Johanne O’Rourke-Corbett has devoted much of her life to helping others, for which she received recognition from Pope Francis. She spoke with The Irish World’s Mags McGagh.
Nestled in the middle of a housing estate in Ancoats, Manchester you will find Mary and Joseph House.
I recently spent a wonderful afternoon in the company of Johanne O’Rourke-Corbett, chair of the home’s Board of Trustees.
Johanne has volunteered and worked with the homeless of Manchester for most of her adult life.
She spoke to the Irish World about the charity and her lifelong involvement.
Mary and Joseph House was established by businessman Joseph Cox who, at that time was living in All Saints.
The parish priest of St Augustine’s was frequently asked for help by Irish men working in the area.
Contractors would drop them off there when there was no work.
Desperate to support these men, the priest approached Joseph Cox, to see if he could provide any help. In 1963 Joseph set up the charity.
He bought two houses on Nelson St where the multistorey carpark for the Manchester Royal Infirmary now stands.
He knocked the two houses into one and provided a bed, food, clothes and washing facilities for men who were in need.
It was staffed mainly by volunteers from the St Vincent De Paul from Dublin.
After some time, the local city council put a demolition notice on the area, and it was knocked down.
Alternative premises were found, an old school on George Lees Street.
The building didn’t offer individual rooms for the men but dormitory living, the men were happy with this as long as they had a bed for the night.
If a man couldn’t find a bed there for the night, they were always offered a meal, clean clothes and washing facilities.
They could return the next day to see if a bed was available for them that night.
In 1993 they moved to their present home in Ancoats.
Mary and Joseph House is a care home for men with mental health conditions and alcohol related brain damage and dementia also known as Korsakoff Syndrome.
At present the care home is at full capacity and cares for forty-one residents in a safe, caring and stable environment helping them back on their feet towards rehabilitation.
The forty-two staff work extremely hard to provide a stimulating environment in which the men thrive.
They offer a wide range of therapies and meaningful activities ranging from gardening, cookery, art and joinery among others.
The walls are adorned with the most spectacular pieces of artwork created by the residents and, as you walk down the corridors, you could be forgiven for thinking that you are in an art gallery.
Residents, who are able, go to local football matches, go fishing and pursue many other outdoor activities.
Those who are unable to travel are offered in-house activities from outside agencies.
Again, those who can, go on a weeklong holiday every summer and the less able are taken for days out.
Mary and Joseph House is held up as a beacon of best practise and the local council encourages staff from other homes to visit and learn from it.
Three years ago, the home was inspected and awarded an ‘Outstanding’ rating in all five areas of care. Last October it was inspected again and awarded and retained its ‘Outstanding’ grade. It is one of only four care homes in the entire country to receive consecutive outstanding ratings.
Staff were praised for their inspiring approach caring for the residents and their dedication to providing an outstanding service.
This was evident on my visit as staff spent their break playing a foosball game with the residents.
Johanne told us how she first became involved with the charity: “Originally it was run as a hostel. At that time, I was also doing some work with Irish Community Care.
“On a Sunday we would take some of the Irish men to the Irish World Heritage Centre as ICC provided lunch for them.
“In those days the hostel was mainly run by volunteers as it didn’t have an income.
“We took in the street homeless. If they knocked looking for help, we took them in.
“At that time, I was doing some voluntary administration work for them as I was also working full time.
“In 1985 I was invited by Noreen Finn, from Mayo, who was also working for ICC at the time, to join the committee.
“Over time legislation changed and we had to become a registered care home.
“This was all backed by the Joseph Cox Society which is now run by his son John.
“In 1993 we eventually moved to our present home. The chair at the time, Alan Bancroft, saw us through the move and transition to becoming a registered care home and he stepped down in 1994.
“That’s when I became Chair of the Management Committee and I still am today.
“I am extremely proud of what we have achieved over the years and see it as my baby.
“Looking back, I suppose I have always been involved in volunteering in some way. Even at school I was involved in running youth groups and again it has been a theme running through my life. Wherever I have lived I have always volunteered in the local community. It hasn’t done me any harm and it has always been very rewarding.
“I was extremely honoured to receive a Papal award for my charity work. It came completely out of the blue.
“I was asked to chair a meeting. John Cox had spoken about stepping down from the committee and I thought that that’s what was going to happen.
“So, it was with a very heavy heart that I attended. I had worked so closely with him all through the years and just couldn’t imagine what it would be like if he wasn’t there.
“Anyway, I entered the room and saw this wonderful spread that had been laid on and my heart sank. I thought yes, he is going to resign his position.
“I opened the meeting and Fr. Eammon Mulcahy our local priest and committee member handed me a document to read to those present.
“Again, I thought it was John’s letter of resignation. When I looked at it, it was in Latin.
“I said to Fr. Eamon I can’t read this as I don’t understand what it says. He asked me to try again and at that moment I noticed my name on it.
“I couldn’t believe it when he told me that it was the Papal Award. Wonderful time
“We had a wonderful time during which I was presented with the Papal Medal. Everyone had been in on it and I didn’t have a clue.
“I have been very lucky in my life. I was married to a wonderful man Mick who we have sadly lost.
“I have been blessed with a fantastic family of four children, fifteen grandchildren and five great grandchildren, and I have the support of amazing friends. I love going back home to Tipperary where I have a house and to visit my two daughters and their families.
“The time I have spent at Mary and Joseph House has been so rewarding. The staff and residents are like an extended part of my family.”