day was over.
The next day, Father would announce at Mass how much had been raised. Whatever it was, it was the backbone of another year’s finances, which, (supported by the largely unpaid dedication of the Sisters), saw that we children got the ‘something more’ that our school system had been created to provide.
Giving time and energy
When, many years later, I was moved to hear of Sir Edmund Hilary’s work among the Sherpas of the Himalayas, building schools. I realised that my father and his mates had done the same for me, selflessly sacrificing time and energy to give us a chance at having more than they had had.
But charity is more than fund-raising and building. For what price might we put on the dedication of one’s life to a worthy cause? I am still in touch with a Good Samaritan sister who taught me. She lives quietly now in retirement, modestly surprised by my gratitude. This brilliant, gentle woman fostered my gift for writing, and encouraged me in faith. I may not have joined the convent as she hoped, but here I am 50 years on, children and grandchildren, and a life lived outside the walls of the monastery, happily engaged in expressing through my life as I’ve lived it the charism in which the Benedictines formed me so long ago – Ora et Labora, ‘Work and Pray’.
The Internet, and globalisation makes charity an international concern today. Our world is at once so much bigger and so much closer. One can no longer pretend ignorance of suffering and deprivation. With the click of a mouse, I can pay for a child’s education for a year without leaving the house. Is it really charity if you don’t get your hands dirty?
I wonder what previous generations might say about what has happened to the Church they worked so hard to build. Would they be sad about the empty pews? They were durable people. I think they would say, ‘Nah, – we had our day, and did what we had to do. You go on. Do what you have to do in your day. Build a better world!’
This article first appeared in the autumn 2022 edition of Madonna magazine.