The Faith-Based Charitable Mission of Charles O'Neill in New South Wales (1881-91)

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The establishment of the St Vincent de Paul Society throughout Australia during the nineteenth century was characterised by different foundational trajectories in each colony beginning with the establishment of first, albeit short-lived, Melbourne Conference by an English-born priest, the Reverend Gerald Ward (1806-53) in 1854. (1) These trajectories lasted until the consolidation of the Society under a Superior Council of Australasia in Sydney with Louis Heydon (1848-1918) as first President in 1895. (2) Between these two foundational milestones was the faith-based charitable mission of Charles O'Neill (1828-1900) undertaken during 1881-91 that, with the support of Society of Mary (Marist Fathers), successfully established the Society in New South Wales beginning with St Patrick's Church Hill Conference on 24 July 1881. (3) This mission of the Irish-Scot O'Neill, then one of the foremost civic engineers in the Australian colonies and a New Zealand colonial parliamentarian during 1866-75, is of historical significance for two reasons.

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Firstly, this mission formalised the first major lay Catholic outdoor relief welfare program in New South Wales in an era before government welfare relief. (4) Given the support and endorsement of Archbishops Roger Bede Vaughan osb and (subsequently Cardinal) Patrick Francis Moran, it quickly became the largest that existed in the Australian colonies prior to Federation.

Secondly, O'Neill's charitable mission, providing as it did a Catholic alternative to the then flourishing evangelical slum missions, was guided by principles external to those then dominating Australian colonial philanthropy. Much of this externality came through the guidance of the Society's President-General Adolphe Baudon (1819-88) who ensured that O'Neill's mission was guided by the Rule of the Society, founded in Paris in May 1833. This 'French connection' was reinforced by the support of the Marists who like the charismatic influence behind the St Vincent de Paul Society, (now Blessed) Frederic Ozanam, had associations with the city of Lyon. (5) O'Neill himself, having led the Society in the Western Districts of Scotland during 1859-63, was already well schooled in the Society's practices. He was deeply influenced by the traditional Catholic doctrine of mercy applied to charity and had inculcated a simple incarnational spirituality with respect to the poor through devotion to both St Vincent de Paul and St Francis of Assisi. (6) O'Neill also sought to promote a less obtrusive form of outdoor relief in contrast to the prevailing judgemental climate in philanthropy. (7)

The mission was initiated by Baudon through a written invitation to O'Neill of 4 September 1877, following the latter's successful application for a conference he presided over in Wellington to be aggregated (i.e., affiliated with and formally recognised by the Society). Baudon's letter to O'Neill recognised the disappearance of the Melbourne Conference and conveyed concerns (from a European Catholic perspective) about the activities of freemasonry, as this extract reveals:

   Some time ago, a Conference was formed in Melbourne, but we fear it
   is broken up. Could you not, with the assistance of the good Marist
   Fathers, re-establish it; and found new Conferences in Sydney and
   the other chief cities of Australia? It is much to be feared that
   the Masonic lodges are very numerous in those cities. Why should
   Catholics always allow these lodges to surpass them in zeal and
   energy? (8)

An ongoing problem was matching the 'bottom up' establishment of conferences with the 'top down' Society administration in Paris, a situation then exacerbated by the colonial tyranny of distance. (9) The solution to this situation was for O'Neill to re-locate himself to the Australian colonies; this he completed after a series of Trans-Tasman voyages including to Sydney and Melbourne between January 1880 and May 1881. …