“Thanking those placing the homeless community at the forefront of their thinking and generosity” says Cllr Bob Rudd , chairman of Chester Aid to the Homeless in the charitys 2013/2014 review. In the cellar bar of the Forest House last week I spoke to volunteer Annie Buckland and learned how she overcame massive suffering and adversity in her early life and how it inspired her to a lifetime of caring for others.
She was born in Southern Ireland in 1939 and at the age of 3 due to her family’s extreme poverty she was placed in a convent. “I didn’t come out until I was 14” she says. “Me and my sister.. life was very hard, we had no childhood, no Christmas..” she says matter of factly, only hinting at the physical and mental abuse she experienced at the hands of the nuns over a long period. She only scratches the surface of the horrors she went through. A nun told her it was Jesus’ birthday.. “ I said :”how old is he?” .. as a child I didn’t know any different… She put her hand up and gave me a slap right over the face” Conditions were terrible, children were put to work scrubbing floors or in the laundries, with no educational provision. She says that she was so lonely she used to talk to a stone, which she used as a doll substitute, always reflecting a devastating longing for a visit from her mother. Some children committed suicide in the convent in Sligo.. some children were “totally alone” lost and uncared for. Her sister told her that she once she was beaten by nuns so badly that her toes bled.. “ she would have been 12..”
“I was burned in the convent.. I don’t know how, I don’t know what happened, whether they put me in boiling water, I’ll never know” Annie’s legs were scarred for life but she has no memory of the incident. She was close to death and hospitalised for long periods, and later contracted TB from the “cold and neglect”. Her mother visited “she pulled down my clothes and there was no flesh there, only bones. Id been starved” She is philosophical.. “They were trying to make us good I suppose, but they were doing it in the wrong way. These nuns were very young themselves.. but they destroyed our life, destroyed it, the memories will last longer than dreams” When Annie was 14 her mother finally collected her from the Convent. Her sister had been freed several years earlier..”the rejection of my mother taking Marie out before me was the most painful thing of all.. there was no bond between me and my mother”
At 17 Annie left home and moved to Manchester and took up auxiliary nursing. By 19 she was married to a British soldier and she followed him around the world to Aiden, Singapore and Northern Ireland, having 2 children in the process (born 1961 and 1963) Eventually she settled in Saltney when her husband was stationed at RAF Sealand. She then worked in an old peoples home in Blacon for 18 years. She described an incident to me which confirmed her strong religious faith.
“I was leaving off at ten and I said to Phil Docherty ( a very ill resident) “would you like me to get the priest because you’re quite ill” He did agree with me…And he died that night” She says she was woken from a dream by his “presence” kissing her on the cheek at midnight which turned out to be the exact time he died. “I’ll never forget that, its proof of life after death” she says firmly.
The next stage of her life took in 20 years of housekeeping at the Grosvenor Hotel and babysitting for children of guests. She also helped out at functions for the Duke of Westminster. She recalls meeting Derek Nimmo, Rolf Harris and Norman Wisdom during her time at the hotel. “ Now I’m with the homeless I see the other side of the coin”
“I wanted to do something to help other people. I had a good job at the Grosvenor.. no matter where I went I got jobs,,” A friend of hers from St Francis Church was a volunteer at the centre and encouraged Annie to join the team. The centre, on Grosvenor street provides aid, shelter and training to the homeless and vulnerable. “They’re fed, warm, we get clothes for them, a shower, they can sit and read the papers” There are paid staff as well as the 10 or so volunteers. Annie works 3 hours a week , on a Friday and sometimes more often “I try to give them what I can, most of all is respect. Life inside is good, but sometimes rowdy, and they get aggressive with each other” with some of the users of the centre having drink and drugs problems. “First time I went in I was a bit scared, I had to get to know them first.. and now I think its “all Annie” shouting and waving at me everywhere I go!” she laughs. “Every Friday I buy them food, cakes, currant bread, I cook eggs myself” Annie wishes she could do more “ its quite bad really, they’re very lonely people , I’d love to help them, if I won the lottery .. you’ve got to have someone to love haven’t you, something to do and something to look forward to, and I’ve all of them!.. “ She gets a great satisfaction from helping others. “ A lot of these people are very talented and given a bit of help and kindness, many get to turn their lives around.. One stopped me the other day and he was very clean and he said “don’t you know me Annie?” He said “I got my life together”” Annie states he was an ex rugby player whose marriage broke up.. “things went very wrong for him, but now he’s got himself together in a job.. you can only go up now!”
Annie has been working at the centre for 5 years. The memories of the past continue to haunt her and she has suffered from mental health issues for many years. Her abusers were eventually bought to justice and following an investigation by the Irish Government she received compensation and the order of nuns issued a public apology (http://www.3news.co.nz/world/irish-nuns-offer-128-million-for-permitting-child-abuse-2009120409) .The mental scars remain.. passing the vintage doll shop on lower bridge street reminds Annie of the doll she longed for as a child as well as the terrible sense of abandonment and rejection. She has put this empathy to great use in her work with the homeless. Despite all that she has been though she describes herself as “happy go lucky.. Jesus says you’ve got to forgive or else he won’t forgive you”