To the beleaguered residents of an impoverished inner-city area of Manchester, Sister Rita Lee is a champion par excellence. Joanna Moorhead went to meet her.
‘I have come that all may have life, and have it to the full.’ These words from St John’s Gospel are the first thing you see when you arrive at the Lalley Centre in Manchester; and they sum up its raison d’être, and that of the dynamic nun at its centre, Sister Rita Lee – who’s also known, round these parts, as ‘ Attila the Nun’.
Sister Rita is 71 years old, stocky, with glasses and wearing the kind of blue suit that screams ‘nun out of habit’ to any veteran Catholic. The Lalley Centre is her domain: she founded it ten years ago, and she is its pivotal figure. It’s a drop-in centre for those in need, and given its location, slap bang in the middle of perhaps Manchester’s poorest neighbourhood, Collyhurst, that means the people who come here really are in need. ‘Most of them aren’t working, they haven’t been able to find a job,’ says Sister Rita, who’s a trained social worker. ‘And some of them don’t have enough money for food and heating: they’re having to make a choice, eat or heat. The ones with children sometimes haven’t got the money to buy clothes or shoes for them; sometimes they’re having problems getting them into school, or difficulties with their benefits.’
No-one can wave a magic wand for people whose lives are in such deep difficulties, but Sister Rita comes pretty close. ‘What I believe in,’ she says, ‘are instant solutions. I don’t like this approach where people have to go and catch two or three buses to get to this office and that office for the help they need, or when they’re told to come back next week. Their lives are hard enough already; we’ve got to do better for them than that. What I do is get everything sorted, right here and right now.’
In action she’s reminiscent of a female equivalent of the Godfather; a Godmother, perhaps. Visitors to the centre are invited, according to a sign on the wall of the sunny cafeteria, to have two free cups of tea or coffee, and two free slices of toast (extra items 10p each), while they wait for the chance to see her. They are ushered into her presence in an office with a sign saying ‘St Jude’ on the door: he’s the patron saint of hopeless cases, but no-one is beyond hope for Sister Rita. Visitors sit down on the sofa in her office, and she listens to their story. ‘What I don’t do is judge them, because we don’t know all the details and we tend to make up our minds about people too quickly,’ she says.
Among the 69 people who came to the centre this morning (‘that’s about average,’ says Sister Rita) was a mother of three who desperately needs new beds for her children, and another woman (‘who was in a real state, very upset’) whose son owed thousands of pounds. ‘The people who need their money back are coming to her house and banging on her door – and it’s not her fault, and it’s certainly not the fault of her other children, but they’re all suffering,’ she says. The woman doesn’t want to go to the Lalley food bank, which is a few minutes’ walk from the centre, and Sister Rita understands that. ‘So what we’re going to do for that woman,’ she says, ‘is make up a food parcel and give it to her here, so she doesn’t need to go to the food bank. For the woman who needs beds, she’s already called the local SVP centre to ask if they have some in their depot – they do, so that problem will soon be solved.’
A few months ago, Sister Rita’s can-do attitude netted her a real coup. ‘I was lying in bed one night, thinking how can we help these people, and we’re seeing more and more of them, who fall foul of the benefits sanctions,’ she remembers. Sanctions are often handed out without regard, she believes, to what’s actually going on in a benefit claimant’s life. ‘And then I thought, I’ve got it,’ she says. ‘I’ll write to that fella who’s in charge of it, and to the Prime Minister, and I’ll ask them to fix it.’ The fella in question was Iain Duncan Smith, secretary of state for work and pensions (she was unaware, at the time, that he was a fellow Catholic). She was invited to a meeting with him (‘I think, to be honest, that he was a bit in awe of me…that’s what it felt like anyway’) and lo and behold, a team of officers from the Department for Work and Pensions now come to the Lalley Centre weekly to talk to people who have had sanctions against them, and to restore their benefits if they didn’t deserve them.
On the wall of the Lalley Centre reception there’s a picture from the 1940s of a group of white-clad first communicants with the priest. It harks back to a time when the Church in Britain was a different world, a kind of protective world for its community. In many ways, the Lalley Centre is a throwback to that era; and there’s nothing wrong with that, certainly for the residents of Collyhurst. What’s more, the protection the Church once afforded its own community certainly isn’t restricted to Catholics in Sister Rita’s 21st century version. ‘I don’t care who comes in here – I want to help them all,’ she says. ‘I don’t care about the colour of their skin, I don’t care what country they came from, I don’t care which religion they practise. They’re all equally welcome here; giving a welcome is one of the things we do, one of the things we ought to do, one of the things that makes a difference.’ Added to which, she says, ‘in my head there’s one God. We might call Him different names, and worship him in different ways, but He’s the same God. I thank Almighty God every day that I’m a Christian and a Catholic, but that’s because it’s what works for me. I couldn’t do the work I do, day in and day out, without knowing God is right beside me, working with me. I ask for His help, and the things that need to be done always are done.’
Sister Rita attributes her success as a ‘fixer’ for Collyhurst down to various things: the fact that she herself was raised in poverty in Ireland, her sense of humour, and what she calls having a heart for the poor. ‘You couldn’t do this work if you didn’t have a heart for the poor,’ she says. ‘Sympathy isn’t enough; you have to have empathy as well. I knew poverty in my youth, and I thank God for it.’ All the same, she’s certainly no soft touch: hard-luck stories are checked up on, and woe betide anyone who comes to her with lies about their needs. ‘I don’t put up with any nonsense,’ she says. ‘If there’s any trouble I go and shout at people.’
She’s been a Presentation Sister since she was 17; like so much else in her life, it was all instant with Sister Rita. She found school difficult, partly because she was deaf but her deafness wasn’t recognised or allowances made for it; so when a Presentation nun came in to talk about vocations, she was put at the front so she couldn’t misbehave. ‘And when I heard that nun talking, I knew straight away I’d be joining them and coming to Manchester,’ she says. ‘I just knew that was the life for me.’
Today the residents of Collyhurst thank their God, whichever God they worship, that she did. And having alleviated the difficulties in so many individual lives in the ten years since she set up the Lalley Centre, she’s now got her sights set on an even bigger prize – local regeneration. The problem with Collyhurst – which is only minutes from the sparkling high-rise centre of Manchester – is that it has no supermarket, no hairdresser, no newsagent’s and no café. ‘But people need these places to create a community,’ she says; and her next big plan is to talk to the city council about what can be done to create more infrastructure. It’s hard to imagine Sister Rita is going to fail; with her behind it, Collyhurst is undoubtedly on the up.