Ahead of the October congress, our national archivist Mike Moran has taken a look at congresses of the past—in particular, one hosted by Adelaide back in 1936.
We’re a weird mob in the St Vincent de Paul Society. Witness the names we give things. What we call ‘conferences’ other people would call ‘committees’. And what we call ‘congresses’ other people would probably call ‘conferences’. In the interests of diversity our history has also featured many ‘conventions’.
It goes back to our French origins and our adoption of French terms. For example, our regional councils were once known as ‘particular’ councils from a translation of obscure French provenance. If Ozanam had been Irish rather than French, things would be clearer.
In October we are holding a national congress in Adelaide. Regional Presidents and other Society members from all over Australia will attend.
We’ve held all sorts of congresses in our history, national and state. We held national triennial congresses for 30 years before they were replaced by state congresses for cost reasons. We’ve held ‘intra-state’ congresses, such as one at Ballarat in 1959, and even a devolved or virtual congress, the tercentenary congress in 1960, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of St Vincent de Paul himself. In that case there was no central meeting but a series of celebrations all over the country.
Our first national youth congress was at Lavender Bay, NSW in 1963—young men only in those days—and our most recent at North Tamborine, Queensland, last year.
Our congresses were often timed to coincide with other events. For example, the first NSW state congress, held in Orange in 1966, was timed to coincide with the centenary of Orange.
The last great national congress in Adelaide, in 1936, was held in conjunction with the All-Australian Catholic Education Congress, aimed at ‘securing educational justice’ for Catholic schools.
The 1936 congress lasted a whole week, like the education congress which was a huge production. A special train from Port Augusta was arranged to collect interstate visitors, and other special trains brought people in from outer suburbs. ‘The cream of our Catholic laity are in the ranks of the St Vincent de Paul Society’, the Archbishop of Adelaide proclaimed.
50,000 people attended a Combined Religious Demonstration at the Wayville Showgrounds, where our members sold 10,000 candles to raise money for the Society. Benediction at the night service was given by their light.
A eucharistic procession through town, in which our Society members marched as a body, drew a crowd of 60,000. There was a garden party, a ball (‘His Grace the Archbishop has given a dispensation for abstinence for this Friday of the congress week’), dinner parties, Communion breakfasts, and a slew of side events.
The Archbishop of Adelaide complained about the ‘deplorable’ state of the Broken Hill road, which kept many people away from the congress. He told a newspaper the South Australian Government should never have allowed the road to become so bad, given ‘many affluent men lived in Broken Hill, and as work ceased in the town on Friday afternoons, many of those who owned high-speed cars would come to Adelaide for weekend trips.’
But in 1936, he added, ‘many Broken Hill people told me they would not risk their lives or their cars in motoring to Adelaide.’
At one of the dinners, Archbishop Mannix, visiting from Melbourne, spoke of ‘the stand-up ght between God and Satan in Spain’. The Westmead Boys Band travelled from the Society’s home in Sydney via Broken Hill to play for the celebrations.
To revisit the 1936 Adelaide Congress is to enter another world. We can
see how the Society has changed by comparing their agenda to ours. Issues of social justice were not discussed. The main topics included, not surprisingly, future congresses. They also discussed the spirit of the Society, membership, visitation, good literature, Catholic Action and two special works no longer conducted by the Society — probation work for youth caught up in the justice system, and work for seamen visiting Australian ports.
Catholic Action will ring bells for some older members. It was a recurrent theme of our earlier congresses.
Accommodation has always been a big issue with our congresses. In
early years visiting participants were billeted with local Society members,
but this had become impractical by 1936 when out-of-state visitors outnumbered locals. Several hundred Society members came from outside South Australia. In 1936 there were no motels in Adelaide, incredible as it may seem to contemporary readers. Hotel accommodation ranged from four shillings and six pence per day, to 23 shillings and six pence at the poshest hotel in Adelaide, the Richmond Hotel in Rundle Street. Most hotels of the sort our members stayed at cost about seven shillings a night, the equivalent of only $33 in today’s money. Oh for such low prices for our members in October!
One quarter of our 500 attendees were women. The Women’s Society of St Vincent de Paul was particularly strong in Adelaide and Perth.
The purpose of the congress was not only to discuss the issues of the day but also ‘to imbibe fresh zeal and new inspiration to carry on the apostolate’. It was a social event where our members could get to know and learn from each other.
Next October’s congress runs for only one weekend. The 1936 congress ran for a week and there was time for social activities. On the last day 22 large buses lled with hundreds of Society members took a long drive around Adelaide and through the Hills, stopping brie y at the Onkaparinga Racecourse and, perhaps not so briefly, at Penfolds.
Half the buses became lost. Our October congress will be a more modest affair than the first Adelaide congress. Let us hope that our members do not get lost again or, if they do, that it is in the vicinity of Penfolds.
Mike Moran is the Archivist at the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia.
Sources: SVDP Archives, Adelaide News, Adelaide Advertiser, The Southern Cross.