Frank Duff and the Mother and Baby home that was for mothers AND babies.

Frank Duff. Some don’t realise, he was a rebel

(This one is probably a little bit from left field. Or maybe right field. But I sincerely believe that the practice of tarring all with the same brush is wrong. And prominent Catholics are routinely abused and accused. And the words “mother and baby home” inspire immediate revulsion. But there is always another story. Here is one.)

It is 132 years on June 7 since the birth of Frank Duff.

We don’t talk much these days about men who were devout Catholics. And especially not if they had anything to do with a mother and baby home.

Frank Duff pleased the Catholic Church when he founded the Legion of Mary.

But when he founded the Regina Coeli home on Dublin’s North Great Brunswick Street, he ruffled a few feathers and maybe, a few mitres.

Indeed, the former Blackrock College student has been compared with one who followed him into the school more than half a century after him – Bob Geldof, another rebel with a cause to look after those discarded by society.

Regina Coeli was a not Mother and Baby home in the way we have come to think of such places.

It did not exist to facilitate fast track adoptions. It was not a place where mothers would give birth only for their babies to be taken from them.

Frank wanted to ensure that single mothers could raise their own children and bring them to adulthood.

It wasn’t easy. Life in the Regina Coeli hostel wasn’t a bed of roses. The mothers had to go out to work to earn their keep to support and feed themselves and their children.

And the children did experience discrimination once outside the hostel. They were made to feel different for being fatherless.

Frank Duff believed that mothers and their babies should be together, that the mothers were the right ones to bring those babies through childhood and they should not be separated.

It wasn’t a popular opinion in 1930 when he established the home.

Frank was no ordinary devout Catholic.

He persuaded the government of the day in 1922 to buy a building on Harcourt Street which he turned into a refuge for prostitutes who had escaped the pimps and criminals who ran the vice business in Monto, an area later made famous in song. It wasn’t something expected of a prominent Catholic.

When he founded societies to encourage mutual understanding between different Christian denominations and indeed between Christians and Jews his actions were frowned upon by Archbishop McQuaid.

He reached out to Travellers when nobody else would.

And while homosexuality was not only a taboo subject, but illegal, he established a praesidium to reach out to and befriend homosexuals. 

None of this went down well with the Church authorities of the time.

One who came through the Regina Coeli hostel is Gordon Lewis, who wrote the book Secret Child about his relatively happy time in the hostel which is where he was born. The book became a best seller and was later made into an award winning short film.

Now, he is at the forefront of the campaign to have Frank Duff’s contribution to the lives of single mothers remembered with a blue plaque on the Regina Coeli building.

Gordon believes Frank Duff was far ahead of his time in looking after single mothers and their children. It wasn’t perfect but at least he had his mother and she had him.

He may never have made it to the top of the music charts like Bob Geldof. But the reasonable start in life that the Regina Coeli hostel gave Gordon allowed allowed him build a career in the music world. And as he rose up the ladder his Gordon Lewis Organisation made music films over the years for the likes of David Bowie, Queen, Neil Young, Elton John, Rod Stewart and others.

Now though, it is the plaque on the old Regina Coeli building which occupies Gordon’s mind.

“I suppose because of, not despite recent events, it is important that we remember those who did the right thing by single mothers including my own. 
“I hope Frank Duff’s kindness and bravery will be recognised by that plaque. 

“I can only propose it. Now, it’s up to others,” he said.

Gordon said he hopes this could be an excellent opportunity for the Legion of Mary to embrace the plan for a blue plaque to commemorate the thousands of single mothers and their children who lived TOGETHER in this building, made possible by Frank Duff.

“Obviously, the building’s owners, the De Montfort Trust, which is part of the Legion of Mary, will have to give permission. So we’ll have to wait for that,” Gordon says.

It will take a bit of courage to endorse such a plan.

But then, that was one thing Frank wasn’t short of.

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