September 21 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Fighting the good fight: The nightly battle waged against poverty in Glasgow

JOANNA MAGOUFAKIS visits the Wayside Club where the unlikely soldiers of the Legion of Mary wage their nightly war against the poverty and homelessness on Glasgow’s streets.

FOR most Catholics, the Legion of Mary conjures up images of kind elderly women helping out in the parish and raising funds—a far cry from the Roman fighting force from which the lay organisation takes its name.

But in Glasgow, on a side street beneath Central Station, an army of Catholics are fighting a different war: a war on poverty, homelessness and injustice.

The Wayside Club in Glasgow was established in 1932 and has been helping the homeless ever since. The Legion of Mary run the Wayside Club, situated in the heart of the city on 32 Midland street, a five-minute walk from central station.

The centre provides the homeless and poor with a meal, entertainment, washing facilities, clothes, spiritual nourishment and friendship. The Legion, after having had to move many times, now owns the building on Midland Street, thanks to the generous help of their benefactors and donors.

They kindly lend their space to the Marie Trust who also provide the homeless with practical support. That charity use the Wayside Club’s facilities during the day and the Legion are present every evening from 7.30-10.00pm seven days a week all through the year, including public holidays.

Jim White, secretary of the club, has been volunteering there for around 60 years. “People are depending on me,” he said. “I feel I am obliged to keep going for as long as I am fit to do it.”

Although Mr White has got a strong sense of duty, his work at the Wayside Club is not merely an act of obligation. He explained that being part of the Legion of Mary has been vital.

“I am a practising Catholic. Being part of the Legion is not so much about the work you do but the person you become. I have met some inspiring and impressive people and they keep me going. I’ve never met people like them outwith the Legion. They inspire me.” The Legion, he said, is a powerful witness in society.

“Nowadays, you can’t talk to people about theology and religion. People don’t seem interested,” he said. “But here you can see Catholic theology in action, particularly in the act of serving.”

The founder of the Legion of Mary, Frank Duff, described the organisation as formed into a legion for service in the ‘warfare’ between the Church and the world’s evil powers.

Mr Duff was a native of Ireland, born in Dublin, who was deeply concerned about the poor and underprivileged. He founded the Legion on September 7, 1921.

The Legion modelled itself on the Roman Army. Members fight for social justice under the guidance of Our Lady. Every Legion of Mary Association around the world is led by a local ‘Praesidium’—the Latin word used to designate a detachment of the Roman Army performing a special duty.

The Praesidium has authority over all its members and power to control their activities. This authority and order is exercised in the form of a committee who attend weekly meetings and make executive decisions about the future of the association.

I attended one meeting and witnessed first hand how Our Lady works through the Catholic volunteers at the Wayside Club.

The meeting opened with a prayer called the Tessera. In the Roman Army, the ‘tessera’ was a token which was handed out to the soldiers in order that they and their descendants could recognise each other. As a military expression, it signified the square tablet upon which the watch-word was written and circulated through the Roman Army.

In the Legion of Mary, the Tessera is a collection of prayers that is used by the association worldwide. The meeting started with these prayers and the Rosary. A small altar was prepared with candles and a statue of Mary.

Later, I was given a tour of the freshly renovated Wayside Club. The bathrooms have been refurbished and there is a large kitchen run by volunteers. There is a room which functions as a cafe where people sit together to eat, talk and play Bingo.

The latter is one of the highlights of the evening for the homeless users of the facilities, with prizes including cigarettes, deodorants and other useful items. A volunteer explained how things can get heated during the competition, with the occasional wild claim that the Bingo is fixed.

What struck me the most on my visits to the Wayside Club is the dedication of the volunteers who treat their job like a vocation. When I was there, volunteers were in place preparing the space for people. When the doors opened, they were assisting in the Bingo, soft drinks and food were being served in the cafe and sandwiches were also given at the door to take away. Teas and coffees were given out, and others were distributing clothes and sleeping bags.

The Wayside Club is looking for help and support from new volunteers and are hoping to find someone who can help them make the most out of their space.

Mr White said: “We need someone to help us set up our clothing store. It is difficult to find sizes and clothes as it is at the moment. It would be helpful if someone helped us organise it.”

In the corridors, some people were chatting happily with the volunteers. There is a chapel in the club, and a small group were sitting having a quiet moment.

Mass is celebrated in the club, and prayers are held each evening. Priests from different churches in Glasgow Archdiocese offer Mass and the Sacraments to those who attend.

“We can have 13 people attending Mass or we can have five,” Mr White said. “We have prayers every night if we can and we have the Blessed Sacrament. I think this is important.”

Among the volunteers, I met a very friendly couple, Mary and Charlie Hogarty, who were happy to talk to me and show me around. They have been married for 54 years and together are dedicated volunteers and members of the Praesidium, the main committee of the Legion of Mary.

“I am doing this for Our Lady who guides us,” Mary Hogarty, secretary of the Praesidium, said. “The Legion has been very important in my life. It is the Gospel in action and I see and feel that Our Lady has protected us and helped us get to where we are.”

Her husband, Charlie, is also deeply motivated by Faith. “You see how people change and how important it is to do what we do,” he said. “We are essentially trying to follow the Gospel that tells us to feed the poor and clothe the naked.”

The Wayside Club has changed over the years. It used to be a club just for men, but is today open to men and women over the age of 18. Members and volunteers also include men and women.

Mr White, who witnessed the changes, is happy the club is more inclusive. “Times were different back then,” he said. “We used to be an all-male club and were that until we moved here, to Midland street. It was silly because we were turning women away. We felt we weren’t doing a great job.

“There has been an increase of women coming these last years. In the past you could count five or six women in the whole city. It was such a rarity and now all of a sudden about a quarter of the people coming are women. Some are on their own. They are very vulnerable, especially when looking for accommodation.”

Today, women coming for shelter and food are provided with sanitary products and any other help they need.

Mr White emphasised the need for new members who can dedicate themselves to the mission of the Legion and become members of the Praesidium.

“The meetings of the Praesidium are important. Decisions about the club are made there. They are only once a week,” he said.

Mary and Charlie Hogarty agree: “Volunteers and young people getting involved is vital if the work of the Legion of Mary is to continue.”

That work, and the dedication of the people running the Wayside Club, is an inspiration. Having spent three days talking with the volunteers and seeing their work, I am left with a different impression of the Legion of Mary—of an army of Catholics, marching against the injustice of poverty.


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