Approaching St. Mathias community centre, a group of elderly ladies are waiting outside the door, disgruntled as they weren’t being let in in time. One of them knocks on the door with her cane, others complain jokingly: “I’m the only one who opens their mouth”, “they should have a bench that we can sit on”. One of them asks: “Can you go around the back and tell them to open the door? We’re freezing.”
After doing so I’m led up to the headquarters of Neighbours in Poplar, a room overlooking the rest of the community centre. Four women are working in the room which has a few screens and stacks of papers scattered around. Among them is Sister Christine Frost of the ‘Faithful Companions of Jesus’, an order of nuns, who give their whole lives in service, doing work in the areas of education, hospitality and prayer, care of immigrants and care of the elderly. She is busy hunched over a stack of papers, discussing the planning of an upcoming get together within the local community.
Frost has dedicated the last 55 years to helping those in Poplar that have the least, primarily the elderly. In June 2008 she was awarded the MBE for ‘voluntary service to children, older adults and to the community.’ She also received the Tower Hamlets Freedom Award in 2021.
In her many years of being a very active member of the community in Poplar, she has gained attention on a few occasions, most so when, together with some members of the Muslim community in 2014. she removed an Islamist flag from a Poplar housing estate.
She has also persuaded Canary Wharf businesses to donate food and gifts at Christmastime to Neighbours in Poplar, which proved a big success when 140 bags of biscuits, sugar, tea, coffee arrived at a community centre in Tower Hamlets.
Sister Christine was born in 1937 in Limerick, Ireland and was first sent to Canada, where she taught for seven years. After that, she was sent to London, where she initially trained as a physiotherapist.
She soon saw that a lot of the elderly weren’t being taken care of. She told ELL: “At that point, which sounds amusing now, they were complaining about how things had changed since the war.”
Christine took action: “We decided to do a Christmas party, and that brought people and the community together. Then we realised: ‘maybe there’s more to this than just doing a one-off’. That’s when we started in Neighbours in Poplar.
“Christmas is a Family time when people come together in love and friendship. It has sadly become a very lonely time for many who because of age, disability or poverty spend Christmas alone.”
Tower Hamlets has a mix of religions, including a strong Muslim component. Neighbours in Poplar reflects that diversity. “We concentrate on all that we have in common, much more than divides us,” She said. “We are fortunate in Poplar to have many good connections with people of other Faiths, or none, and we do a number of community activities together.”
In response to the rising tensions throughout the borough due to the Israel-Gaza war, Neighbours in Poplar held a “Together for Peace” gathering in November.
“Over 50 people came, from all faiths,” she told ELL. “Obviously the support for Palestine and it’s right to a homeland is very strong. We are not unaware of the savagery on both the Hamas and the Israeli side. Two wrongs do not make a right. Our concern is especially with the injured who will have to live with unbearable consequences of the war.”
The charity was particularly crucial during the pandemic, which hit elderly people the hardest. Sister Christine and her volunteers cooked and distributed meals, ran a food bank and arranged vaccination trips with the NiP minibus.
One of her proudest achievements is how much she has achieved with her small team: “We’ve got a tiny staff. When you consider what they actually achieve, like in the project that I’m looking after they have cooked and delivered 42,000 dinners since COVID started.”
Perhaps the most important thing NiP does is simply visiting those that need someone. She said that one elderly lady that frequently receives visits said: “when I hear that knock on the door, I know somebody cares.” Bill, who passed away not long ago and had received a burial from members of the community, had said: “Neighbours in Poplar gives me hope.”
According to Sister Christine, the biggest problem Tower Hamlets is facing is poverty. “Look at where we are in the shadow of Canary Wharf”. She pointed in the direction of the looming towers, which are less than 300 metres away from the centre.
“Tower Hamlets has one of the biggest gaps in disposable income between Tower Hill, Canary Wharf and Poplar.” She said.
But this part of Tower Hamlets, she says, has a strong community. “And that’s a huge thing … we need to do everything we possibly can to build community to bring people of different faiths, languages, whatever together and have them talk to each other.”
When asked what she would have liked to have more of throughout the years, she quickly replied with: “Money!” But she wouldn’t want too much: “Not a huge amount, we never want huge. It just sounds crazy. But the way it is because we have to fundraise for everything, then people can say it’s ours.”
She also wished society would care more for the elderly: “older people have just fallen off the radar …[and] are not being cared for, like they should be. … There’s an old man I visit across the road, and if you want to see a picture of someone out of Auschwitz…”
But despite the many issues Poplar faces, young people and especially her volunteers give her hope: “It’s just been amazing since COVID. There was a gang of them there this morning, peeling carrots, and they did they get nothing out of it, except company from each other. … And I know, we will have volunteers coming Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, they’ll give up some time.”
Frost is always keen to have new volunteers for Neighbours in Poplar. She added: “If you’d like to volunteer, please get in touch.”