VII.—THE FIRST CATHOLIC CHARITABLE SOCIETY
A.—WHAT IT IS
It would seem much more logical and more in accordance with practice to put this chapter at the beginning of all. It seems a strange procedure to delay so long telling, what it is that one is describing.
No deep knowledge of antiquities is required to acquaint one of the old philosopher, who taught by making his disciples discoverers of the truths they sought. So by placing before the reader certain facts regarding the state of the times at the beginning of the Society and the Rules of the Society, it was hoped that a rough conception of the First Catholic Charitable Society would be formed. In this chapter we shall put into the picture some of the details.
On the title page of the rule book of 1898 there appears this very brief description:—
The First Catholic Charitable Society of Preston needs but to be known to be cherished and supported. It was founded in the year 1731, by our pious predecessors, for the spiritual and temporal relief of their distressed brethren, and by the blessing of God, it has been ever since in active operation. Its continued existence for more than a century and a half, notwithstanding the instability of all human affairs, is its eulogy. It speaks the estimation in which it has uniformly been held by the Catholics of Preston, and is a testimony of the unceasing good which this Society has effected in the cause of charity. It appears from its books which from its origin have been carefully preserved that it has, at all times, enjoyed the cordial approbation of the Pastors, who have successfully been placed over the several Catholic congregations in the town.
The officers of this Society, therefore, invite those of their Catholic brethren, who are not acquainted with the Society, to examine its objects, and the means which it adopts to carry these objects into effect; and they confidently rely, that this long tried and highly honoured Charitable Institution, will, by the redoubled support of the Catholics of Preston, continue to flourish and to extend itself to the greater glory of God, and to the spiritual and temporal relief of His poor.
There, then, is given, in a few lines, a pen picture of our Society. It is a “long tried and highly honoured Charitable Institution” founded in Preston town one hundred and ninety-two years ago “for the purpose (see Rule 1) of relieving the sick and needy Catholics of Preston, and for the purpose of bestowing spiritual benefits on the members and their wives during life and after death.” But our pious predecessors saw another object, which is not specifically mentioned in our book of rules to-day. They looked for the benefit that should come to them not merely from the Masses and prayers that were offered “for ye goode Intencion of ye Bretheren,” but for those benefits also that come as a reward for all good actions done for the love of God. They acted “for the good of all our souls in performing the union and charity.” And as charity to one’s neighbour, and the performing of works of mercy are so highly praised by our Divine Lord, these works were chosen by the founders as the works proper of the Society. Perhaps some failed to realise this. Perhaps their first fervour cooled. Lest this should be, we find written in the first minutes and account book in the year 1742 this passage:—
Mat. ye 25 Then shall the Son of Man say to those on his Right hand Come ye Blessed of my Father & possesse the Kingdom which is Prepared for you from the beginning of the World I was Hungry & you gave me meate I was sick and you visited me … Then shall they on his Left Hand say unto him o Lord when have we seen thee Hungry Thirsty or a stranger or naked or in prison and did not minister unto thee and he shall answer I tell you for that you have not don these things to one of these lesser your Brethren you have not don them to me and then these wicked shall go into eternal! punishment and the just into Life Everlasting.
And then is added by way, it would seem, of emphasis: “Hitherto are the words of Christ himself.”
The First Catholic Charitable Society’s aim is, then, to benefit the souls of its members. The means it makes use of to attain that end is the practice of charity to the needy poor.
One who pays his subscription regularly does all that the letter of the law demands of him. But he does not do all that the spirit of the Society and the unwritten law of custom exacts. For by now it is quite realised by members, and it should be known to all, who know anything of the Society, that it is not merely a machine for the collecting and distributing a certain amount of money. The Society would otherwise have to-day no raison d’etre, no excuse for not disbanding. Such work is much more successfully and efficiently done by others, notably by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. But the First Catholic Charitable Society is to-day a body of leading practising Catholics of Preston, unparochial, belonging to no parish, but to all the parishes of the town. It is a body of Catholics, who may be used on all occasions in the interests of the Church in all her needs, who will promote her interests, defend her rights, and assist her clergy in all their difficulties. It has done this splendidly and successfully on many occasions in the past, as we shall see. It will, we have no doubt, do so no less zealously in the future. It is a band of Catholics having no politics and having only one watchword, “Pro Ecclesia Dei.” The late Very Rev. Canon Cosgrave, V.F., Vice-Chairman of the Society, put all this in one sentence of a letter written from his deathbed. He said: “I attach great importance to the First Catholic Charitable Society as being a most useful Catholic Centre. Its members are practically the backbone of Catholicity in the town, and it was the fons et origo of many a most successful campaign for Catholics’ best interests.”
That then is what the First Catholic Charitable Society is.
B.—WHAT IT DOES
Four times every year the members of the Society assemble on dates previously notified. Each member pays 2s. 6d. to the Treasurer. The Treasurer announces the amount just received and the actual state of the Society’s finances. There is a little discussion concerning the amount of distress in the town. Some one then proposes that two, three or four tickets be given to the clergy. This is put to the vote and a number is decided. This means that two, three, or four half-crowns are given to each of the thirty or forty priests of the town for distribution among the poor. The business of the Society is then theoretically at an end for the quarter.
In practice, however, it is but beginning. Almost always a discussion ensues on some subject of interest to the Catholicity of the town. The Chairman announces some question that the members are asked to interest themselves in. Or one of the members, or perhaps some stranger from another town, is invited to deliver a lecture on some subject of interest to Catholics. ‘This is often followed by a debate among the members. All are edified. Many are instructed.
If nothing else takes place, the bond of union among the members is strengthened by the very pleasant evening’s conversation. For it is a social gathering. When the serious business to be settled has been discussed, the Chairman gives permission to smoke, and refreshments are handed round. This is not a modern innovation. It was necessary, as we have seen in our first chapter, even during Mass, in the early days of the Society. Any meeting of Catholics had to be disguised as a gathering of convivial topers. And at these assemblies a certain small sum was set aside to provide these refreshments. Thus, on a fly-leaf of the first account book, we find the following memorandum:
Sept. 27 1807 At a full meeting of the Society it was considered necessary in consequence of the increase of the Society and the additional expense of Malt liquor &c that the quarterly money spent for the use of the members should be augmented to twelve shillings.
A similarly worded resolution increased this sum to one pound on April 2nd, 1815. A change of system was made in 1825. And the “resolution” announcing it in the minute book gives one of the first hints of carelessness in regard to attendance at meetings. It runs:
1825 March 27th. Resolved that on account of the irregular numbers that attend the Quarterly Meetings that instead of a Pound being spent at each meeting it is considered more conducive towards the good of the Charity that 8d be the amount to be spent at the meetings for each member who attends subject to a further allowance agreeable to the majority of the meeting on the Feast of St. Stephen.
But what weighty matters were discussed at these meetings in all friendliness and charity! Rule 14 tells us that
the Chairman of the meeting may, at his discretion, allow any subject pertaining to Catholic interests, whether local or otherwise, to be brought forward for discussion; and the discussion of any matter so brought forward shall immediately cease if a notification be given from the chair that further discussion is undesirable.
It is well known without reference to the minutes, old members will tell you, the archives of the various Churches will bear witness, that no great Catholic movement took place in Preston that did not have its rise in and was not forwarded by the First Catholic Charitable Society. Was the Catholic population of the town growing so that a new parish had to be formed, a meeting of the First Catholic Charitable Society was called, and during a smoking concert the needs of the Church were explained and ways and means for carrying out the project were discussed and the Society undertook the work. Many such undertakings were accepted by the Society in the past. There happens to be before us, as we write, a newspaper cutting of such a meeting called together by Fr. Papall, S.J., in August, 1896, at the Bull Hotel, that he might interest the Society in a scheme for paying off a debt of some £5,000 on St. Walburge’s Church. And the meeting entered into the business with a will. And at various times during the last three quarters of a century we find Rectors of Parishes turning with confidence to members of the Society and to the Society as a body for help.
But what other more important schemes still have not been brought to successful issue by the Society? The Poor Law system from a Catholic point of view, Poor Law Schools, the Guardians’ Compact, and above all the great organisations in opposition to Education Bills hostile to Catholic interests, the Catholic Parents’ Education League, and afterwards the Catholic League— all these things that have meant an inestimable amount to Catholic interests in the town, even in the country at large, have been mooted, have been set in motion have been carried to a triumphant end in and by the First Catholic Charitable Society in the past. If needs arise, the Society, faithful to a tradition of nearly two centuries, will be ready to fight again. The Society is as it were the nucleus, the “Cadre” (to use an army term) of a fine regiment. It requires but the blast of a bugle-call to arms to swell into a valiant band ready to fight with all lawful means in the interests of its Church. Other Societies do excellent work in their way. But they meet so seldom. Their members are strangers to one another. Our Society is banded together in friendship and harmony, fostered by the quarterly gatherings.