The Society founders in Australia

The Society Founders in Australia

The St Vincent de Paul Society recognises both Father Gerald Ward and Captain Charles O’Neill for their efforts in bringing and establishing the Society in Australia.

A photo of old Bible text on a page 1 Cor. 11.28.

Who founded the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia?

The St Vincent de Paul Society was initially established in Australia in 1854 by Father Gerald Ward. After a period of inactivity, the Society was re-established in Sydney in 1881 by Captain Charles O’Neill.

Who is Father Gerald Ward?

Gerald Ward was born in London in 1806 and arrived in Australia on 7 September 1850. He was recruited to work in the Melbourne mission by the pioneer priest Father Patrick Geoghegan.

Father Ward knew of the workings of the St Vincent de Paul Society. He initiated the Society's establishment in Australia at St Francis' Church in Melbourne on 5 March 1854 after witnessing the plight of people following the discovery of gold in Victoria.

He became the first president of the St Francis' Conference in Melbourne and began to address the problems he saw, including the increasing number of homeless and deserted children roaming the streets.

In a submission to the government of the day, Father Ward stated that the work of the new conference was aimed at 'the relief of the destitute, in a manner as much as possible permanently beneficial and the visitation of poor families.'

One of his accomplishments was establishing the St Vincent de Paul orphanage in South Melbourne. The foundation stone for the orphanage was laid in 1855 and the first children were accepted in 1857.

Father Gerald Ward died on 14 January 1858 aged 52. A newspaper noted that 

“He was one in whom many a widow and orphan had found a good friend”

His enduring legacy is founded in such friendship.

Who is Captain Charles O’Neill?

Charles Gordon O’Neill was born in Glasgow in 1828. He was an engineer who led the St Vincent de Paul Society in the Western Districts of Scotland. He moved to New Zealand in 1863 and became one of the foremost civic engineers in the colony. He was also a New Zealand parliamentarian.

He was instrumental in establishing the first conference of the St Vincent de Paul Society New Zealand in 1876.

The Society's International President-General wrote to Captain O'Neill in 1877, concerned that the first Conference established in Melbourne with Father Gerald Ward in 1854 had dissipated. At his request, Captain O’Neill travelled to Australia to assist with the re-establishment of the Society.

Despite visiting Sydney and Melbourne several times between January 1880 and May 1881, Captain O'Neill was unable to attract enough interest among local laity to re-establish the Society.

Finally, on 24 July 1881, a conference was established in Sydney with the support of the Marist Fathers at St Patrick’s Church Hill in The Rocks. This area was close to the wharves of Sydney Harbour and known for deep-seated poverty, opium dens, homelessness and addictions.

Captain O'Neill built the Society during the 1880s, applying the experience he had gained in Glasgow and New Zealand. During the first year (1881), he established an additional three Society conferences in Sydney: those of St Francis’s Haymarket, St Mary’s Cathedral and St Benedict’s Broadway.

In addition to mainstream assistance such as food, clothing, travel and medicine, he gained approval from the International Council to provide money for rent for Sydney’s struggling families; a tradition that continues today.

Captain Charles O'Neill died in St Vincent's Hospital on 8 November 1900 at the age of 72 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery in Sydney. In accordance with his wishes, in 1961, Captain O’Neill’s remains were moved to the Society’s burial plot for the destitute in the company of those he served so well.

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