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You remember the expected distribution to which the poor people were invited by our sister. I went to see it. This was a special distribution of bread, and there was a more than ordinary crowd of applicants. I took a back entrance to the sisters' house, in consequence of seeing many of these poor decent people hurrying on or returning back with a loaf or two in their hands. I ought not to have gone that way unless I wanted to claim a loaf also; but I was glad I did, for I had a better sight of the
There was a wide open window, like that of a butcher's stall, at the back of the house, with a court before it, filled with a quiet respectful group of poor. At the window stood the Sister Superior and her attendant sister; behind her was a gentleman with the organ of benevolence largely developed on his brow, and near to him was a baker's man.
The sister was somewhat in haste, for the hour allotted to this work was nearly past; her voice was heard both loud and authoritative; and as she called the names, if the owners answered they received one or two loaves according to the allotment already made in the book before her; if they delayed to answer,
were not there in time to answer, it was very evident that they might go without any, for her time was not to be trifled with. But notwithstanding her hastiness and her tone of authority, it struck me that somehow her white cap, and active, open, goodhumoured countenance looked at least as well at that open window as would have done that of the masters of our workhouses; and that there was something in the air and manner of the recipients of this public bounty quite unlike the aspect of our poor workhouse applicants; a little timid most of them looked, as the decent poor who accept or seek charity will do, but there was something in the voices that said, “Thank you, my sister," that came almost like a balm to the heart of the hearers; and then the men raised their hats to the Administrator of the Bureau de Bienfaisance, or Office of Benevolence, who stood behind her, and they went off in order with their bread.
The sister was certainly not to be imposed upon, for some persons who had no right to apply for it had come there and got to the wrong side of the house; after her work was ended she went there, and the tone in which she said “It is useless, my friends," and the wave of her arm, were resistless,they went off at once without their bread.
This Bureau de Bienfaisance in France is certainly very unlike that sore disgrace to a Christian land— the English workhouse. Poverty in England is regarded as a crime, an offence against society; and it
is treated as such. The buildings look so fine, sometimes of an architecture so fantastic; the functionaries are so numerous, so pompous, or so very comfortable looking, that a bewildered foreigner stares in amazement at seeing some wretched creatures, in the misery of a winter evening, breaking the street windows, in order to be condemned for another offence than poverty, and sent to a prison instead of a house of charity, to any house of correction rather than that provided simply for destitution.
An old Frenchman gave me once an amusing account of his travels in England. He said he mistook our workhouse for a castle. He went into it, and the director, as he called the master, brought him into his salon; it was so comfortable, with a carpet and I know not what, that he said to himself—“Hah! the English lodge their poor in palaces; it is well to be poor here.” The director took him over the building, and he thought it very fine; “but,” said he, as what surprised me was, that the poor did not seem like people who thought themselves well off. They were silent, mournful, miserable. The persons who were employed there were very numerous, but they were the only ones that seemed well off and happy. I do not know the reason of that, but in our charitable institutions it is not so.”
This good old man was himself the director of one of the largest of these charitable institutions; he had a closet, called a cabinet, for his sitting room, with a stove, a few books, and a bare floor; but outside that cabinet there were vast numbers of happy, lively faces, for there were some hundreds of young persons employed there in various ways, if able to work, and taken care of if ill. They called him father; and such he was to them. But he said our workhouse was much grander, and our masters, with their wives and their families, were much more comfortable, only he wondered why the poor people did not look so happy. If he had stayed longer in our country he might have found out the mystery.
The Bureau de Bienfaisance furnishes the distri. bution of bread to the Sisters, who deliver it to the poor. These poor are often recommended to the Bureau by the Sisters; thus both are connected and act reciprocally and in unison.
Paris, for instance, is divided into twelve arrondissements; in these are constituted twelve Bureaux de Bienfaisance, under the direction of the Prefect of the Seine. These Bureaus are charged with the distribution of what we call out-door relief in the twelve arrondissements. The officers of each board consist of the mayor, his adjuncts, and twelve administrators, named by the Minister of the Interior. These again appoint whatever commissioners, or ladies of charity, they may require for visiting the poor and distributing relief. A paid agent manages the finances, and gives security for his responsibility. Each arrondissement is again divided into twelve districts, under the inspection of one administrator for each, who, in concert with the commissioners and
ladies of Charity, visits and relieves the poor of his division.
Each bureau* has a central house for the administration of its affairs; and SEVERAL HOUSES OF RELIEF, where distribution of provisions and clothing, &c. is made, where a pharmacie, or dispensary is kept; where gratuitous medical aid is given, and where a depôt of linen, clothes, firing, and many other things is maintained, ready for use when required.
These houses of relief are confided to the charge of the Sisters of Charity; small communities of whom are lodged in each, and who are thus the agents of public and governmental charity, acting as parish or relieving officers under the higher officials. They are also employed by the government, or the corporations, as school teachers; a house is given to them, and each sister, demanded for any employment, is paid for her maintenance a sum of from sixteen to twenty-four pounds a year.
The gentleman with the organ of benevolence was an administrator, pleasing himself by witnessing the distribution of bread to the poor. The house the Sisters occupied belonged to the town in which it was, and they were completely the parish officers of the place, and acted as those having authority and as being under authority. All sick persons on the poor list are to be visited by the Sisters of Charity.
* Bureau, in its French sense, means the persons and not the place where they meet.