Sir John Miller Adye and Sir William Williams
Bishops Gonzalo Canilla and John Baptist Scandella
Father Alfred Weld and Lord Napier of Magdala
The History of the Little Sisters of the Poor – it seems – was written by a French Archbishop Alexandre Le Roy - although you might never have known it as his name fails to appear anywhere in an edition published in 1901. The following are quotes taken from a small section which deals with their first years in Gibraltar.
Archbishop Alexandre Le Roy
The house in Gibraltar was opened on December 1, 1883, with a group of Sisters, whom the Superiors had appointed without troubling much about their nationality. They were Little Sisters of the Poor; they had received a sufficient welcome from the English Governor and the Catholic Bishop; they had a comfortable lodging; they had poor old people: what more did they want?
Now, when Christmas came, they went to the Bishop to tell him the good news of the foundation and to offer him their New Year’s greetings; but the prelate appeared to be very preoccupied, and finally he confessed to them that the Governor of the place considered that there were too many Sisters of foreign nationalities.
It is right to remember the position of Gibraltar with respect to Spain and Europe - facing Africa, armed with fortifications and cannon, commanding the passage of the seas between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean. The strategical (sic) importance of the colony demands that foreigners, in order to reside there, must be supplied with an authorisation strictly in accordance with the regulations.
Gardiner’s Battery - “commanding the passage of the seas between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean” – Unfortunately as with almost all other major gun batteries on the Rock it faced west towards Spain rather than the Straits of Gibraltar (1880s)
Therefore our Little Sisters found themselves in presence of a hindrance which was not the outcome of any personal feeling against them, but which they had to overcome under penalty of failing in their enterprise. The affair was referred to London. The temporary permission to reside there had just expired. The authorities of the place, applying the common right, notified that two Sisters had to leave the possession without delay.
Sadly they went to bid their farewell to the Bishop. The prelate listened to their complaints, but immediately with a joyful air he cried out: “Well, none of you will leave. I have just received from the Government in London the authorisation for the residence of six Sisters who are not English, and still more - the authorization for the collection of charities in the colony.”
The obstacle had only served to advance the cause. . . . At Gibraltar, the will of a gentleman lately deceased appointed the Little Sisters of the Poor his heiresses, and ensured to them a considerable and certain income. This was against their charter. They declined it, to the astonishment of the deceased family. But is not God’s providence an eternal inheritance? By accepting, we should cease to become Little Sisters of the Poor!
The Governor of Gibraltar at the time was Sir John Miller Adye. (See LINK) Year by year British authorities were trying desperately to screen applicants for entry and for residence without too much success. The result was a new regulation - the 1873 Aliens Order in Council – instigated by one of Adye’s predecessor - Governor General Sir William Williams Even this failed to stop illegal entry into the fortress to the satisfaction of the British authorities and Adye amended it accordingly in 1885.
Kenwich William Williams
John Miller Adye
It was in this milieu that the little Sisters found themselves when they arrived. Curiously a revised version published in 1886 allowed the Governor to use his discretion. It makes one wonder whether the affair with the Sisters may have at least partially influenced this decision.
There is quite a bit of evidence that certain cases were treated with sympathy. For example, in 1922 an infirm 60 year old lady from Malaga with no family to look after her and had worked in Gibraltar as a cook who for forty years, was granted a permit to allow her to take refuge in the asylum run by the little Sisters of the Poor. An understandable exception by 21st century standards but by no means obvious in 1920s.
The Catholic Bishop was Dr Gonzalo Canilla who was a Gibraltarian.
Bishop Dr. Gonzalo Canilla.
Canilla had his own problems before he was actually able to take over his position. Before being appointed Bishop, Canilla had been secretary to his predecessor - Bishop Scandella, a man who had often criticised the wealthier local merchants for their lack of generosity towards the poor. Not surprisingly the merchants petitioned Rome against the appointment of Canilla as they were worried that Canilla would continue where Scandella had left off.
Bishop John Baptist Scandella
In 1881 despite the protest, the Pope appointed Canilla and he was consecrated Bishop in London by Cardinal Manning. In August the new bishop returned to Gibraltar. By this time the 'Committee of Elders' who attributed to themselves the right to intervene in all matters concerning the Vicariate of Gibraltar appeared on the scene.
These 'Committees of Elders' seem to crop up periodically out of nowhere. They were a self-appointed, self-seeking, and generally reactionary group of individuals. In this instance they formed an unholy alliance with a mob made up of anarchists from La Linea, and ruffians recruited from both sides of the border. With the backing of this little lot they succeeded in physically stopping the newly appointed bishop from entering his church.
Rome then sent an English Jesuit, Alfred Weld to intervene. In December, Canilla tried once more to enter the church but was prevented from doing so yet again by the mob. Canilla wrote to the Governor at the time, Lord Napier. His complaint was that the police hadn’t lifted a finger to stop the mob from entering the church, insulted the clergy and causing considerable damage.
Lord Napier of Magdala
Napier, a man who was not exactly noted for his enlightened politics and was in any case quite friendly with most of of the 'Elders” – many of whom happened to be British born - did nothing. Emboldened, one of the leading lights of the committee one day decided to enter the church himself and man-handled Father Weld out of the church.
By January 1882 a thoroughly upset Canilla wrote directly to the Earl of Kimberley – Secretary of State for the Colonies - who in turn wrote to Napier. He criticised the Governor’s inaction and ordered him to make sure Canilla was allowed to take over his duties. Napier ignored his boss and continued to do nothing. The 'Elders' then decided to take over the church themselves and appointed as 'chief priest' a Greek clergyman who taught at the boys' college.
John Wodehouse - 1st Earl of Kimberley (1880s)
By March Napier began to backtrack and at last ordered the police, with the help of a company of soldiers, to protect Canilla as he made yet another, this time successful attempt to enter the church. This led to sneering comments in various local newspapers where it was suggested that 'only Protestants went into the Church with Canilla', and that 'to dislodge defenceless Catholics is a much easier task than dislodging the Boers'. 'England' cried yet another,'has given the world an example of medieval despotism'. It may have been the end of an absurd affair, but the British Government's enforcement of the Papal right to choose whoever he wished as Bishop, was a unique event in the history of nineteenth-century Europe.
As for the Little Sister, almost immediately after their arrival they took over responsibility for looking after the statue of Our Lady of Europa (see LINK) which was being held in a chapel near the school in the Loreto Convent – this of course as an extra responsibility from their normal charitable work.
Gibraltar’s very own Virgen de Europa
The facade of the Loreto Convent in Europa Road
By the late 19th century the Little Sisters of the Poor in Gibraltar were providing refuge for some eighty aged poor and they were still at it just before WWII with their Asylum for the Aged. When I was last in Gibraltar I am sure they were still active – but having been neither religious, poor nor aged in the 1950s I cannot confirm whether they were still active at the time – or even whether tier services are still needed today. But like many others – they form very much a part of our civilian history.