St Agnes Conference of the St Vincent de Paul Society

The St Vincent de Paul Society is the visible sign of the Catholic Church in action, responding to the needs of the local poor.

The core responsibility of the Society is to meet essential needs such as food, electricity, basic furniture for all families and individuals, Catholic or non-Catholic, within the parish boundary.

For much of its history, many residents in Bunnerong (later named Matraville) were low-income, struggling families in need of sustenance support. The settlers of Bunnerong in pre-World War One years found difficulty in obtaining employment. Some became labourers in the wool-scouring and tannery works, others fishermen or part-time workers on poultry and pig farms. A mid-1910s report of the children attending the Bunnerong Catholic school stated that very few children had shoes or socks. The school fees of threepence a week was not possible for some families.

During the 1930s, the parish’s St Vincent de Paul Society members made regular visits to the Happy Valley unemployment camp in a gully in the sandhills of La Perouse. At its height, over three hundred desperately needed people lived here in more than one hundred encampments of shacks and tents constructed from scavenged scraps.

Fr Sylvester O’Sullivan was Parish Priest from 1940 to 1946. From the very beginning, he determined to help the St Vincent de Paul Society. His first concern was for the poor of the parish. Sister Mary Scholastica wrote that Fr O’Sullivan would “give me the money to buy food for some poor family of the parish. He was very good to the ones who were finding the going hard… The parish (also) provided sheets of tram tickets and one ticket was given to the children to go home and one to come to the school in the morning.” This priest’s successor, Fr Jeremiah O’Sullivan (no relation), was reported to be a kind-hearted priest who concerned himself with underprivileged people.

The St Agnes Conference of the St Vincent de Paul Society is mentioned in Parish records in 1946 in the timber St Agnes school-church in Perry St. Five members were mentioned, all men. These men were also the church wardens who tried to find everyone a seat in the small church. In those years, parishioners intending to receive Holy Communion had to raise their hands to be counted by the St Vincent de Paul Society men who then informed the priest of the number of consecrated hosts required.

After World War Two, hostels were used to accommodate new Australians. The local area had Bunnerong Hostel on Bunnerong Rd near the corner of Fitzgerald Ave and Matraville Hostel at the intersection of Daunt Ave, Pozieres Avenue and Knowles Ave for non-English speaking migrants.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the parish’s St Vincent de Paul Society helped the Matraville Hostel community. On occasions, the migrants would get off the boats and be vulnerable to predatory “con” men who might sign them up for TV sets, etc. but the St Vincent de Paul Society helped them.

In the early 1950s, the Society’s members would go to different hotels to beg for the big bottles of beer to be donated as the prizes for the Society’s Christmas raffles. Raffle books of one hundred tickets would be bought and then the electoral rolls would be searched for names that seemed to be Catholic. Members would hand-deliver the raffle tickets.

The children of those early members recall people coming to their father’s houses begging them, as known Society members, for assistance.

The more senior residents throughout Sydney would remember the Society’s clothing drives on weekends, collecting donated clothes in large plastic bags distributed beforehand. St Agnes Parish took part enthusiastically in these drives before the church received it own clothing bin on site.

Despite St Agnes Parish historically including many families and individuals living significantly below what came to be called “the poverty line”, the generosity of its parishioners to give what they could to their parish was unquestioned. To give just one example: at the opening of the church in Bunnerong Rd in 1966, Fr Munday mentioned that in the past six years, parishioners had contributed generously to a building program of 160 000 pounds (about $320 000) and by an unstinting effort, 90 000 pounds of that amount had been paid off. The average weekly wage in 1966 was only $43.05.

That generosity, almost the “widow’s mite” for some, extended to the St Vincent de Paul Society’s Poor Boxes and Winter Appeal and Christmas Appeal.

To give one example: in 1989, the Society had ten members who assisted 714 locals meet their basic needs from that year’s Poor Boxes and appeals which totalled over $13 000. Those figures would be typical for most years.

Later that same year, 1989, St Agnes Parish was twinned with an impoverished parish, Christ the King, in Kerala in south India. The St Vincent de Paul Society was able to help this parish towards independence through schemes such as a housing project, a sewing centre and the purchase of goats (pictured). In 2007, with Christ the King Parish financially secure, St Agnes received a new twinned parish in India and still assists them to this day.

In recent years, the Society, through a bequest, has been able to assist the neediest pupils at two local schools.

It is no wonder that the sub-title of the book, “St Agnes’ Catholic Parish, Matraville” is “A History of Faith, Innovation, Generosity, Courage and Determination.”