On their arrival in Battersea, London in 1902, in what was then a very deprived area of the capital, only one of the first group of Salesian Sisters could speak English. Unperturbed, they set to in their role supporting the educational work of the Salesian Priests already established in England. As in the Oratory of Don Bosco in Turin, the newly arrived missionaries began supervising the domestic arrangements for the local community and the pupils. Alongside this humdrum, tiring work, they found time to undertake some informal education by running an out-of-school club for the disadvantaged children of the area. This was the first of many such clubs that continue to be run by the Sisters up and down the country. Many, from the early days of the informal clubs established at that time, share the many laughs enjoyed as the Sisters became more secure in speaking our difficult language!
A year later, the Bishop of Southwark, Francis Bourne, who had known Don Bosco personally, invited the Sisters to Chertsey to open a school and establish a noviciate for the training of local candidates to the order. Chertsey, another needy town, was to become the hub of the congregation in Britain for the best part of ninety years. From there, other communities would be established in the south of England, mostly in places of particular need, be it material, spiritual or moral. Houses were opened in Chertsey, Farnborough, Cowley-Oxford, Dovercourt, London-Soho, Windlesham, Henley-on-Thames, Hastings, and eventually another two in London. The sisters ran schools, homes for children at risk, a flourishing hostel for young women, many of whom came from immigrant families. In every community, the Sisters were involved in the parishes - teaching catechism, supporting families and promoting associations of committed lay Catholics.
World War II brought to an end the work in Dovercourt and London-Soho where the premises of both houses were so badly damaged as to render them uninhabitable. As needs changed, some of the above communities closed, freeing personnel to serve elsewhere while in other situations lay people were trained to take over the responsibilities formerly undertaken by the Sisters.
In 1959, the Salesian Sisters finally moved northwards, to Liverpool-Gillmoss where they ran the infant school, taught catechism and organised out-of-school activities for the older children. The pre-noviciate training programmes for young women wishing to enter the congregation also moved to the north and the house in Henley closed. From the convent in Gillmoss, the Sisters could see the site of their second community in Liverpool, at Croxteth, where the Archbishop had invited them to open a secondary school for girls. Mary Help of Christians High School was opened in 1965. Still present in Croxteth the St. John Bosco Arts College, which replaces the former Mary Help of Christians School, is being re-built and an exciting chapter for the young women of the area is on the way to being realised by September 2014 – just in time for the celebration of the Bi- Centenary of Don Bosco in 2015!
Further communities were opened in the north-west all involved in the typical Salesian works for children and young people: voluntary aided infant and primary schools, secondary schools, youth clubs, parish catechetics, volunteering and summer activities for children. These communities were in Colne in Lancashire, Bromley Cross, Nelson and 'Brettargh Holt' near Kendal in Cumbria which was home to a thriving pastoral centre for young people. The latter has now sadly closed, after many years of wonderful service for youth groups of all ages from all over the country.
At last, to the joy of our Scottish sisters, a community was opened in Ferguslie Park in 1969. This was the first of several centres, the others being in Milton, Easterhouse, Newmains and Nitshill. Some of these have since closed but the work in Scotland continues today in Easterhouse and Newlands. The latter opened only in 2014 with a new venture for Volunteers called UR Space an exciting opportunity for young people wishing to give a year for the service of others.
While the communities in England and Scotland have kept alive and developed the Salesian charism in their various activities for children and young people, they have also made every effort to answer the call of the Church to evangelize by providing personnel for the overseas missions. Right from the very early years of the Sisters' presence in Britain, Sisters have been sent to many English speaking countries in Asia, Africa, America and Canada.
It was not enough, though, to send Sisters to join missionary provinces abroad; the province undertook its own missionary presence in South Africa in 1960 first at Bellville near Cape Town and then in Paarl, followed by a thriving work in Johannesburg. The mission developed well and has since become an autonomous province.
Despite the many challenges being faced by the Church today the charism of Don Bosco continues to thrive and while numbers are fewer than in previous decades the fervour of the spiritual heritage of the founder, Don Bosco and Co-foundress, St. Mary Mazzarello continue to inspire young women today.
Now based in seven communities (two in Scotland: Easterhouse and Newlands, two in Liverpool: Blundellsands and Croxteth, one in Cowley and two in London: Battersea and Rotherhithe) the Holy Spirit continues to spread the message of service to the young with much joy. With the support of many young volunteers in Vides and in groups such as the Salesians at Home in Liverpool, the message continues to spread that the young are precious and each of them must know they are loved.
The past one hundred years have witnessed a great flexibility among the Salesian Sisters in their ability to reach out to young people; such an attitude holds hope and promise for the future, so that eh dream and spiritual heritage of Don Bosco and St. Mary Mazzarello can continue to flourish.