Charity begins at the Church

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 November, 2003, 12:00am

Given that Hong Kong was a British colony for so long, it might surprise some to discover that the city's biggest non-governmental organisation is run by the Catholic Church. It is known as Caritas Hong Kong, and it provides a web of social welfare services to hundreds of thousands of residents.

The forerunners of Caritas began charitable work in the colony with the arrival of the Catholic Church here in 1841. It officially started on April 22 of that year, when 'Hong Kong with the surrounding six leagues' was established as a Prefecture Apostolic, independent from the Macau Diocese.

The first need of the church was the spiritual care of the British (actually Irish Catholic) troops stationed in the newly occupied colony.

The first church in Wellington Street, which became the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, was completed in 1843. The existing Catholic Cathedral in Caine Road was built in 1888.

Soon after his arrival in Hong Kong from Macau, the first prefect, Father Theodore Joset, a Swiss Diocesan priest, decided to establish a school and orphanage for Chinese boys, the Saviour College in Wellington Street, Central. Started in 1843, it later became St Joseph's College on Kennedy Road.

As the church grew, religious orders began arriving and taking care of the sick, homeless and elderly. The first were the Sisters of St Paul de Chartres in 1848, followed by the Canossian Sisters in 1860. They were followed by others and from them grew a complex web of services.

Hospitals, schools, orphanages, and homes for the elderly sprang up all over the colony. These were known as the Catholic Social Welfare Conference. They were consolidated and renamed Caritas Hong Kong in October 1961. Today, it is the official social service agency of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong.

The main aims of the organisation are to bring services to the neediest and most abandoned in society; give prompt assistance to victims of calamities and disasters; and promote and foster self-help projects.

Services offered include hospitals, childcare, community development, family, youth and community, rehabilitation, and elderly care. Others include migration services, services for refugees and asylum seekers and overseas adoption.

Educational institutions cover pre-schooling to adult and higher education services. This includes 39 kindergartens, 140 primary schools, 89 secondary and middle schools, one vocational, 36 adult education and four evening schools. There are nine special needs schools and two post-secondary schools, catering for 286,316 pupils and students of all ages.

Medical services include hospitals, clinics and three Chinese medicine centres. Its six hospitals look after almost 107,000 patients, with clinics and outpatients another 1.3 million. There are residential homes for 1,408 elderly and centres for another 14,872. More than 2,000 people are provided with home help services and rehabilitation services centres care for 1,892 people. There are 141,403 borders at hostels and lodges and 336 beds at its camp service.