On the bookshelf in front of me I can see several rare books I hunted down in VINNIES shops as I travelled around the bush. The thrill of chasing a bargain blinded me to a richer story hidden in those humble stores. Behind those kindly, ageing volunteers who serve you, stand two gifted young men who challenged poverty across the world with robust Christian faith.
Europe was torn by revolution, war and crippled by disease in the early decades of the 19th century. The streets of Paris had flowed with blood as the ruling aristocracy were guillotined in the name of Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood. When a brilliant young student named Frederic Ozanam arrived at University in that city, he found religion on the decline and atheism increasing.
He had struggled through doubt himself and was confronted by sceptics who demanded more than the intellectual proofs for the Christian faith he presented. The challenge jolted Frederic and a group of friends to start providing food and firewood for starving people flooding in from the country, even as a cholera epidemic swept through the slums. They saw themselves following the example of a priest named Vincent de Paul who had left his mark on France two and a half centuries earlier.
In a decade, 48 other European cities followed their lead and set up action groups of their own. Frederic’s 1834 mission statement for the cells energising the St Vincent de Paul Society remains fresh. ‘The question which is agitating the world today is a social one. It is a struggle between those who have nothing and those who have too much. It is a violent clash of opulence and poverty which is shaking the ground beneath our feet. Our duty as Christians is to throw ourselves between the two camps in order to accomplish by love, what justice alone cannot do.’
The exceptional scholar wore himself out mobilising others in this cause and he died in 1853 at the age of forty, a celebrated professor and much-loved advocate for the poor.
The potato famine in Ireland in the mid-century drove a million refugees into Western Scotland. Charles O’Neil, a gifted young engineer, appalled by the gross living conditions in the backstreets of Glasgow, took on leadership of the teams of Catholic lay people in the St Vincent de Paul movement and helped these cells of charity multiply in the British Isles. Like Frederic, his passion was to express his love for God in his love for the poor.
In 1863 Charles took his engineering and architectural skills to New Zealand and in an eighteen year stay he became a leading figure in railway building, politics and industrial development. At the direction of the Society’s leader in Paris he laid aside his political ambitions and entrepreneurial vision and in 1881 brought his compassionate heart and fundraising skills to Sydney’s rat-infested harbourside slums.
For the next twenty years he based himself at St Patrick’s church a few blocks from Circular Quay and engineered the spread of the St Vincent’s cloak of kindness in Australia. With the help of his brother John he championed social justice and weathered opposition from groups of Protestants, Catholics, Freemasons and from within the Labour Movement. The heartbeat of his life was captured in the statement, ‘Oh! If you knew the joy you give to God when you devote yourself to the salvation of souls. Give to God by giving to the poor.’
As an engineer he left a legacy of fine church buildings in Scotland, extensive tramways around Wellington and even a plan for a tunnel under Sydney harbour. As a politician he fought for conservation of New Zealand’s forests and safe conditions for workers.
His compassion was real, personal and costly. He moved continually through the world of broken sailors, battling wharfies, abandoned wives and children doing whatever he could to ease their sufferings. At the same time he was welcomed in the highest circles of Sydney. His driving passion was to assist Protestants, Catholics or non-believers in need. Many struggling pioneers across NSW owed much to his army of volunteers.
A catastrophic depression gripped Australia in the 1890’s and directorship in a failed bank ruined Charles. He fell from polite circles and submerged himself completely into serving the poor of the Rocks area. To the end he distributed rent money and food courtesy of the poor box at St Patrick's. His biographer wrote, ‘As he packed up his trunk and moved on, he would, at best, become a footnote in someone else’s saga – if he was recognised at all.’
Charles died almost forgotten, a penniless bachelor in cheap lodgings in the Rocks in 1902. A handful of friends attended his funeral. It wasn’t until 1961 that his final wish was fulfilled. His body was exhumed and buried with honour among the nameless poor at Rookwood cemetery.
When you next visit a VINNIES store, pause for a moment before you search for a bargain to remember it’s there because two young men gifted it to Australia with their determination to live out their faith in the Jesus who said, ‘As much as you did it for the least of these my brothers, you did it for me.’
Thank God for interfering do-gooders!
Join The Outback Historian, Paul Roe, on an unforgettable journey into Australia's Past as he follows the footprints of the Master Storyteller and uncovers unknown treasures of the nation.