Contesting Catholic Identity: The Foundation of Newman College, Melbourne 1914-18

Author: Michael Francis

  • Publisher: Newman College, 2018
  • ISBN:  978 0 646 98201 4
  • RRP: $22

Reviewed by Gerard Henderson


Palm Sunday 1918 was a big day in the history of the Catholic Church in Victoria.  Some 3,000 men and women attended morning Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, close to the Melbourne CBD. There followed a 10,000 roll-up at the Hibernian Australian Catholic Benefit Society’s Annual Breakfast at the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton.  And then, across from Carlton to Parkville where some 40,000 attended the opening of Newman College, the male Catholic residential college within the University of Melbourne. The Newman College Dedication Ceremony was an occasion for the celebration of tribal Catholicism at a time when many Catholics were under attack for alleged disloyalty.

It is possible that my maternal grandparents were at the opening – they lived on Lygon Street in working class Carlton – a short walk to Newman College in Parkville.  And they were loyal supporters of the Irish-born Daniel Mannix, who had arrived in Melbourne in March 1913 as coadjutor archbishop with a right to succeed the incumbent Archbishop Thomas Joseph Carr.  Carr died in May 1917.

In early 1918, when Newman College was formally opened, anti-Catholic sectarianism was at its height in Australia.  This had been part of Australian society since European Settlement in 1788 but had spiked during the First World War due to the republican rebellion of 1916 in Ireland and the conscription plebiscites in Australia in October 1916 and December 1917.

At the turn of the 20th Century, slightly over 20 per cent of the Australian population was Catholic – most of whom were of Irish background.  The percentage of Catholics who enlisted in the first intake into the Australian Imperial Force was slightly under 20 per cent. In other words, support for the war effort was found among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. My maternal uncle, Alan Dargavel, enlisted in the AIF and died in November 1917 during the final days of the Third Battle of Ypres. His parents were still grieving four months later on Palm Sunday.

In short, there was widespread support for the war effort in 1914 and after among Australian Catholics.  Moreover, most Australian Catholics and their leaders initially opposed what was called the Easter Rising by republicans against continuing British rule in Ireland. The rebels were unpopular in Ireland – until British military authorities in Dublin executed their leaders at Kilmainham Gaol shortly after the uprising.

This had the effect of radicalising Mannix who became a strident critic of Britain’s policy in Ireland.  On arrival in Australia, Mannix had formed the view that Catholics were treated as second class citizens – especially in view of the refusal by governments to fund the separate Catholic education system.  This led to a situation whereby the taxes of Catholics helped to fund the education of children in government schools but Catholics received no taxpayer funding for the education of their children in Catholic schools.  Mannix’s criticism of British policy in Ireland added to his critique of contemporary Australia.  Later he was to state on one occasion that the Great War was a “sordid trade war” – an unwise and inaccurate statement but one that reflected his hostility to British policy in Ireland.

Heavy losses in the Dardanelles campaign in 1915 and on the Western Front in 1916 made it difficult for the Labor government, led by Billy Hughes, to re-inforce the AIF. Hughes broke with Labor and sought to get support for the introduction of conscription for overseas service by means of a plebiscite. The first plebiscite in October 1916 failed to get the support of a majority of Australians in a majority of states as did the December 1917 plebiscite.  All up, some 48 per cent of Australians supported conscription the first time around and support dropped to 46 per cent on the second occasion.  In short, Australians were close to evenly divided on the issue – which added to the intensity of the domestic debate.

Mannix did not play a significant role in the 1916 campaign but he did the following year.  The principal opponents of conscription for overseas service were in the labour movement, broadly defined – but particularly within the trade union movement.  However, Hughes sought to single out Mannix in the second plebiscite in the hope that he would increase support for conscription among anti-Catholic sectarians.  It didn’t work.

The official opening of Newman College took place not long after the second plebiscite.  It was used as an occasion by Melbourne working class and middle class Catholics to demonstrate their support for their archbishop.  The procession was led by the vice-chancellor of Melbourne University and members of the university council along with what Michael Francis calls “prominent Catholic laymen”. (However, as the author points out later, other prominent laymen were not there.)

There followed the Apostolic Delegate (the Vatican’s representative in Australia), Archbishop James Duhig of Brisbane and the three other Victorian bishops – Daniel Foley (Ballarat), John McCarthy (Sandhurst i.e. Bendigo) and Patrick Phelan (Sale). And Archbishop Daniel Mannix.  The occasion was boycotted by the heads of the three other residential colleges at Melbourne University – Trinity College (Church of England), Ormond College (Presbyterian) and Queen’s College (Methodist).

It is not uncommon for organisers of functions to exaggerate gatherings.  However, the photographs produced in Contesting Catholic Identity: The Foundation of Newman College indicate that the Dedication of Newman College was attended by a huge crowd.

The boycotters of the Newman College opening were the spark for the project.  When the University of Melbourne was established in 1853, it was decided that the campus would be secular.  But land was allocated to the four largest religious denominations – Church of England, Presbyterian, Methodist and Catholic.  The first three were established in 1872, 1881 and 1889 respectively.  The Catholic college was delayed because Thomas Carr, who became archbishop of Melbourne in 1887, wanted to focus limited finances on the Catholic primary and secondary school system.

The arrival of Mannix in Melbourne in 1913 gave impetus to the campaign of prominent Catholic laymen to establish a Catholic residential college. By the following year, half the required £ 70,000 for the construction of the college was pledged.  In 1915 a Sydney businessman, Thomas Donovan, offered to endow the College with the sum of £ 30,000 for bursaries – provided Victoria Catholics raised an equivalent sum for construction.  This was done – and the American Walter Burley Griffin was commissioned to design the building.  He was supported by his wife Marion Mahony Griffin.

Mannix, who came to Australia from the position of president of St Patrick’s College in Maynooth, believed that Australian Catholics would only achieve their proper position in Australia through education.  So, to him, the opening of Newman College was both sound policy and a proud statement about the future of Catholicism in Australia.

Michael Francis’s book covers the planning, construction and opening of Newman College.  He also discusses how the authorities dealt with the Donovan bequest that the recipients of bursaries should be the brothers and lineal descendants of Australians who fought in the Great War.  The initial qualification had turned only on a means test but the qualification of a link to the AIF was added as the casualty lists grew.  In any event, many of those who resided at Newman College were from the wealthier section of the Victorian Catholic community and would not have required a bursary.

Francis documents how Mannix, by supporting Griffin’s design, prevailed over Donovan’s objections to the style of the building.  Mannix also ensured that the Society of Jesus (i.e. the Jesuit order) would run the college.

Contesting Catholic Identity is in part a biography of an institution. However, it is also a history of Australian society in the first two decades after Federation.  Francis provides an overview of Australian Catholicism in Melbourne at the time – covering the hierarchy, priests and the teaching orders of brothers and nuns.

What is contentious about Francis’ book turns on the background he gives to the creation of Newman College.  He writes “that Victorian Catholics lived in ghettos prior to the 1918 foundation of Newman College is debatable” and he disputes the image of Irish Australians as “an impoverished and struggling minority”.  In an example of the success of a “prominent Irishman” in Australia at the time, he cites Redmond Barry. Well, yes – but Barry was a Protestant. Francis also fails to understand the resentment felt by Catholics at the time who were denied state aid for Catholic schools.

Later Francis supports the view that, while Catholics were overrepresented in the unskilled labouring industry and underrepresented in the professions, Catholic disadvantage was slight. This statement is repeated – but with the acknowledgement that Catholics often hid their religious principles in order to achieve professional success which suggests that anti-Catholic sectarianism was rife.

Then the author argues that “Catholics could be considered at a comparative socio-economic disadvantage to their Protestant counterparts”.  But later still, Francis cites the success of one Irish Catholic family to “caution against an assumption of the Irish Catholics of Victoria being trenchantly poor and working class”.  It was the very rich O’Loughlin family.

Here Francis’ analysis is overstated.  Few have suggested that, circa 1918, Victorian Catholics lived in ghettos.  But many congregated in what were termed working class suburbs.  However, the author does acknowledge that Catholics were at a comparative socio-economic disadvantage to their Protestant counterparts.  That was Mannix’s point.

Francis’ work also overlooks the fact that – before and after Mannix’s arrival in Melbourne – Catholics were discriminated against in employment in the Protestant dominated private sector, entry to gentlemen’s clubs and so on. Catholics were encouraged to enter the public service by their leaders – since employment could be attained by competitive examination where candidates were identified by a number not a name.  This meant that the likes of an O’Reilly or an O’Brien had a chance of landing a job in, say, the Victorian public service – having as good a chance as a Brown or a Smith.

Francis’ presentation of the plight of Victorian Catholicism circa Palm Sunday 1918 makes it possible for him to critique Daniel Mannix’s stance as a tribal leader.   However, the evidence suggests that Mannix had a better understanding of anti-Catholic sectarianism in 1918 than Francis has a century later.

It’s true that Mannix disliked such anti-Catholic sectarians as Redmond Barry, Robert Best and Herbert Brookes, Alexander Leeper, John Rentoul, T. E. Ruth and more besides – the last three were Protestant clergymen. But it’s also true that he was more critical of those Catholics whom he believed had “sold out” to the Protestant establishment.  He had in mind the likes of judge Charles Heydon, journalist Benjamin Hoare, politician Frank Madden and physician Herbert Moran.  All four were public critics of the archbishop.

Mannix had an accepting attitude to his private critics.  But he disliked those who used their status as Catholics to criticise him. That’s why the likes of politician David Hennessy, journalist Benjamin Hoare, journalist Tom Brennan and judge Frank Gavan Duffy were not at Newman College on Palm Sunday 1918 – it would seem that they were not invited.

During his first decade in Australia, Mannix clashed with leaders of church and state – as well as with some Catholics who had become prominent in the professions.  But he enjoyed widespread support among the working class members of his flock.  Hence the 40,000 attendants at the Dedication of Newman College.

Mannix’s focus on the need for Catholics to be educated was a wise policy – which, in time was successful.  However, it’s not clear that the same can be said of Newman College.

I was at the University of Melbourne in the second half of the 1960s – half a century after the opening of Newman College.  Most of us campus Catholics regarded Newman College as an institution on the edge of the university with which we had little or no contact.  It was something of a (young) gentlemen’s club where residents were waited on at tables per courtesy of the less well off. This was not what Mannix had in mind in 1918.  Not even the beautiful Newman College chapel was an attraction to most Catholics on the Melbourne University campus – we felt more at home at St Patrick’s Cathedral or at our parish church.

Newman College students were focused on their institution – which was where they had breakfast, lunch and dinner and where their tutorial system was based.  They did not take part significantly in university life and they were usually only seen during lectures.

Well educated Catholics took different positions on Mannix at the time of the various controversies in which he was engaged – education, Ireland, conscription and, later, communism and the Labor Split of the mid-1950s.

It’s just that the men (and they were men) who became involved in the big issues of their time – on either side of the debate – usually had not resided at Newman College during their university years.

The likes of Frank Maher, B.A. Santamaria, Val Adami, Niall Brennan, Vincent Buckley, Jim Griffin, Gerard Heffey and Stan Ingwersen were not known as Newman College men.

Sure there was the Newman Society – which had the connection with Newman College in the 1950s and 1960s through its chaplain Fr Jerry Golden S.J., who was a Santamaria antagonist.  But there could have been a Newman Society without Newman College – since there was a vibrant clubs and society network at Melbourne University at the time.

No doubt Newman College has had an impact on those students who resided there over the past century. But it did not live up to its promise as a bastion of Catholic intellectual leadership which so many of the 40,000 crowd present on Palm Sunday 1918 would have expected.

Michael Francis’ work on the foundation of Newman College is more than a story of an institution.  It’s a valuable insight into Melbourne a century ago in the final year of the Great War.

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Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of The Sydney Institute and the author of, among others, Menzies’ Child: The Liberal Party of Australia (2nd edition, HarperCollins 1998); Santamaria – A Most Unusual Man (MUP 2015).