It might be an unassuming little book, but it comes with a wealth of history and a touch of mystery. Simply titled Manual of The Society of St Vincent de Paul, the leather-bound book found its way to St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria’s central office, Gerald Ward House, thanks to the generosity of Marise Henderson, a member of the East Bentleigh Conference in Victoria.
There’s a very good reason its arrival was met with big expectations and even bigger smiles. Dated 1851—three years before the Society’s inception in Australia—and translated from French into English, this version of the Society’s reference book is one of the earliest, published in London 18 years following the establishment of the first conference or branch of the St Vincent of Paul Society in Paris.
This version, which came with the hallowed seal of approval from an ‘L Buquet, the Vicar General of the Arch-Dioceses of Paris’, also boasts a ‘tableau of conferences’ of the time. The ‘tableau’ lists the Society’s conferences of the time in Europe (mainly in France), Algeria, Canada and Mexico.
Touchingly, written in a fluid cursive script on the edition notice page is ‘Charles Fleming, Derry’, Marise’s grandfather. ‘Mum had a lot of old books that were my grandfather’s when he was a boy,’ Marise said. ‘He was an avid reader and this was among his books. He grew up in Ireland and died in 1950—I think he was 78 when he died. He was an interesting man, and had his own business as a merchant tailor. My grandfather was a very principled man and a committed Vincentian.’
‘This is a very important find,’ said former Victorian State President Michael Liddy. ‘I would suspect not every member at the time would have had such a book because, of course, not everyone had the luxury of education. It evolved in Australia into what’s called simply The Manual. Nowadays we have The Rule, which codifies things, but back then The Manual was more explanatory.’
Marise and her husband Robert have generously donated the historical document to the Society. ‘The interest from National Council has been incredible,’ said Michael. ‘It’s a priceless find and we’re extremely grateful to Marise and Robert for bequeathing us this valuable legacy.’
After conservation, this historical book will be displayed in a new cabinet in the reception area of Gerald Ward House, which is located in the Melbourne suburb of Box Hill.