Riot police officers prepare to carry out a raid in London on Aug 11. The Sisters of Marie Auxiliatrice are assisting those displaced by mob violence. CNS photos

LONDON – Catholic nuns who live near London neighbourhoods hit by riots are working with local authorities to help and even counsel homeless victims.

The Sisters of Marie Auxiliatrice, a French-based community, made their decision after attending an ecumenical prayer vigil amid smouldering ruins and husks of burned-out vehicles in the British capital’s Tottenham district.

Dublin-born Sister Sylvia McCarthy told Catholic News Service on Aug 10, “The shops were burned out completely, and many people lived over those shops, and they had very little time to get out of their apartments.

“The people were in an awful state,” she said. “They are short of everything.”

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster asked for prayers.

Sr Sylvia said she felt very sorry for the victims of the violence, which she described as “aimless”.

“I have been here over 20 years and I have seen the improvement in Tottenham since I first arrived,” she said. “They built up lovely shops, and those shops are now just shells. They are burned to the ground.”

Many residents took with them only the clothes they wore, in some cases pyjamas, then watched as their homes burned, shocked by the reality of becoming suddenly homeless and losing nearly all their possessions.

Sr Margarita Foley, a native of Ireland’s County Cork, offered to counsel anyone suffering from trauma. The trained counsellor said her first instinct was to listen to people’s stories in an attempt to discern the true cause of the problem.

“There is a new generation now and they never seem to have enough,” she said. “I look at the rest of the world, at areas where they have very little, and I say to myself ‘What is it with us that we never have enough no matter what is provided?’

The nuns also offered their help to the social services department of Haringey Council, the local authority, and collected clothing for some 45 families.

The riots, mostly involving gangs of hooded Afro-Caribbean and white youths, were condemned as “shocking” by Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, which includes Tottenham and some of the other affected areas of London.

He said the riots represented a “callous disregard for the common good of our society and show how easily basic principles of respect and honesty are cast aside”.

“I ask that Catholics pray especially for those directly affected by the violence, for those facing danger on our streets, for those whose livelihood has been ruined, for those marked by fear, for those whose parents are worried about the behaviour of their youngsters and for those who, at this time, are being tempted into the ways of violence and theft,” said Archbishop Nichols, president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

In Birmingham, where three Muslim men were killed on Aug 9 by a hit-and-run driver as they tried to defend properties from looters, Fr Gerry Breen, dean of St Chad’s Catholic Cathedral, urged Catholics to pray to Blessed John Henry Newman to intercede “for our city and our people”.

British journalist and author, Melanie Phillips, attempted to explain the violence in her blog.

Family breakdown, toleration of “grossly inadequate parenting”, educational collapse, welfare dependency and the collapse of authority in the criminal justice system were among the factors contributing to the rioting, she said. CNS

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