Spirituality and Religion in Social Care – Reflections on the Meaning of Place

By Noel Howard

The following paper is ten years old and probably bears the signs of that. It is a personal look back that was presented at a seminar in April 2006 at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) entitled “In a changing Ireland has Social Care practice left Religious and Spiritual Values behind?” Perhaps some of the sentiments expressed have more relevance today but the reader is the best judge of that. 

Taken from Seminar Proceedings, April 2006, edited by Judy Doyle and Carmel Gallagher and with appreciation to the editors and DIT Arrow Publications


I will begin by letting you know where I‘m coming from. Like all of us… parents, environment and community were major influences on my childhood. Unlike today there was another all pervasive influence. The Church, both subtly and in many cases not so subtly, controlled, with the priest seen as God and church teaching unquestioned. It must also be said, however, that the Church, whether for good or ill, did give a sense of order and control. And while that order and control hid some unpalatable truths which would later emerge in a more liberal Ireland, there was a certain security which flowed from the influence which religion had on us. As is often the case for many people, black or white was far preferable to the struggles and questions which grey raises.

To relate this to the topic of the seminar, I would suggest that a sense of security and certainty also prevailed in the children’s centre where I worked for over twenty five years. In later years the sense of order that religion provided declined and in a changing Ireland that decline was replicated around the country in many of the child care centres which had been run by religious orders. In the broader Irish context the author John McGahern, who died recently, has painted a vivid, harsh and sometimes depressing picture in many of his novels of the influence of religion in the lives of ordinary people. And we must keep in mind that we are not talking about hundreds of years ago but rather a little less that a generation ago.

The importance of place

A sense of place is vital for us all. I would like to consider the concept of place, place in the sense of where children in care are and our responsibility to cater for their moral and spiritual wellbeing. My suggestion, ultimately, is that, living in a different world from the relatively recent past the place we provide for children in care – welcoming, secure and safe – will provide a base from which spiritual and moral values can emanate. In a society where materialism is rampant staff teams must have the confidence and conviction that such values have a real place in the lives of children who are marginalized and deprived. I will juggle with that word place as we go along. In terms of my perspective on children and young people in care with whom I have worked over a good number of years, I may, rather than providing answers, throw out some more questions that we all can ponder with benefit.

Let us for a moment reflect, briefly, on the past and then move on to where we might go into the future in terms of the broad theme of the seminar and in particular the idea of place. Because, if the places of care our children go to are safe and secure then there will be many openings for them to imbibe all that is best in either a spiritual or moral sense. And that will come from trained, committed adults who know what they are about and who can create an atmosphere and environment that is welcoming and warm with realisable goals, however minimal.

L.P. Hartley, in his novel of English country life, ‘The Go Between’ (1953) which deals with the loss of innocence and where the theme of place resonates, begins with the now famous opening lines…

‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’.

I would suggest that things were done differently in the past in dealing with children in general as well as in care situations. It was, of course, not all bad. It would be presumptuous, indeed even arrogant to suggest that because of what we all now know about the past that it is my generation or your generation that has suddenly become enlightened as to how children in care should be treated or how their spiritual and moral needs should be met. And I say that without forgetting for a moment all that went wrong. However, the phrase ‘Throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ should always be there at the back of our minds when looking at the past and attempting to bring the best from it to bear on the future. This is true in terms of spirituality – a term meaning different things to different people. It is worth keeping in mind also the maxim that ‘They who do not understand the past are condemned to live by it’ (Santanya).

The Philadephia House of Refuge established in the early 19th century[1] provides us with a very enlightened and revealing perspective on what place should be for children. And this from a time when the term Mission Statement was unheard of as a concept! The refuge was to provide care for children only after much deliberation by judges. Among other requirements it was to provide reading material and play areas suitable for children, have walls not to keep children in but strangers out, provide medical treatment and education. This was a most enlightened approach and interestingly, God is not mentioned.

Our own 1908 Children’s Act, even in its demise, still governs the lives of young offenders who come into care through the Juvenile Justice system. We should not forget that many commentators have had to admit that it too was a most enlightened piece of legislation. Furthermore, in its working and direction, the religious needs of those it affected were not forgotten.

To return to the more recent past in 1973 I began work in Finglas Children’s Centre which replaced the old Marlborough House. It was run by the De La Salle Brothers and catered for boys only. The staff, in those early years, both lay and religious, was male dominated though there were a number of nuns and a small number of female staff also working there. The centre was not unique because, as you know, religious orders ran the vast majority of residential centres for children. We now know that the state, giving lip service to children and the family, conveniently forgot its obligations to those children who, for whatever reason, found their way into public care. Change, however, was on the way, and from the mid 1970s more and more lay people were beginning to come into this area of work and the following decades would see a remarkable decline in the influence of religious orders with all that that meant.

It was not surprising then, that in the place I worked, because of the Brothers and the prevailing ethos of that time, there was strong emphasis on religion as in prayers, Mass, presence of religious symbols and so on. Over time some of the lay staff would have expressed the view, in a joking manner but perhaps with some intent, that whatever religion they had when they began working in Finglas they had none left after a few years working there. What was the reason for this implied negative view? – “The Brothers” of course! At times it seemed that – a bit like blaming the British – whatever difficulty one had in Finglas the Brothers were a convenient target. It seemed like “they” were always to blame. So, the boys coming to Finglas then were coming to an institution where religion and religious symbolism would be very much part of their day. One of those religious symbols was, naturally, the crucifix and in the early days many wooden crucifixes dotted the walls of the centre. They were soon removed from all but the most inaccessible positions as they presented a convenient weapon for the boys to use on their peers or indeed, on occasion, the staff.

Looking back on it now I would suggest that religion was a controlling and ordering factor in the boys’ lives in Finglas. Was that necessarily a bad thing? I can’t put my hand on my heart and say that it was. Let me give you an example. Before the boys went to their meals they lined up for prayers. Similarly at the beginning and end of each day and often before class time there was a pause for prayer. Now, while ostensibly the emphasis appeared to be on the prayer, the actual process established order, slowed things down and provided a pause before moving on to the next activity. Meal times were often the most difficult and disruptive time of the day with large numbers of boys in a confined area. The prayer before meals, while outwardly the focal point, helped to create calm and allowed other instructions and directions to be given.

I remember one staff member, who as part of the morning prayer ritual, when one or more of the boys were due in court later that day, would ask that we all say a prayer for the judge to guide him or her to make the right decision in relation to the boy or boys in question. The more alert among the boys were often less than enthusiastic for such a practice and let that be known in language that would certainly not have impressed the judge and certainly was not appropriate as part of morning prayer. Mass, the core of religious practice, was one area where numerous difficulties arose. On their way to Mass, the boys passed near the front entrance of the centre and the risk and temptation for the boys to abscond was ever present. Although not always keen, all the boys went to Mass and various enticements were used to get them there. The carrot of a swim after Mass often worked as did the suggestion that the particular Mass “only takes five minutes.”!

Another enticement was the miraculous medal which each new boy got at the end of Mass. The brother in charge would, prior to Mass, have delivered his own sermon on the miraculous powers of the medal and would relate stories of how it worked wonders in wars and other catastrophes. I remember an occasion when a boy had to be removed from the church at Mass time because he was disruptive. He actually left the church without too much difficulty and agreed that he might be better engaged playing football in the gym until Mass was over. I and another staff member accompanied him. Everything seemed to be going fine until he suddenly realised that he would miss getting the miraculous medal at the end of Mass. Despite being told that we could get him one anyway he barged past us out of the gym insisting that he wanted his ‘nekrakulous megal’ from the priest only, and no one of us was going to stop him. Needless to remark, in referring to the medal, the priest and our attempts to stop him a number of well chosen expletives were used (by him!). A chase ensued out of the gym and back to the church where he made his grand entrance and brought proceeding there to a halt. On being asked by the priest why he was back he again referred to the ‘nekrakulous megal.’ Discretion being the better part of valour, it was felt he was better off remaining in view of his obsession with getting the medal. In the event the medal had, one more time, proved effective and order was restored!

The particular enticement to go to Mass for the miraculous medal declined too especially as it became increasingly evident that, after Mass and as the day wore on, rows and fights regularly erupted among the boys over claims that others had stolen their medals. The practice of giving and wearing the miraculous medal has of course declined as a religious observance over time.

God never of course closes one door but opens another. When what is now the Oberstown Girls Centre was based down the road from Finglas in Whitehall, the presence of the girls at Mass each Sunday, while bringing its own perceived difficulties, did act as a magnet for the boys to attend with less persuasion than usual. Disorder was never far away for either group and more vigilance than usual was necessary to get things back to normal particularly when the ‘sign of peace’ seemed very rushed when given by the boys and girls to the adults and much longer than necessary between themselves!

So, one can only wonder as to what the boys really got from Mass, the central religious service of their week, in view of the reasons why they attended. What I will say is that involving the boys in a more integrated way in the actual liturgy service, as happened in later years, helped enormously. I do believe that children are very attracted to ritual and symbolism and I see, in the centre where I now work, that by involving them and expanding on their individual talents at Easter, Christmas and indeed at other significant times, the spiritual dimension does not have to be boring and meaningless.

How does the present day differ from the decades of the 70s, 80s and 90s? Was there a stronger sense of values and a clearer moral code? If so, was religion the reason?

I can recall a heated debate at a child care meeting about the correctness, or not, of allowing the children to watch the Incredible Hulk and The Bionic Man because it showed that physical strength was the way to solve problems. Thrown in for good measure at that meeting was an opinion that allowing children to watch Top of the Pops was exposing them to pornography because it featured scantily clad dancing girls. Who remembers Legs and Co? One can only look back wistfully on what was really a simpler age when one considers what children are now exposed to on television. Are the children who come to us today less moral because of a decline in religious values? They certainly have much more to contend with, they are more precocious, they do some terrible things, but really I can’t say I think they have less of a value system or are less moral. There are people who will disagree with when I say that I don’t think children coming into care today are “worse” than they were twenty or thirty years ago. They may well be right and I may well be wrong.

Now where does this leave the influence that religion had or did not have on those children who were in centres where religion played a big part? Frankly, as I said in relation to Mass attendance and its real or imagined effect, I tend to think that it was the relationships with staff and how those relationships were positively fostered that may have had a greater influence for good. I do know that when children who have been in care where I now work ring up after anything from three to twenty years after leaving us it is the child care staff and quite often the household/domestic staff they will ask for and enquire about. This leads me to where social care workers come in in terms of what provision they can make for the children they work with where moral/ spiritual values are concerned. Because as I am sure you will agree, we are hardly going to go back to the systems that pertained in the past in terms of a one dimensional, unquestioned religious authority such as the Catholic Church was.

Firstly, what have we as social care workers to offer? Certainly not an authority by reason of just who we are. Remember nobody is ‘God’s gift’ to Child Care or Social Care. We do however bring our past, the place we have come from, our experiences – both good and bad, our personality, our training, our talents, some of us with one or two, others maybe fortunately blessed with more than that. We bring our optimism and I hope a sense that we can make a difference. We bring, hopefully, a strong professional ethic.

Dare I say, we may have, what has become a somewhat disreputable word, a vocation for what we do. Now before anyone jumps up and looks for a fight with me on this one, let me say that, yes, a job is a job and we all have to pay the mortgage. I believe strongly however that not just anyone can work with difficult children whether it is in the classroom, the community or residential care. So, if as social care workers we are privileged to work with the most marginalized children who find their way into the residential care system, or indeed the community services, let us not forget that these children are in our place and we have a responsibility to cater, in the best possible way, for their spiritual and moral well being.

There is much in place, and rightly so, to ensure that we have learned from the past and that, first and foremost, children are safe and secure. There are Inspections, Legislation, Policies and Procedures, Children First, Standards etc that should combine to make care safe. And, if after spending a period of time in care at an earlier age, an adult, even if he / she ends up in Mountjoy prison, can look back to when they were in our care and feel, “I was safe there”, then somebody has done a very good job. In addition to that if good relationships are fostered that enables the spiritual and religious aspect to be developed then that is a further bonus.

I would argue that we have drawn back, that we have become cautious around the whole spiritual dimension and that we know the reasons why. One gets a sense that we are, at times, bending over backwards and jumping through hoops to ensure that there is no suggestion that we are, as it were, foisting spirituality or morality on to children we look after because we might be seen somehow to be condoning what was, in some cases, wrong and abusive in the past. I have always felt that if a Muslim, or Hindu child, were to come to one of our centres then staff would be very anxious to ensure that his or her religious and spiritual needs were met. And rightly so. However, our Christian / Catholic children deserve the same.

How then can we contribute to the spiritual and moral development of the children we work with? We are not talking here about making some dramatic impact on a child’s life but maybe we have some talent on our staff team that can zone in, however imperceptibly, and make some small difference. Of course, much more importantly we can make that difference in our place by doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well.

Because working with difficult children is unglamorous, monotonous, mundane. So is parenting and it is because of just that ordinariness that relationships are built and values which very often cannot be taught are actually caught.

The idea of “The Other 23 Hours” springs to mind here (Trieschman, Whittaker and Brendtro, 1962). It is the ordinary and mundane, real quality care that happens each day, every day which is the key.

If violence begets violence then the converse must be true. Kindness, sensitivity, fairness, conveying a sense of right and wrong, being just and being an advocate – surely all of these if manifested by us will make a difference in a child’s life.

Wordsworth, one of the great poets of the English language, an agnostic, is spiritually ecstatic in his poem not about God but about a place, Tintern Abbey with its particular atmosphere and rustic surroundings. Let us consider what he suggests has a major influence for good in one’s life.

These beauteous forms,

Through a long absence,

Have not been to me

As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din

Of towns and cities, I have owed to them

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,

Felt in the blood and felt along the heart;

And passing even into my purer mind,

With tranquil restoration- feelings too

Of unremembered pleasure; such perhaps,

As have no slight or trivial influence

On that best portion of a good man’s life,

His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.


And maybe, that atmosphere near Tintern Abbey which Wordsworth, the agnostic, found so spiritual, so godlike, while it can hardly be replicated in our place perhaps the more we achieve, in making where we work as calm, as safe, as spiritual as we can, then perhaps we need not necessarily hanker after what some euphemistically call ‘the good old days’. We can help make the now, our place a haven for the troubled children who find their way into our residential centres. Is this not what we would want for our own children were they to have to experience the care system in Ireland? And let us not forget, that ‘there, but for the grace of…’ goes your child or my child, your brother / sister or mine.

Thank you.


Hartley, L.P., 1952, The Go Between by, Penguin Modern Classics.

  1. F. Santanya (1863 -1952) “They who do not understand the Past…”

The Other 23 Hours – Child Care Work with Emotionally Disturbed Children in a Therapeutic Milieu by Trieschman, Whittaker and Brendtro (Aldine Transaction Publishers, New York 1962)

William Wordsworth – Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey

[1] The Philadelphia House of Refuge refers to one of a number of Houses of Refuge set up to provide care for child vagrants outside of adult prisons from the 1820s onward. The first was set up in 1825 in New York. They were not as benign as their quoted purpose and were often places of harsh regimes.



Mark Smith writes on 21st December, 2016 :

Noel, thanks for this. As one who, like yourself, began his career with the De La Salle Brothers, it has a special significance. In fact, it also links to a recent online piece I did.


The picture is St Joes, where I started and is taken from a Facebook page started by one of the former pupils. Almost invariably, their memories of the Brothers are, like my own, positive.I am reminded of a quote I draw upon quite a bit in my writing, from an article by David Webb, called A Certain Moment’ in which he reflects on the life and work of a great aunt who had been matron of a Church of England, children’s home. He contrasts earlier certainties about the moral order and carers’ consequential obligations towards children, with the confusion, ambiguity and doubt that characterises much present day child care. As Webb concludes in contrasting a religiously inspired version of care with present day provision; ‘the drawing of any invidious comparisons with what takes place today in “corporate care” might invite a brief reflection on the parable of the mote and the beam’ (2010: 1400).