I am privileged to have been around when God built what is now known as the Manna Centre. As is often the case, a new beginning can often be linked to a particular chapter in one person’s life. We each have only our own story to tell – this is a chapter in mine. During the latter part of 1982 I was coming through a rather dark period in my life. I found it a frightening experience. Life had been fairly clear cut up till then. A passage from the Psalms, “O that today you would listen to my voice, harden not your heart,” broke into the darkness. Somehow that glimmer of light let me see and, in a strange way, feel the pain and the injustice on the streets around me and I felt I was being called to do something about it.
Consequently, I approached Bishop Henderson, then area bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark, and I asked him for a property. When he asked me what I would do with it, I remember answering that I did not know, but I would open the doors and we would be shown. The building at 6 Melior Street, SE1, was given freely by the Diocese. It had been a nursery school in the past but was no longer being used and was badly in need of repairs. The roof leaked and there was no electricity, water or furniture. One of the first visitors was my brother, Barry, and we lit a candle and prayed together.
Once the doors were open people began coming in – calling for many different reasons. Some of the men who came had overnight accommodation at a men’s hostel in Tooley Street nearby. It was winter and they had nowhere to go during the day. People, especially from the different churches in the area began to call and offer help and support and there was lots to do. A frequent visitor, James O’Hara (who spent his nights in the park as he was barred from the hostel), told me one morning that he knew where we could get bread for nothing. James introduced me to Pino at the Bakery in Bermondsey Street. For years we collected all the bread we needed free of charge – surely manna from heaven!
The number of callers increased and a drop in Centre seemed to be emerging. Three priests came to see me to find out what the building was being used for and as a result of that meeting I felt we needed to name the building. So, the Manna was born in March 1983 when I claimed the building for the poor and named it The Manna Centre. Manna, because the bread we were given was distributed freely every day; manna for me personally, and for many people visiting every day. A nearby garage wrote the name on a car number plate (paid for by instalments) and the “Manna Centre” was put up on the wall outside – where it still is today.
In 1985 Ray Towey, a consultant anaesthetist at Guy’s Hospital, became interested in what was taking place. He was to play a significant role in the development of the Manna Centre. He, as a person and with his gifts, was just what the Manna needed. Ray set aside a lot of time for discussion and work to put together a Constitution. Having a Constitution was a step in the direction of applying for charitable status. The first Annual General Meeting of The Manna Society was held on 25 October 1985. The Chairperson was Ray Towey and a management committee was elected. In May 1986 the Constitution was well in place and an extraordinary general meeting of the Society was called on 30 May to accept it. This was required before it could be presented finally to the Charities Commission. The Constitution was unanimously accepted and in July 1986 the Society attained charitable status.
People, too many to mention, by their lives, gifts, and the contributions they have so generously given, have all brought The Manna Society to where and what it is today. Rose Abblett has been volunteering in the Centre since the beginning. Rose always had the support of Tom, her husband, until his death in 1998. So many others have been involved and have now moved on to other things. Paddy Boyle was appointed as Director of the Centre in August 1986 and his team continue to play a vital role in the life of The Manna Society. In 2010, Bandi Mbubi became the Director and Paddy took on the Administrator’s role (4 days a week).