The Catholic Church is a significant provider of social welfare across Australia. Less well known is the history of these services and also the individual and collective contribution of Catholics in the wider professionalisation of welfare practices. Traditionally, Australian social welfare history has emphasised the intersection between the British-founded Charity Organisation Society (COS), the appointment of lady almoners to Melbourne hospitals, and the dominance of Protestant women. This article, drawn from a recent PhD study of the origins and development of Australian professional Catholic social welfare in the 20th century, offers a fresh perspective. (1) It will outline the distinctive features of the Catholic welfare sector, which was inspired by lay women who had gained professional qualifications in America. Their gender inevitably raised difficulties in a male dominated and male orientated church. Despite these and other hurdles, lay women succeeded in establishing diocesan-based family agencies (Centacare), which focused on the causes of poverty, rather than simply relief-giving, and which advocated institutionalisation for destitute children as a last resort only. Following on this foundation, tenacious clerics, notably Monsignor J.F. McCosker (Sydney), Bishop E.G. Perkins (Melbourne) and Fr Luke Roberts (Adelaide) consolidated the bureaux and developed a peak national body, which made significant inroads into public social policy and secured state aid with little of the public acrimony that characterised the battles for funding Catholic education.
Professional social work in Australia has often been positioned as the 'transplantation' of hospital almoning from London to Melbourne on the eve of the Great Depression. (2) Protestant women, usually of affluence, dominated the emerging profession in both countries. In terms of historiography, Emeritus Professor John Lawrence recently commented that 'systematic serious historical study of the [Australian] social work profession appears to have been given very little attention'. (3) Lawrence's seminal work four decades ago remains the only national study of Australian social work. (4) In it he emphasised the role of 'powerful men' such as prominent doctors and university professors in sustaining the profession in its initial decades. Several writers, including Helen Marchant and Sue Brown, have criticised Lawrence's account for understating the contribution of women in the profession's development. (5)
In a recent survey of Catholic social services, Peter Camilleri and Gail Winkworth concluded that 'the Church's role as a major provider of human services throughout the last 170 years has not been well documented in the social policy discourse'. (6) Few writers have examined the nexus between Christian churches and social welfare history, and Catholic influences in the fledgling social work profession. (7) This is despite Catholic women and several clerics having a profound impact on the development of professional social welfare practice in Australia. (8) Constance Moffit, Eileen Davidson, Elvira Lyons, Hannah Buckley, and Teresa Wardell, as well as Algy Thomas, Terry Holland, Peter Phibbs, Perkins, McCosker, and Roberts are almost invisible in feminist discourse and church historiography. Norma Parker, regarded as Australia's foremost 20th century social worker, (9) and mentor of a small cohort of Catholic social workers, occupies a solitary position in welfare historiography, and mainly for her contributions outside the Catholic sector. (10) Catholic women did not feature in Marchant and Wearing's otherwise excellent collection of essays on Australian social workers and in Heather Radi's attempt to 'redress' the role of social workers. (11) Similarly, leading Catholic historians, including Patrick O'Farrell, Edmund Campion and Naomi Turner, have overlooked lay Catholic social workers. (12)
Some historians, such as Laurie O'Brien and Cynthia Turner, have claimed that Catholic women in Melbourne pursued a segregated welfare sector in the 1930s. …