THERE’S a lot more to the Mothers’ Union than making jam for garden fetes. This worldwide Anglican women’s organisation, formed 140 years ago in England, celebrates 130 years in Ireland with a tree-planting ceremony taking place at St Luke’s Home in Cork on November 11 to mark the anniversary.
The Mothers’ Union, which supports mainly women and family life, was established in England by Mary Sumner, “a shy vicar’s wife who realised women in her area needed some support,” according to Patsy Devoy, president of the Mothers’ Union in the diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross.
From humble beginnings, the Mothers’ Union now has a presence in 84 countries and boasts four million members. There are about 7,000 paid up members in Ireland with between 250 to 300 in the Cork area.
“There are about six to eight males in the Cork diocese’s Mothers’ Union. In the olden days, it was all married women but now, not all the mothers are married, and it’s not just made up of mothers,” said Patsy.
“We still believe in supporting family as everyone is part of a family. Our official tagline is ‘Christian concern for families worldwide’. But that doesn’t mean we only work with Christians.
“In March, I was at a conference and met the president of the Mothers’ Union in Myanmar. She was with a translator. The Mothers’ Union there supports the Muslim refugees in any way it can. Some put their lives at risk.
“Here, in Cork, Cloyne and Ross, we do different, less dramatic things. But across the world, there are branches of the Mothers’ Union in places such as Malawi, Burindi and Sudan where it runs literacy and development programmes. As a result, thousands of people, mainly women, are now literate and are running businesses and co-ops.
“Everything the Mothers’ Union does happens on the ground, responding to people’s needs. They are big issues like health education, feeding children and reconciliation in places of war. Except for about 130 paid workers, all the work is done by volunteers; very ordinary people like me.
“There’s a huge Mothers’ Union group that only started about ten years ago in Baghdad. It does incredible work across the war- torn city with Muslims and any other groups that need help.”
Patsy says the organisation has had some amazing aid.
“Our literacy programme, for example, got incredible finance from Comic Relief in Britain. Comic Relief doesn’t usually give money to faith-based organisations but they made an exception for the Mothers’ Union because the literacy programme has proved to be effective. Once people get to know what’s going on in the Mothers’ Union, they realise it’s very important.”
Seemingly small gestures of support are as valued as the kind of challenging work the Mothers’ Union does in war-ravaged countries. The Cork branch has been running a scheme called AFIA (Away From It All) for 12 years. It was initiated by Avril Jennings, “a fantastic woman” who is still running it in Cork.
Patsy explained: “We raise funds that allow us to gift holidays and short breaks to people and families under pressure. You wouldn’t believe how many people have never gone on a holiday. Or someone might be looking after a sick family member and can’t take a break.
“The Mothers’ Union will help organise health professionals to look after the sick person so that their carer can take a break. It’s completely confidential and it’s open to everyone. I know of a youngish person who has been given months to live. He and his partner really wanted a holiday so that they’ll have happy memories.”
The Mothers’ Union was able to facilitate this.
The organisation in Cork started knitting ‘comfort teddies’ which the Navy hands out to refugee children in the Mediterranean. The volunteers also make neo-natal packages, made up of blankets and bonnets for premature babies born at Cork University Maternity Hospital. “It’s to let parents realise that somebody out there cares,” said Patsy.
The Cork women (and a few men) also hand out copies of a cookery book, Curry in a Hurry, to students leaving home and starting college or work.
In this country, the Mothers’ Union is mostly made up of Church of Ireland members but it welcomes everyone and is a good social outlet.
At 61, Inniscara-based Patsy says she’s “on the reasonably young side of the Mothers’ Union which, like a lot of charities, has an older age base.”
Originally from the UK, she has been living for 40 years in Cork. She has three grown-up children and six grandchildren who she often looks after. She also works in the parish office in Carrigrohane. Her husband is retired from UCC.
“When I came here, I was a young woman from a farming background. A farming Mothers’ Union member befriended me. Mary Wood, who is dead now, was like my foster mother. She was my middle daughter’s godmother. Through all the years, Mary was my rock. She was a fantastic example of a member that looked after the families around her, welcoming people. I can do that for somebody else.”
Like other charities, Patsy says that membership numbers in the Mothers’ Union are dropping.
“It’s not that people aren’t interested but people are so committed in so many other directions.
“When I was a young mum, there was less to do and the Mothers’ Union was very helpful to me. Now, mothers are out working. But they still want to back the Mothers’ Union.”
Clearly it is an enduring organisation and a great support for families in strife-torn countries as well as offering a helping hand locally.
For more http://www.cork.mothersunion.ie/