Care Of The Poor By The Church

Objects, history, and organization

A. The care of the poor is a branch of charity. In the narrow sense charity means any exercise of mercy towards one’s fellowman rooted in the love of God. While numerous classes of persons are fit objects for charity, the chief class is constituted by the poor. By the poor are meant persons who do not possess and cannot acquire the means of supporting life, and are thus dependent on the assistance of others. In accordance with Christ’s command (Matthew 25:40), the care of the poor is the duty of all the members of the Christian body, so that by the works of each the welfare of the whole community may be promoted. As, however, success is most readily attained by the systematic co-operation of many, we find since the earliest days of Christianity, side by side with the private exercise of charity, strictly conceded measures taken by the Church for the care of the poor. The Church’s care of the poor is by no means a substitute for private efforts; on the contrary, it is intended to supplement, extend, and complete the work of individuals. Modern moralists distinguish, according to the degree of need, three kinds of poverty:

  1. ordinary, such as that of the hired labourer, who lives from hand to mouth, has no property, but whose wages suffices to afford him a livelihood becoming his station; as applied to this class, the care of the poor is confined to preventive measures to keep them from falling into real poverty;
  2. real want, or beggary, is the condition of those who do not possess and cannot earn sufficient means to support life, and depend on charity for what is lacking;
  3. extreme want, or destitution, is a state in which the means of support are lacking to such a degree that, without extraneous aid, existence is impossible.
Homeless Beggar Social Care Sad Sleeping

Homeless Social Care

See also: Charity And Charities

The latter two classes are the object first of curative, and then of preventive remedies.

The object of ecclesiastical provision for the poor is, first the removal of their immediate need, then the nullification of the demoralizing effects of poverty, encouragement, the fostering of a desire for work and independence, and thus the exercise of an educative influence on the soul: “the care of souls is the soul of the care of the poor”. There is in addition the social object of promoting the public welfare and of procuring for the greatest possible number of persons a share in the goods of material and intellectual civilization. From this object arise the general duties of ecclesiastical relief of the poor: to prevent those able to earn their living from falling into poverty, to assist with alms the sick and the poor, to raise the religious and moral condition of the poor, and to render social life a blessing for needy mankind. The relief of the poor includes also today a number of important tasks arising from the injurious influences of capitalistic forms of production, the modern system of interest and usury in general, and the neglect of the moral foundations of social life based on Christianity. The Church seeks to fulfil the objects and duties of poor-relief by means of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy usually included under the name of alms.

B. The object of ecclesiastical poor-relief determines its relations to social politics and state provision for the poor. Social politics and ecclesiastical relief of the poor have both for their object the removal of the material, intellectual, and moral needs of the poorer classes of the community. They are essentially distinct in three points:

  1. the chief motive of social politics is justice, the chief motive of ecclesiastical relief is Christian charity;
  2. social politics considers whole groups or great classes of the people; ecclesiastical relief concerns itself essentially with the needs of the individual; the object of the former is to abolish pauperism, while the latter aims at removing individual poverty;
  3. social politics aims rather at prophylactic measures, seeking to prevent the continuation and increase of poverty, while ecclesiastical relief, although also prophylactic, is mainly curative, since it relieves and, as far as possible, removes existing need.

Both ecclesiastical relief-work and social politics are indispensable for society; they act and react on each other. Justice without charity would lead to rigidity, and leave the bitterest cases of need uncared for; charity without justice would allow thousands to suffer destitution, and save but a few. The man who is capable of earning his own livelihood needs not alms, but work and just wages.

Between State provision for the poor and ecclesiastical relief the relation is as follows: the State should by its social politics prepare the way for the development of voluntary poor-relief, and should put these politics into practice against lazy individuals; on the other hand, the provision for the really poor is in the first place the business of the private person and the Church, in the second place of the community, and in the last place also of the State. Liberal economics as represented by Adam Smith, Richard Malthus, and David Ricardo, is based on the ancient Roman view of life, and claims exclusively for the State the task of relieving the poor, since this relief does not lessen but rather increases the amount of poverty, imposes huge expenditure on the State, and inclines the lower classes to laziness. On the other hand, it must be remembered that the State should support the unalienable human rights of the helpless, and promote the common weal by uplifting the needy classes. It is therefore bound not only to interest itself in the politics of pauperism (i.e. to wage war on professional beggars and all malevolent exploitation of charity), but also in the private care or the poor, especially today, when the voluntary ecclesiastical and private relief of the poor cannot possibly satisfy all the demands made upon it. The Church has indeed at all times emphasized the duties of the State in promoting the welfare of the people. Leo XIII’s Encyclical on the question of the working man (1891) assigns to the State tasks which come under the programme of poor-relief. The part played by the State should however be only subsidiary; the chief rôle should be regularly filled by voluntary relief and neighbourly charity, since thus alone will the principle of spontaneous generosity and individuality be retained, inasmuch as State relief rests on compulsory taxation and always remains bureaucratic. The Church therefore asserts her innate right to care for the poor together and in conjunction with the State, and condemns the agitation for a state monopoly of poor-relief as a violation of a principle of justice. The political side of pauperism does indeed pertain to the State; in the actual relief of the poor, however, Church and community should co-operate. While the institutions founded by the Church are to be administered by the ecclesiastical authorities the Church must be allowed to exercise also in State institutions her educative and moral influence. Close co-operation between ecclesiastical, public, and private poor-relief effectually prevents its exploitation by unworthy individuals.

C. Ecclesiastical relief of the poor is condemned by Protestants (e.g. in recent times by Dr. Uhlhorn) who assert that it is unmethodical, uncritical, and without organization, and consequently fosters begging and exercises a harmful influence. To this we may reply: Christianity disapproves of everything irrational, and therefore also a priori of disorganized and uncritical care of the poor. But the surveillance must not be injurious or degrading to the poor. Without transgressing the boundaries of charity and respect for the dignity of man, the New Testament distinctly demands discretion in the giving of alms, and condemns professional begging (1 Thessalonians 4:11; 1 Timothy 5:13 sqq.). The whole range of ecclesiastical literature and even the greatest friends of the poor among the teachers of the Church peremptorily insist upon order and distinction being employed in relieving the poor, warn against the encouragement of lazy beggars, and declare that one may as little support laziness as immorality; unjustly received poor-relief must be restored. Ecclesiastical relief of the poor has from the very beginning been very well organized, the organization being changed in every century to suit the changing conditions of the times. Not in those places where the Church has controlled poor-relief but in those where the State or other powers have interfered with its administration, have disorder and a want of discrimination been apparent.

The latest opponents of ecclesiastical poor-relief are the extreme Individualists and Socialists. Denying a future existence, professing an extreme Evolutionism and Relativism, upholding in the moral sphere the autonomy of the individual, and proclaiming war on rank (i.e. a class war), they condemn all benefactions as prejudicial to the dignity of man and to the welfare of the community. Friedrich Nietzsche, as an extreme Individualist, sees in boundless competition — a battle of all against all, which necessarily means the downfall of the weak and the poor — the means of securing the greatest possible personal welfare. Socialism, as represented by Carl Marx and Carl Kautsky, proclaims a war of the propertyless against the propertied classes, a war whose energy is paralyzed and impaired (they assert) by charitable activity. In a criticism of Nietzsche’s teaching, it must be emphasized that the superman is a mere phantasy without any philosophical or historical foundation whatever. Even the strongest man is dependent on the civilization of the past and present, and on the social organization. Against the forces of nature, against the accumulated treasures of civilization, against the combination of adverse circumstances, he is powerless. Even the strongest-willed man may be in the next moment the most piteous mortal in extreme need of charity. If a man make himself the centre of all his objects, he challenges all men to battle. The theory of the rights of the strong has as its final consequence the reduction of mankind to a horde of warring barbarians. Christian morality, on the other hand, distinguishes between just love of self, which includes love of neighbour, and the self-love which it combats and condemns. In appraising the value of the socialistic theory which declares poor-relief a disgrace alike to society and the receiver of alms, we may observe: Even if we were disposed to grant that in the socialistic state of the future all moral defects and their consequences will be removed (for which there is not the least proof), the physical causes of poverty would be still present. Even in the future there will be orphans, invalids, and the helpless aged; to these no bureaucratic central authority, but sympathetic charity can afford a sufficient help. The acceptance of alms on the part of the guiltless poor is indeed for these a certain mortification, but in no way a disgrace. Otherwise it would be a disgrace to accept the gifts of nature and civilization, which we ourselves have not earned, and which form the greater part of our material and spiritual possessions. It is however a shame and bitter injustice to replace just wages by alms. This is so far from being the object of Christian relief of the poor, that Christian morality expressly condemns it as a sin against distributive justice. But all objections against ecclesiastical poor-relief will be most easily met by a glance at its history.

D. The history of ecclesiastical poor-relief is difficult, because, in accordance with the command of Christ (Matthew 6:3), it for the most part avoids publicity, deals with individuals, and is to a great extent influenced by social institutions. We will confine ourselves to brief notices of the most important historical phenomena.

(1) As a natural characteristic of man, human sympathy was active even among the pagans, who, however, recognized no moral obligation to render assistance, since the knowledge of a common origin and destiny and of the equality of men before God was wanting. Isolated suggestions of the Christian doctrine of neighbourly charity are found in the writings of Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, but these writers were powerless to convert wide circles to more humane sentiments. Consequently, a public and general care of the poor existed nowhere in antiquity, but only isolated suggestions thereof. In Athens Pisistratus made provision for needy war-invalids and citizens, and the application of this provision was later extended to all residents whom infirmity rendered unable to work. Special officials, the sitarchs, were also appointed to prevent a shortage of corn. Similar institutions existed in other Greek towns. In Rome the poor regulations from the time of Julius Cæsar, and the donations of corn especially after the time of Cæsar and Augustus must be regarded as simply political measures designed to soothe the Roman proletariat clamouring for bread and games. The same may be said of the children’s alimentaturia founded by Nerva and Hadrian and perfected by Trajan, of the institutions for providing for orphans in numerous towns in Italy, supported from the imperial purse, and of the later private foundations of the same kind under State supervision to be found in Italy and in the different provinces. Under the Empire the colleges of artisans were bound to provide for their impoverished colleagues. The efforts of Julian the Apostate to plant Christian poor-relief on pagan soil with the assistance of the pagan high-priest, Arsatinus, met with scant success.

(2) The Mosaic Law established a preventive poor-relief, contained numerous provisions in favour of needy Jews, and expressly commands the giving of alms (Deuteronomy 15:11). These precepts of the Law were strongly inculcated by the prophets. The Divine command of charity towards one’s neighbour is clearly expressed in the Law (Leviticus 19:18), but the Jews regarded as their neighbour only the members of their race and strangers living in their territories. The [Pharisees further intensified this narrow interpretation into scorn for heathens and hatred for personal enemies (Matthew 5:37; Luke 10:33). Measures of preventive poor-relief were the decisions of the Law concerning the division of the land among the tribes and families, the inalienableness of landed property, the Sabbath and Jubilee year, usury, the gathering of grapes and corn, the third tithe, etc.

(3) Jesus Christ compared love of neighbour with the love of God; proclaimed as its prototype the love of the Heavenly Father and His own reclaiming love for all mankind; and taught the duties of the propertied classes towards the poor. His own life of poverty and want and the principle, “As long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me”, conceded to works of mercy a claim to eternal reward, and to the needy of every description the hope of kindly relief. In the doctrine and example of Jesus Christ lie the germs of all the charitable activity of the Church, which has appeared ever in new forms throughout the Christian centuries.

(4) In Apostolic times poor-relief was closely connected with the Eucharist through the oblations and agapæ and through the activity of the bishops and deacons (Acts 6:11 sqq.). Among the Christians of Jerusalem there was voluntary community of the use of goods, though probably not community of property (Acts 4:37; 12:12). The care of the poor was such that no one could be said to be in need (Acts 2:34, 44, 45; 4:32 sqq.). By the institution of a common purse, administered first by the Apostles and later by the deacons, poor-relief received a public character. The public relief of the poor was to be completed by private charity (1 Timothy 5:14). Private individuals had to care first for members of their own families, the neglect of whom was likened with apostasy (1 Timothy 5:4, 8, 16), then for needy members of their community, then for the Christians of other communities, and finally for non-Christians (Galatians 6:10). The Apostles proclaimed the high moral dignity and the obligation of work: “If any man will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10); forbade intercourse with the lazy (loc. cit., 11), who are unworthy of the Christian community (6 sqq.); and forbade the support of lazy beggars (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 4:11; Ephesians 4:28; 1 Timothy 5:3, 13). Almsgiving is for the propertied persons an obligation of merciful charity; the poor, however, have no claim thereto; they should be modest and thankful (1 Timothy 6:6, 8, 10, 17).

(5) In sub-Apostolic times, especially during the persecutions, the bishop continues to be the administrator of the church property and the director of poor-relief. His assistants were the deacons and deaconesses. To the office of deaconess at first only widows, but later also elderly spinsters were admitted (Romans 16:1; 1 Corinthians 9:5; 1 Timothy 5:9). In addition to assisting at the Divine services and at giving instruction, they had to visit the sick and prisoners, to care for poor widows, etc. Individual provision for the poor and visitation of the poor in their houses in accordance with a special list (matricula) were strictly practised in every Christian community. Alms were given only after close examination into the conditions, and the abuse of charity by strangers was prevented by obliging newcomers to work and demanding letters of recommendation. No lazy beggar might be supported (Didache, XI, xii; Constit. Apost., II, iv; III vii 6). It was sought to make the poor independent by assigning them work, procuring them positions, giving them tools etc. Orphans and foundlings were entrusted to Christian families for adoption and education (Const. Apost., IV, i); poor boys were entrusted to master artisans for instruction (loc. cit., ii). The sources from which the Church derived its receipts for poor-relief were: the surplus of the oblations at the Offertory of the Mass, the offerings of alms (Collecta) at the beginning of the service, the alms-box, the firstlings for the support of the clergy, the tithes (Const. Apost., VIII, xxx), the yield of the money collections made regularly on fast days and also in times of special need, and finally the free contributions.

(6) After the time of Constantine, who granted the Church the right to acquire property, the ecclesiastical possessions grew, thanks to the numerous gifts of land, foundations, and the tithes which gradually became established (from the sixth century) also in the West. The defects of Roman legislation in this respect, the incessant wars, the crowding of the poor into the Church made the task of relieving the poor ever more difficult. The bishop administered the church property, being assisted in the superintendence of poor-relief by the deacons and deaconesses, and in many places by special conomi or by the archpresbyters or archdeacons. In the West the division of the ecclesiastical income into four parts (for the bishop, the other clergy, church building, and poor-relief) began in the fourth century. In addition to the provision for the poor in their homes, the increasing mass of poverty demanded a new institution — the hospital. It was to serve for a special class of the needy, and was the regular completion of the general charitable activity of the district. Such institutions for the collective care of the poor were: the diaconi , great store-houses near the church, where the poor daily enjoyed meals in common; the henodochi , for strangers; the nosocomi for the sick; the orphanotrophi and brephotrophi for orphans and foundlings; the gerontocomi for the aged. Of special importance was the hospital Basilias erected by St. Basil in Cæsarea about 369 for all classes of the needy. At the end of the sixth century hospitals and poorhouses existed in great numbers in all the divisions of the ecclesiastical territories. They were all under the bishop, and managed by a special spiritual director. The sick were nursed by deaconesses, widows, and attendants under them (see HOSPITALS).

(7) After Gregory the Great (d. 604), who organized poor-relief on a model basis in Rome and urged bishops and secular rulers to rational works of provision for the needy, the spread of Christianity to the country parts and to the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon nomadic tribes led to the gradual extension of the parish system, which dates from the fourth century; this movement was accompanied by the decentralization of poor-relief. The bishop retained the direction of the poor-relief of his city, and the dealing with special crises of need in his diocese; on the other hand, first in Gaul and afterwards in wider circles, the parishes were, in accordance with the decrees of the Council of Tours (567), to maintain their poor at their own cost, in order that these might not wander into other communities. Since the early Middle Ages new centres of ecclesiastical poor-relief were found in the monasteries, first those of the Benedictines, later those of the Cistercians, Præmonstratensians etc. These constituted the main factor in the preventive and curative poor-relief; gave an example of work; taught the uncivilized peoples agriculture, handicrafts, and the arts; trained the youth; erected and maintained hospices for strangers and hospitals for the sick. A mighty spur to ecclesiastical and private poor-relief was supplied by the replacing of canonical penances by prayer, fasting, and the devoting of whole or part of one’s fortune to the poor, pious legacies for one’s own soul or for that of another.

(8) From the days of Constantine civil legislation supported ecclesiastical poor-relief by granting privileges in favour of pious foundations, legacies, hospitals etc. The State also adopted from the time of Emperors Gratian, Valentinian II, and Justinian, measures against lazy beggars. The later Merovingians diverted to some extent church property from its proper objects and disorganized poor-relief. In his capitularies Charlemagne created a state-ecclesiastical organization for providing for the poor, and strictly forbade vagabondage (806). His organization was revived by King St. Louis (d. 1270), who sought to make the communities responsible for the support of parochial poor-relief.

(9) During the Middle Ages properly so-called there is an important distinction between poor-relief in the city and in the country. The feudal system, which had become established in the tenth century, threw the care of impoverished servants and serfs, and thus of the greater number of the poor of the country districts, on the lord of the manor. In addition the parish priest worked for the poor of his flock, and the monasteries and foundations for strangers and the sick.

(10) Provision for the poor was splendidly developed in the cities of the Middle Ages. Its administrators were — in addition to the parish clergy, the monasteries, and the hospitals — the guilds, corporations, and confraternities. The Hospitallers cared for the sick, the poor in their houses, and travellers; the guilds, for sick and impoverished members and their families; the distress guilds, for pilgrims and travellers. Special religious congregations cared for the sick and prepared medicines — e.g. the Humiliati, the Jesuati, the Brothers of the Holy Ghost, the Beguines and Beghards, and, since the thirteenth century, the mendicant orders, especially the Franciscans. The pawn-offices (montes pietatis) established in Italy, and the loan societies founded by Bishop Giberti of Verona (1528), served as repressive poor-relief.

It is false to assert that municipal regulations in aid of the poor were a fruit of the Reformation; the medieval municipal magistrates, in conjunction with the clergy, already made extensive provision for the poor, endeavoured to stop begging by ordinances and police-regulations, supported the real poor and municipal institutions, and fostered the education of orphans, in so far as this was not provided for by relations and the guilds. In general, medieval poor-relief was in no way lacking in organization; in the country districts the organization was indeed perfect; in the towns the clergy, monasteries, magistrates, guilds, confraternities, and private individuals vied with one another in providing for the poor with such discrimination and practical adaptability that in normal times the provision satisfied all demands, extraordinary calamities alone overtaxing it. The frightful growth of beggary at the close of the Middle Ages arose, not from the failure of ecclesiastical poor-relief, but from the relative over-population of the European civilized countries and other economical conditions of the time. The lack of a central administration exercised by the bishop, after the model of the early Christian relief, constituted indeed a defect in organization.

(11) The Reformation destroyed the monasteries and ecclesiastical foundations, which were for the most part applied to secular objects. The terrible wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries aggravated the misery caused by the secularization of the property which had maintained poor-relief to such an extent that poverty, begging, crime, want, and public insecurity grew unchecked. The poor-regulations of the towns were almost entirely ineffectual, and the State governments entered on a warfare with poverty and vagabondage by inflicting severe punishments, and, in England and France, the penalty of death. In opposition to the Christian tradition, the Reformers championed public relief of the poor, administered by the secular community and the State, and substituted for the principle of charitable institutions the home principle. In Germany the secularization of poor-relief began with the imperial police regulations of 1530; in France Francis II extended the compulsory obligation of the community to give and the right of the poor to claim support, decreed by Francis I for Paris, to all his territories. It was but to be expected that poor-relief should be secularized also in England (1536); this provision was followed in 1575 by the legal institution of poorhouses, and in 1601 by the celebrated Poor Law of Queen Elizabeth. This state continued until 1834, when the reform which had been found absolutely indispensable was effected.

(12) The Council of Trent renewed the ancient precepts concerning the obligations of the bishops to provide for the poor, especially to supervise the hospitals (Sess. VII de Ref., cap. xv; Sess. XXV de Ref., cap. viii) and the employment of the income from ecclesiastical prebends (Sess. XXV de Ref., cap. i). In accordance with these decrees, numerous provincial synods laboured to improve ecclesiastical poor-relief. St. Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan (d. 1584), worked with special zeal and great ability. Simultaneously there arose especially for the care of the poor and the sick and for the training of poor children a number of new orders and congregations — e.g.: the Order of Brothers of Mercy, the Clerics Regular of St. Camillus of Lellis, the Somaschans, the Order of St. Hippolytus in Mexico, the Bethlemites, the Hospitaller Sisters, the Piarists. Fundamental and exemplary was the activity of St. Vincent de Paul (d. 1660). In 1617 he founded the Confréie de la Charité, a women’s association which, under the guidance of the parish priest, was to provide for the poor and the sick; in 1634 he founded the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, a visiting institute under religious discipline, which has for centuries proved its efficacy in caring for the sick and in making provision for the poor; it combines centralization and strict discipline in administration with decentralization and adaptability in the relief of the poor.

(13) The secularization of church property during the French Revolution and the succeeding period (1804) dealt a severe blow to ecclesiastical poor-relief. Comprehensive poor-laws were passed by several European states, but in no case were they such as to make ecclesiastical poor-relief dispensable.

(14) Since the middle of the nineteenth century the development of industries, the growth of cities and freedom of emigration have reduced large numbers of the population to poverty, and necessitated gigantic expenditure on the part of the community and State. The States sought by the legal protection of labour in the form of workmen’s insurance, factory laws and commercial regulations, to prevent poverty and to render stricter and perfect the poor-regulations. Legislation is obliged to return to the old Christian principle of charitable institutions. In Germany and the neighbouring countries the “Elberfelder System” was adopted for the public care of the poor; this is based on personal contact between the almoner and the impoverished family, and combines the communal and private charitable activities. In South Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, the communities employ more than formerly private bodies in their poorhouses and orphanages, religious congregations — e.g., the Sisters of Mercy founded by Father Theodosius Florentini (1844, 1852) — being entrusted with the internal administration of such State institutions. Regulations concerning the communities and establishments for poor-relief have been inaugurated widely today in districts, provinces, countries, and states.

(15) In addition to this state provision for the poor, ecclesiastical poor-relief has developed in recent times not merely in the parishes and religious orders, but also in an incalculable number of charitable institutions. We shall name only the crèches, schools for young children institutions for orphans, weaklings, the deaf and dumb, the blind, cripples, unprotected children, protectories, Sunday-schools, protectorates for apprentices, the International Association for the Protection of Girls, the Railway Mission, hospices for servants, workwomen, fallen women, and women exposed to danger, the provision for liberated criminals, for emigrants, and the aged; women’s charitable associations (e.g., The Elizabethen — and Ludwigsvereine); the men’s associations for poor-relief including the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (founded 1833), the Charitable Students’ Circles, the legal bureaux, the colonies of workmen, the temperance movement, and the inebriate asylums.

(16) While politico-religious Liberalism destroys ecclesiastical charitable institutions and persecutes the charitable congregations, the Christian love of neighbour continues to find new ways of providing for the poor. The necessity of securing unanimity of purpose among the various ecclesiastical institutions for the relief of the poor has called into life various diocesan and national unions for the organization of charity — e.g.: The Caritasverband für Deutschland (1897), the Austrian Reichsverband der katholischen Wohltätigskeitsorganisation (1900), the Caritasfaktion der schweizerische Katholikenveneins (1899). On the Protestant side, the ecclesiastical care of the poor is organized especially by the Home Missions.

E. The organization of ecclesiastical poor-relief is necessary today to bind together, after the fashion of the early Christian charitable activity for the repression and prevention of poverty, all religious monastic, private, corporate, state, and communal forces aiming at this object; while the varying national and local conditions demand a great diversity in organization, in general the following must be the guiding principles:

(1) For ecclesiastical poor-relief the bishop must be the soul and centre of the diocesan organization. He directs undertakings affecting the entire or a great portion of the diocese, and regulates and supervises the general charitable activity of the parishes;

(2) The local pastor is the immediate director of the ecclesiastical poor-relief of his parish. Monastic orders labouring in the parish, charitable lay associations, orphanages and institutes for the poor and sick are all under his direction. The parish-priest should endeavour to co-operate as far as possible with the secular and private poor-relief of his district, and also with the local authorities, so as to secure regular and uniform action;

(3) The local provision for the poor should be as far as possible confined to the home, promoting personal contact between the helper and the poor; the assistance should be as a rule given in goods, the abuse of gifts of money being guarded against as far as practical;

(4) Ecclesiastical poor-relief embraces all classes of the needy, consideration being shown for feelings of mortification and family pride. The keeping of a list of the poor is indispensable;

(5) The means are to be obtained from the income from foundations, from the regular and voluntary contributions of the parishioners, and, in case of necessity, from extraordinary collections. Sometimes local poor-relief is combined with the charitable organizations of the neighbourhood;

(6) Repressive provision for the poor concerns itself in the first place with those able to work, especially with:

  • children, who are placed for training either with relatives, with trustworthy families, or in orphanages. While maintenance in a family is preferable, no general rule can be laid down on this point. A new task is the charitable provision for children, who are uncared for by their parents, and who are morally unprotected (cf. The Prussian Fürsorgeerziehungsgesetz of 1897);
  • sick and decrepit persons, who are assisted either with gifts of goods, food, medicine etc. in their homes, or are placed in poor-houses or hospitals.

Repressive provision for the poor is also directed towards persons able to work, who can earn their livelihood and do not do so. If this is the result of obstinate laziness, and an inclination to begging and vagabondage, the State should confine the offenders in institutions of compulsory labour, or engage them on useful works, paying them wages and supporting them. Should, however, it arise from inability to find employment, the State should interfere by inaugurating relief-works, comprehensive organization of information as to labour conditions, fostering private relief measures, workers’ colonies etc.

(7) Preventive poor-relief seeks to prevent the fall into poverty. This is never entirely successful, but it may become partially so by the combination of the Church, State, trade organizations, and private charitable agencies along the following lines:

  • by educating the youth to thrift, establishment of school savings banks and especially fostering economy among the working classes;
  • by state and voluntary insurance against illness;
  • by making the employer responsible for accidents befalling his employees;
  • insurance against old age and incapacitation, organized on trades union or State principles;
  • by the express inculcation of the mutual obligations of members of the same family and relatives according to the precepts of Christianity;
  • war against the passion for pleasure and a social legislation guided by Christian principles.

In Canada

The Church of Canada has numerous charitable institutions. As early as 1638 the Duchesse d’Aiguillon founded, at the instance of the missionaries, the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec, where the Hospitallers of the Mercy of Jesus have since devoted themselves to the care of the sick poor. They have also care of the General Hospital of Quebec (1693), the Sacred Heart Hospital (1873), and the Hôtel-Dieu of Chicoutimi (1884). In 1642 Jeanne Mance founded the Hôtel-Dieu of Montreal, which in 1659 was confided to the Hospitallers of St. Joseph. Mgr de Saint-Vallier (who had already founded the General Hospital of Quebec, and whose will contained the words: “Forget me, but do not forget my poor”) in 1697 requested the Ursulines to found a hospital at Three Rivers. This hospital was placed in charge of the Sisters of Providence in 1886. The General Hospital of Montreal (founded 1694) was entrusted in 1747 to Mme d’Youville, foundress of the Grey Nuns. This congregation, whose object is the care of foundlings, orphans, the sick, the aged, and the infirm, was the origin of other independent communities engaged in the same work, namely the Grey Nuns at St. Hyacinthe (1840), the Grey Nuns of the Cross at Ottawa (1845), the Grey Nuns of Charity at Quebec (1849), and the Grey Nuns at Nicolet (1886). These communities, which are spread throughout Canada, accomplish wonderful works of charity in behalf of the poor. More recent foundations are allied with them, among the most important being the Sisters of Providence (founded at Montreal in 1843 by Mme Gamelin), who devote themselves to the spiritual and temporal relief of the poor and sick, orphans and aged, the visitation and care of the sick in their homes, dispensaries, refuges, and workrooms. They have eighty-five establishments. At Montreal, Ottawa, and Quebec there is a society for the Protection of Young Girls, as also the Layette Society, an association of charitable women which assists poor families at the period of the birth of children. The above table, though necessarily incomplete, affords an idea of the number and variety of charitable activity in Canada.

The Church carries out these undertakings, at least in the Province of Quebec, almost entirely with the assistance of private charity. In 1902 the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec received free 1052 sick poor, whose stay at the hospital represented 30,892 days of board and treatment. The sisters receive from the Government an annual allowance of $448, but nothing from the city, and they pay the water tax. In 1910 the Sisters of Charity of Quebec had 538 old men and women and 1704 orphans; they received $1498 from the Government and paid to the city $1050 for water. In 1911 the Government of Quebec granted a subsidy of $56,875.75 to charitable institutions, Protestant as well as Catholic. In Ontario the Government pays 20 cents a day for 120 days and 7 cents a day for subsequent days for each patient admitted to a hospital; the cities also pay their quota. In 1909 the subsidies paid by the provincial Government to hospitals, infirmaries, and orphanages amounted to $257,813.53. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was established at Quebec in 1846 by Dr. Joseph Painchaud. Conferences were formed at Montreal (1848), Toronto (1850), Ottawa (1860), and Hamilton (1866). The superior council for all Canada is located at Quebec. In 1896 it numbered 104 conferences; its receipts for the year equalled $64,000 and its expenses $53,000. During the past fifty years the Quebec conferences have expended $577,069.98 on the poor. In 1909 the society numbered 97 French conferences with 4228 members and 59 English conferences with 1039 members. The receipts equalled $162,199.46 and the expenditures $126,316.12. Relief was given to 2900 families, composed of 11,524 individuals. Besides visiting the poor in their homes, the society has organized patronages for the instruction of poor children and night shelters for the homeless, and finds homes with families for orphaned apprentices. In recent years it has been assisted by the Guignolée collection made for the poor on Christmas Eve by the Association of Commercial Travellers. In 1910 this collection amounted to more than $8000.

In Great Britain and Ireland

In the British Isles two different types of organizations deal with the care of the poor:

  • public statutory bodies;
  • voluntary associations.

Under the former may be included Parliament, which makes laws affecting the care of the poor and local bodies, such as county, borough, town, and district councils, and more particularly the boards of guardians which administer them. The tendency of modern legislation has been to transfer certain sections of work affecting the poor from boards of guardians to other local bodies. As education, public health, pension, and asylum authorities, municipal bodies other than boards of guardians now deal with feeding necessitous school children, medical inspection and treatment of children attending the elementary schools, the after-care of school children, scholarships, schools for defective children, inspection of laundries, workshops, common lodging houses, and houses let in tenements, the allocation of old age pensions, and the provision and management of all forms of asylums for the insane and epileptic. All public statutory bodies dealing with the care of the poor obtain their funds from taxes or rates, to which Catholic as citizens contribute either directly or indirectly. In Great Britain until recently Catholics had few organizations for securing Catholic representation upon public bodies. Within the last few years, however, the Catholic Federation movement has spread in different parts of the country. This aims at encouraging Catholics to take their share in public affairs by becoming candidates for public office (not necessarily as Catholics, but as ordinary citizens), and to safeguard Catholic interests by putting test questions to all candidates on matters affecting Catholics in order to afford guidance to Catholic voters. By these efforts, and notably by the exertions of individuals, Catholics have secured some representation upon public bodies, though not in proportion to their numbers. In the House of Commons elected in January, 1910, there were 9 Catholic members out of 495 for constituencies in England and Wales, but none out of 72 in Scotland. No figures for municipal bodies are available, but in many of the larger towns in Great Britain Catholics have representation (for example, the London County Council has 5 Catholic members out of 137). Catholics have greatest representation upon boards of guardians which exist directly for the care of the poor. This is due mainly to the efforts of the Catholic Guardians Association (founded in 1894), which forms a centre for Catholic guardians, holds an annual conference, gives legal advice, conducts negotiations with Government departments, and assists in various ways. Out of 24,000 members of boards of guardians in England and Wales 540 are Catholics. In Ireland, of course, except in a few districts in the north, a large proportion of the members of all public bodies are Catholics: out of 103 members of Parliament, for example, 74 are Catholics.

In Legislation affecting the poor, Catholic members of Parliament by their influence have safeguarded Catholic interests. In acts, for example, dealing with defective children, provisions have been inserted which secure to Catholic parents the right under certain conditions to have their children sent to Catholic schools: in the recent Children’s Act similar restrictions have also been inserted. Catholic members of municipal councils have in many cases secured the appointment of Catholic co-opted members upon the education committees, considerate treatment for Catholic children in the administration of the Provision of Meals (Education) Act, in the medical treatment and inspection of school children, in the work of the Children’s Care Committees, and in the carrying out of the Industrial Schools Acts: they have also in many cases obtained satisfactory provision for, religious observances for Catholic inmates of lunatic asylums, remand homes, inebriate homes, and the like. The efforts of the Catholic Guardians have gained great advantages for Catholic in many districts, such as the appointment of Catholic religious instructors in workhouses and infirmaries, facilities for Mass and the sacraments for the inmates of poor law institutions either within or without these establishments, arrangements for recognized Catholic visitors to workhouses and infirmaries and the safeguarding of the faith of Catholic children by Securing their transfer to Catholic poor law schools. Indeed, beyond the benefits to their own coreligionists, to the influence of Catholic guardians may be attributed in no small degree the improved administration of the Poor Law in recent years. A striking witness to the value of their efforts in this respect may be found in the anxiety shown by those interested in the reports of the recent Royal Commission on the Poor Law to secure the support of Catholics for their particular views.

Catholics influence the care of the poor through voluntary organizations, either by participating in the work of general agencies or by their own efforts on Catholic lines. The more important philanthropic bodies, such as the Charity Organization Society, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Children’s Country Holiday Fund, or the public hospitals supported by voluntary funds, all include many Catholics amongst their members, with the result that these bodies usually willingly co-operate with recognized Catholic organizations, whenever Catholic applicants for relief have to be considered.

In the absence of official statistics, it is difficult to estimate accurately the extent of charitable work amongst the poor by Catholics themselves as Catholics. Every Catholic mission, with a resident priest, serves as a centre for such work. Poor Catholics in distress instinctively turn to the priest, who, if he has no suitable charitable organization attached to his church, usually acts as almoner himself. Some approximate idea of the extent of such work may be gathered from the fact that in England and Wales there are 1773 churches, chapels, and stations with 3747 priests, the corresponding figures for Scotland being 394 and 555, and for Ireland 2468 and 3645. Similarly, an extraordinary amount of charitable work is regularly carried out by the religious communities, especially by those of women who devote their lives to personal service amongst the poor, such as the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Nazareth, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the Little Company of Mary, and others. Almost every possible form of charitable assistance is undertaken by these communities in different parts of the three countries. Orphanages for boys and girls, poor law schools, industrial schools, homes for physically and mentally defective children, homes for the aged, night refuges for the destitute, reformatories, training homes for servants, homes for working boys and girls, hospitals, hospices for the dying, convalescent homes, holiday homes in the country and at the seaside, working girls’ clubs, homes for penitents, refuges for fallen women, homes for inebriates, visiting the sick, nursing the sick poor, instructing the deaf and dumb in their religion, are all amongst the charitable works under the care of religious. Some of these have deservedly gained a national reputation for the standard of excellence reached — for example, St. Vincent’s Industrial School for boys; Dartford (under the Presentation Brothers); the Home for the Aged Poor; Nazareth House, Hammersmith (under Sisters of Nazareth); and the Blind Asylum, Merrion, Dublin (under the Irish Sisters of Charity), to mention only a few. The religious communities, whose work is not directly charitable, nevertheless, are, like the clergy, regularly called upon to act the part of almoners. The number of religious houses of women, including branch houses, in the three countries must exceed 1000, but this number does not afford any criterion of the extent of the work accomplished by them. A good example, admittedly well above the average, taken from one of the largest towns, will serve as an illustration. Situated in a very poor district, with twenty sisters in the community, a Convent of Mercy, besides supplying nine sisters as teachers in two elementary schools, has charge of a night refuge for nearly 300 men, women, and children, a servants’ home, a home for young working women, and a soup kitchen, and its religious regularly visit the sick in a large hospital and the Catholic poor in the district.

The principal charitable voluntary organization for Catholic men is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which flourished both in Great Britain and Ireland: in England and Wales, it has 274 local conferences with 3523 active members; in Scotland, 95 conferences with 1316 active members; in Ireland, 200 conferences with 3134 active members. By personal service amongst the Catholic poor, the society unostentatiously carries on a considerable amount of charitable work. It practises many forms of assistance, including feeding the hungry, visiting the sick in their homes and in the public infirmaries and hospitals, visiting the imprisoned, attending the children’s courts to watch Catholic cases, finding employment for those out of work, acting as catechists for poor boys in Sunday schools and bringing them to Mass and the sacraments assisting in the formation and management of boys’ clubs and brigades, and the like. The local conferences are grouped into councils which hold quarterly meetings of all members to discuss topics of general interest. No general society for Catholic women corresponding to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul flourishes throughout the three countries, but kindred organizations, whose objects are similar in scope, thrive in different parts, such as St. Elizabeth’s Society, the Ladies of Charity, and Ladies’ Settlements. All these resemble the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in aiming primarily at the personal edification of the worker, as well as at the spiritual and temporal benefit of those assisted. These organizations, however, do not confine their efforts to women and girls, but take a large part in work amongst boys. A ladies’ settlement in London, for example, includes in its scheme of work visiting the sick and poor, instruction for the sacraments, mothers’ meetings, a men’s club, a girls’ club, a clothing club, a sewing class, the provision of free meals for children, evening classes etc.

Care Assist Support Attend Be With Befriend Trust


One of the most striking developments of Catholic work amongst the poor in recent years, especially in England, has been the organization of rescue societies to safeguard the faith of Catholic children in danger. Mixed marriages, poverty, misfortune, neglect, evil living, are amongst the many causes which, particularly in the larger towns, contribute towards placing in jeopardy the faith of little ones. The children of a mixed marriage, in which the father is a non-Catholic, who seek admission to a poor law institution, are held at law to be of the same religion as the father. The rescue societies save such children by placing them in Catholic voluntary homes. Children of Catholic parents are sometimes by mistake entered in non-Catholic poor law schools. The rescue societies watch carefully all such cases, rectifying any mistakes made. The children of neglectful Catholic parents are not infrequently brought to the notice of non-Catholic organizations, which are willing to assist them, if Catholic societies fail to do so; in such cases the rescue societies are always too ready to proffer their aid. In Great Britain, eight dioceses have organized rescue societies, which deal with many hundreds of children each year, but every diocese has its poor law school, or its industrial school, in which Catholic children can be received. As an outcome of the work of the rescue societies, a Catholic Emigration Association has been in existence in England for some years past, which arranges for the emigration of Catholic children to Canada after leaving the rescue institutions in order to remove them completely from any danger of falling back into their early evil surroundings. This association has a receiving home in Ottawa, whence the young emigrants are placed out with Catholic farmers and their progress is watched until they come of age.

Certain other Catholic societies, which flourish in some form or other in the three countries, carry on very useful social work: the Catholic Prisoners’ Aid Society (with branches in London, Dublin, Glasgow, and other large towns, not necessarily connected, but working on similar lines), which assists Catholic prisoners on leaving prison, and endeavours to start them in life again; the Catholic Needlework Guild, whose members bind themselves each year to provide a certain number of useful garments for the poor; and the Catholic Boys’ Brigade, whose aim is to unite Catholic boys as they leave the elementary schools, to keep them in touch with the Church and to provide in various ways for their spiritual, physical, and social well-being.

The great drawback to all Catholic social efforts is, undoubtedly, the lack of intercommunication between Catholic workers in different parts. Two organizations have, however, recently been started, which as they spread will probably tend to remove this defect: the Catholic Women’s League, which has already in London established a social information bureau, and has succeeded in bringing together Catholic women workers from all parts of the country; and the Catholic Social Guild, for Catholic social study, which many hope will eventually develop into a Catholic Institute of Social Service for Great Britain and Ireland, upon lines which have already proved so useful in other countries.

In the United States

This description is confined to methods followed in serving the poor outside of institutions strictly so called, and does not include institutional works conducted by religious communities, which are described elsewhere under appropriate headings, nor relief given by individuals to individuals, as the spirit and method in Catholic charity come to best expression through organization. Furthermore, the need of organization and the approval of it become daily more and more pronounced. Individuals contribute with increasing generosity to organizations, and refer to them the applications for relief which they meet. A sense of responsibility toward the poor will be found in the parish, the city as such, the diocese, and the religious community whether of men or of women, and each accordingly engage in relief work. In our greater cities a tendency is found to establish central offices through which all Catholic charities may be co-ordinated. A similar movement toward co-ordination of diocesan charities is also found. General meetings of charitable organizations of all kinds for purposes of discussion and improvement of methods occur with increasing frequency. Finally, there are organizations which undertake particular works and gradually expand activity until they include representation from a large number of cities and states in their organization.

The combination of all Catholic charities in the United States into one vast national conference has just been begun under the name “The National Conference of Catholic Charities’s. The aims of the Conference, much like those of all similar charitable organizations, are the following: (1)

  • to bring about exchange of views among experienced Catholic men and women who are active in the work of charity;
  • to collect and publish information concerning organization, problems, and results in Catholic charity;
  • to bring to expression a general policy toward distinctive modern questions in relief and prevention and towards methods and tendencies in them;
  • to encourage further development of a literature in which the religious and social ideals of charity shall find dignified expression.

Relief problems will differ somewhat with the locality and with the character of those in need. This is particularly the case in the United States where city population is so heterogeneous. It is necessary therefore, to confine this description to typical methods, excluding those peculiar to any locality. Furthermore, no attempt is made to indicate quantities in relief work or extent in organization. The methods described are the methods actually found in Catholic circles, which are to a large extent like those followed in organized charity generally, but differ in motive and spirit and the degree in which certain principles are followed or certain factors emphasized.

Information concerning the needs of the poor reaches the organization through many channels. Application may be made directly by those in want. Members of an organization while working among the poor whom they know are constantly discovering new cases. Other charitable organizations, whether secular or religious, will usually notify a Catholic society when they discover Catholics in want. Teaching sisters in parochial schools are frequently able to render most efficient service through the knowledge which they obtain of the needs of poor families. Policemen report cases of which they learn. The ministrations of the parish priest among the poor, and the prompt instinctive turning of these to the priest when distress comes, enable the latter to place information concerning every conceivable plight of the needy in the hands of the charitable organization. We thus find a fairly complete network of factors through which relief agencies are enabled to obtain early knowledge and give prompt assistance. No doubt the tendency in many poor families to hide their suffering and bear privation in silence baffles the watchfulness of all agencies, but on the whole these factors in the work of relief are extremely helpful.

Once it is discovered that relief is needed an experienced member of an organization is directed to take charge of the case immediately. If an emergency is found immediate relief is given without question, otherwise such inquiry is instituted as will bring out the cause of the distress together with the kind and degree of relief needed. Relatives are sought out if there are any in position to take care of the case, former employers or even friends who might be willing to assist are looked for, and appeal is made to them. If there are no such relations discovered, the charitable organization assumes charge of the case and accepts full responsibility for it. From that moment, personal attention and service will be given to the family or individual as long as may be needed. Spirit and practice in Catholic circles strongly favour most delicate regard for the feelings and privacy of the poor. In fact, organizations usually make provision for exceptional cases by placing funds at the disposal of the priests or some officer of the society, no account of which will be rendered even to the organization itself. No knowledge of the names of those relieved or of the nature of their need is given even to any officer in the organization.

The result of an inquiry into the condition of a family, full account of the relief given, and all the salient facts in the condition and history of the family or individual are made a matter of record in the minutes of the society’s meetings. These minutes are accessible to the members of the organization and to no one else unless definite necessity require it. The impression that records are a matter of indifference in Catholic circles is to some extent inexact. The card index method with its elaborate details is not used as widely as in other circles, but substantial records found in the minutes, supplemented by definite personal knowledge of the poor, serve practically every purpose at which any matter of record-keeping can aim. Cases are thoroughly discussed in the regular meetings of the charitable society. Reports are made by those in charge and judgment in governing a case is based on thorough but confidential discussion. Every stage of relief-giving is made a matter of direct personal concern to a member of the society, who looks upon his work as an organic part of his religious activity. This service of the poor is associated with the work of prayer and fasting in the religious life of an individual. The bond of spiritual union in charity, which results from this commonly shared estimate of its spiritual character, paves the way for a certain degree of co-ordination which adds greatly to the efficiency of Catholic charities.

We may take for illustration an average poor family and study the process of relieving it. If housing conditions are bad, they are corrected, or a new house found. If the neighbourhood contains elements of moral danger, the family is moved to a new environment in another section of the city as a first step in its reconstruction. If housing conditions are satisfactory and the family is unable to pay rent, provision is made for it. The resources of the family are studied, and for members who are capable of wage-earning activity, employment is unfailingly found. This constitutes one of the most important and helpful features of relief work. If the mother is compelled to labour, provision is made for the care of her young children, as described below. If conditions do not warrant the mother in working, she is kept at home to care for her family and provision is made for her support. The family may be able to earn part but not all of the income needed, or it may need complete relief temporarily. Whatever the condition, effort is made to adjust the kind and degree of relief to the needs and outlook of the family. At all times the primary aim is to draw out their resources, to do nothing which will stifle them, but to do everything which will lead the family to believe in itself and effect its own salvation.

The standard of adequate relief cannot be a universally determined quantity. The judgment of those in immediate charge of the case is usually accepted as final, under the general policy of not doing too much nor quite all that may be needed. The family is made to realize that self-help is in all cases better than relief from outside. The relief needed may be given in money to be expended by the family or in tickets on which are described the items and the quantities to be obtained. These tickets are presented to a selected retailer or to the storekeeper of the organization itself when the latter keeps standard supplies. We find many charitable associations which make a specialty of furnishing one particular kind of relief. Thus, for instance, one society may provide shoes and books for school children; another, outfits for newly-born infants or for First Communion children; another assumes the rôle of Santa Claus and makes provision to answer the hopeful letters which the children of the poor write asking for Christmas gifts. Certain organizations, like sewing circles, will meet regularly throughout the year or during a given period to make garments for later distribution. An interesting modification in relief work which is the outgrowth of the beautiful Christmas sentiment is found in the practice of furnishing well-supplied baskets of provisions for Christmas dinners. This practice is rapidly assuming large proportions, and appears to have a high educational value. Many who appear indifferent to the needs of the poor are won over to an interest in them by the spirit of Christmas giving, and numbers remain faithful contributors to charity work from that time on.

If the resources of a family are temporarily suspended, a loan rather than formal charity may be needed, or redemption from the bondage of the loan shark. In such cases the required loan is found, the loan shark forcefully dealt with, or his claims taken and carried by the charitable society. The high sense of honour frequently found among the poor in repaying such loans or even money given in charity is worthy of mention. If the family has need of legal assistance as may occur in cases of wife-desertion, non-support, cruelty, or injustice, the need is met by attorneys who are active members of a charitable organization, or by legal aid societies made up of attorneys united for the purpose of giving legal aid to the poor. If the family has sufficient income to meet its wants and its plight is due rather to mis-management than to need, efforts are made to give assistance in the management of things. Small debts are gathered up into one sum, the time and manner of paying them are agreed upon and followed out, the purchase of necessaries is studied by the friendly visitor and the mother or father, with a view to intelligent economy and protection against fraud. The most intimate details in household management are regulated. If the father has carried insurance and is then unable to pay his dues, the society makes the payments. Such services make up the work of the friendly visitor. The aim is to bring to the family the services of a real and helpful friend rendered in a natural and friendly spirit, thus introducing into the family circle the strength, intelligence, and moral support that come into normal lives through normal friendships. If the mother is a poor housekeeper, she is instructed; if she lacks intelligence in training her children, assistance is offered. There is no difficulty or defect in the whole economy of the home to which the friendly visitor will not direct attention in the hope of awakening the latent intelligence and resources of the little group.

Though every poor family must be looked upon individually and should be relieved according to its individual constitution, the presence of large numbers of poor families subjected to practically the same environment and manifesting typical forms of weakness and inefficiency will present conditions which may be best dealt with collectively. The following are typical methods of collective relief: When a number of poor mothers are compelled to work, provision for the care of their young children is made in what is known as the day nursery. A central house is rented or purchased, where the mothers bring their children in the morning, and call for them after the day’s work is done. The day nursery may be in charge of either religious or lay women. The children are taught, amused, fed, and clothed. The mothers are instructed as to the care of their children when occasion arises. In some cases a nominal charge of five or ten cents per day is made; in other cases there is no charge whatever. The policy is determined not from the standpoint of revenue but from that of sustaining the self-respect of the family and hindering possible abuses of the generosity of the organization. A second form of collective service is found in what is known as the social settlement. The charitable society selects a house in a poor neighbourhood and makes it a centre of social activities for the poor families about it. Hither come mothers for their club meetings, instruction in sewing, housekeeping, and care of children; boys and girls, for their club meetings, play, or evening study. Old and young find an adequate library where the whole range of their approved tastes in reading may be satisfied. At such times and in such manner as suit conditions instruction is given in religion, the elements of character, and simpler trades; particular attention is directed to the work of teaching girls to make their own clothes. The social settlement furnishes for the poor as wide a range of opportunity for inspiration and self-development as the wealthy find in their clubs.

Collective relief is found also in what is known as Fresh Air Work. A home is provided in the country to which the children of the poor are taken in relatively large numbers and remain from seven to fourteen days. A well-balanced diet is given to them during their stay, and their physical condition, moral, and spiritual needs are looked into. When the fresh air home is completely equipped, all physical defects are carefully noted and cases requiring attention are referred to charitable organizations for attention after the child’s return home. These homes are under the direction of either religious or lay women. A modification of this work is found in the single day excursions which are provided at frequent intervals during the summer for the children of the poor and for children in institutions. Another form of collective service is that of encouraging thrift. The typical method of doing this is to send collectors among the poor who gather their nickels and dimes which would otherwise be wasted, giving in return some form of receipt such as a stamp pasted into a book used for the purpose. The money thus collected is held to the credit of the saver and is returnable on demand. In this way, families very frequently save sufficient during the summer to make provision for times of idleness or for the severer demands of the winter.

The care of the sick poor in their homes is a matter of supreme concern. Aside from the service rendered by the friendly visitor whose function extends to all the members of the family, whatever their condition, there are communities of sisters and associations of lay women which aim to nurse the sick and supply medicine, food, and clothing without remuneration of any kind. Physicians are found in fair numbers among our charitable organizations, and their services are uniformly given in the work. Religious communities thus engaged make no distinction as to creed or colour. The associations aim to supply definite needs of the sick poor. If a change of climate is required for an individual, the means and directions necessary are forthcoming; if tubercular patients require a special diet or delicate infants need a certified milk, provision is made; surgical appliances, artificial limbs, crutches, etc. are supplied whenever called for. Provision for the decent burial of the poor is found in practically all Catholic charitable organizations; traditionally, the cemetery corporations furnish lots without expense. The hospital dispensary which is found widely among Catholic hospitals provides the services of physicians in special, as well as in general, practice for every type of ailment which may be brought to notice and furnishes medicines. All types of religious communities, except those cloistered, perform every variety of service for the sick poor as conditions invite and circumstances permit. The activities of sisters in every form of relief work concurrently with those of lay organizations merit notice for their efficiency as well as their extent. Thus, for instance, a community of sisters engaged in hospital work will carry on systematically the work of giving relief to poor families, friendly visiting, conducting sewing circles, instructing children, feeding destitute adults under certain conditions, finding employment, and making provision which the exigencies of illness may require.

Hospitals furnish free wards for the poor whether adults or children. Convalescent Homes make provision for the sick poor who are necessarily dismissed from hospitals before their final recovery from illness or operations. Separate homes are found for chronic and incurable cases such as those afflicted with cancer or tuberculosis. Homes for those temporarily out of employment, homes for working girls where food and lodging are obtained at a cost proportionate to income, homes for newsboys, shelters for homeless children, and industrial schools where the children of the poor may learn trades, are also found. The lay charitable organizations include in their range of normal activities the visitation of inmates in such institutions and very frequently assistance of a most valuable kind is rendered. Visitors go to these institutions for the purpose of chatting with inmates and cheering the lonely monotony which tends to develop in spite of the best will and most careful management. Reading matter is brought and the homely comfort that may be found in a piece of fancy work or supply of chewing tobacco is not deemed unworthy of the visitor’s attention. We find lay men and women constituting boards of directors to act in conjunction with the management of institutions and acting on auxiliary boards for the more remote but equally necessary purpose of raising money or furthering the interests of the institutions with the public. For instance, ladies auxiliary work in conjunction with hospitals, Good Shepherd Homes, or orphan asylums, and raise money or provide linens of all kinds which are needed in the normal work of such institutions. The “linen shower” is a picturesque illustration of this method of work. Annual social events of one kind or another are inaugurated for the purposes of directing attention of the public toward institutions and to raise money for their general work. The tendency is marked to forget differences of creed in these larger events. One finds Catholics and non-Catholics working side by side in the spirit of a common purpose. Seminarians will at some time form organizations whose members devote one afternoon a week to the visiting of these institutions, doing the work of the friendly visitors or good samaritans in the spirit of Christian friendship.

Various types of child life in our large cities present extremely distressing problems to the charitable society. Newsboys, half-orphans, friendless children, who are entirely neglected by their parents and wander away from home, are found in distressingly large numbers in our great cities. All such types are kept in mind and either lay or religious associations aim to discover them and to provide temporary or permanent homes for them. Usually those working in this manner act as employment agencies, and endeavour to find work for the children if they are of legal age, or to restore them to their homes and obtain for them the attention and provision to which they have a natural right. When a boy leaves an industrial school the authorities will find board and lodging without cost to him until he secures work. When work is found a representative of the school selects a safe boarding place for the boy, encourages him to save his money, and keeps in touch with him either personally or by correspondence as long as there is need.

Homes for the aged under the care of sisters are numerous, though Catholics are, of course, often found in public poor-houses. The visitation of inmates of all such institutions is well-organized. Homes are found for friendless women of good character and destitute mothers with infants, where protection may be had until employment is found or provision made for whatever relief the circumstances demand: Lodging and food are furnished for friendless and destitute men during periods of enforced idleness. This is done entirely without cost or possibly on the payment of a nominal charge of ten or fifteen cents per day. Lodging-houses in the large cities contain vast numbers of men of every kind and character. The danger in these places is more or less great because of their tendency to develop an atmosphere of vulgar abandon. In the largest cities Catholic charitable societies provide halls and offer weekly entertainments exclusively to this type of friendless men. Volunteers are found who furnish musical or literary entertainment, and all are encouraged to sing. Lectures are given, usually by a priest on some moral or spiritual topic. Appeal is made gently but strongly to the better element of these homeless and friendless men, with the result that in large numbers they reform and return home or feel a renewal of spiritual vigour and helpfulness. Much temperance work is done among them, with results which are encouraging in the extreme.

A notably large percentage of delinquents come from among the poor, hence the normal range of activity of Catholic charitable organizations extends to those upon whom the hand of the law has descended. The work of rescuing fallen women is notably well developed through the activity of religious. Little girls in danger of moral perversion are received by such homes where they have opportunity to learn a trade and arrive safely at maturity. Youthful offenders who come within the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court are committed to reformatories or industrial schools or placed on probation. Catholic charitable societies and individual Catholics are active in co-operating with the probation feature of the court. Sometimes an association pays the salary of a Catholic probation officer who will be recognized by the court, or Catholics in a position to do so offer their services as volunteer probation officers without compensation. The organization of Catholics thus engaged is now under way in the formation of Catholic Probation Leagues. This service is rendered by both men and women. Associations provide truant officers whose duty is to follow up cases of truancy in parochial schools and report on them. The work of the big brother, in which an adult takes personal charge of a juvenile delinquent or of a poor boy and establishes informal friendly relations with him, is taking on hopeful proportions. The visiting of prisoners plays a considerable part in the life of nearly all important Catholic charitable societies. The visitors call in a friendly way, encourage the prisoners to take hopeful outlook, induce them to resume correspondence with their families, and lead them to the promise of amended life which in many cases effects striking reforms. Reform schools for boys and girls are regularly visited in the same manner.

Practically all activity related to the care of defectives is concentrated in institutions. Provision for the deaf and dumb, blind, insane, epileptic, feeble-minded, and crippled is made by religious communities to such an extent as resources permit. The interests of dependents, defectives, and delinquents of the Catholic Faith who are inmates of public institutions are provided for in a general way by the public policy found throughout the United States. There are State Boards of Charity under whose jurisdiction in one way or another all such institutions fall. Much of the energy and resources of Catholic charitable associations is taken up in the work of representing and protecting the interests of Catholic inmates in public institutions. Catholics are found in numbers among the members of such boards, or they appear before boards in the interests of Catholic institutions with which the State deals, or of Catholic inmates of public institutions.

It is impractical to attempt to describe within the limits of this exposition the numbers of Catholics engaged in this work or to measure it in terms of money. Practically all of the activities described are carried on by men and women who are busy at their daily occupations and who give their time, energy, and largely of their means to these works of charity, without compensation. One finds throughout this whole range of relief-giving the aim of spiritual strengthening and regenerating of the poor. This spiritual complement of modern relief is developed because of the conviction that faith is the foundation of character and the one source from which any correct attitude toward the mysteries of life may be found. Throughout the range of Catholic charities one finds a spirit of tolerance for human nature and its failings and a comprehensiveness of sympathy which reaches low enough to think of homely comforts and high enough to accompany the victim of distress to the temple of God for purposes of worship.

By Joseph Charles Beck,, John Gilbert, Stanislas Lortie, and William Kerby.

This article is borrowed from


I. DEVAS, Political Economy (London, 1892); MANNING, Sermons on Ecclesiastical Subjects (London, 1873); IDEM, The Eternal Priesthood (8th ed., London, 1883); GLEN, The Poor Law (London, 1883); RATZINGER, Gesch. der kirchl. Armenpflege (Freiburg, 1884); SCHAUB, Die kathol. Caritas u. ihre Gegner (1909); EHRLE, Beiträge zur Gesch. u. Reform der Armenpflege (Freiburg, 1881); UHLHORN, Die christl. Liebestätigkeit in der alten Kirche (2nd ed., Stuttgart, 1882); IDEM, Die christl. L. im Mittelalter (1884); IDEM, Die christl. L. seit der Reformation (1890); MÜNSTERBERG, Die Armenpflege (Berlin, 1897); POSCHER, System der Armenpflege u. Armenpolitik (3rd ed., Stuttgart, 1906); SALLEMAND, Hist. de la charité (Paris, 1902).

II. Le Canada ecclésiastique (1910); Annuaire de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Québec (1909); Annuaire de l’Hôpital St-Joseph (Three Rivers, 1906-10); Report Hospitals and Charities (Ontario, 1909); Budget de La province de Québec (1911); Noces d’or de la Société St-Vincent de Paul, à Québec, 1846-96 (Quebec. 1897): Rapport général du conseil supérieur de la Société St-Vincent de Paul du Canada (1910).

III. Handbook of Catholic Charitable and Social Works (London, 1910); Catholic Directory (London, 1910); Irish Catholic Directory (Dublin, 1910); Catholic Social Year Book (London, 1910).

IV. Report of the First National Conference of Catholic Charities, held at the Catholic University, Washington, 1910; Reports of the National Conferences of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, held at St. Louis, 1903, Richmond, 1908, Boston, 1911; St. Vincent de Paul Quarterly (New York) files; reports of organizations and institutions, passim.

About this page

APA citation. Beck, J.C., Gilbert, J., Lortie, S., & Kerby, W.J. (1911). Care of the Poor by the Church. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved February 8, 2022 from New Advent:

MLA citation. Beck, Joseph Charles, John Gilbert, Stanislas Lortie, and William Kerby. “Care of the Poor by the Church.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 8 Feb. 2022 <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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