Memoir

That prolific mother of strife

he grand statue of Daniel O'Connell – the Liberator – interrupted the view of the city of Melbourne in 1941, just as that of Daniel Mannix does now, showing that for bishops, as for all of us, fashions may change among our heroes. It was Archbishop Pell, in his Melbourne days, who commissioned a statue of Mannix and had it moved to the place of prominence more than 50 years later. Daniel O'Connell, in 1941, was an unlikely hero on church property.

My parents-to-be stood on the cathedral steps taking a breather. They'd been rehearsing their wedding inside St Patrick's. Not that there was much to rehearse really, because under Rome's ne temere decree, the ceremony would take place in the sacristy out of sight of the congregation. A hidden affair, shameful, not worthy of even the dim, yellowing light of the great church. A pity, because even in wartime her parents had gone to such trouble and expense to provide a beautiful, full wedding gown for my mother, their second daughter. To be worn just for processing along the aisle, really.

But all that was in front of them. For now my father's favourite Jesuit priest's words of encouragement and celebration had put them in a joyous mood. Father Thomas O'Dwyer – "Toddy" to all – was a learned and kindly priest, a friend of my father's well beyond school days. Father Arthur Fox, a priest working at the cathedral since 1939, caught up with them on the steps of the great church. He seemed happy to celebrate young Catholic love, too. "And where did you go to school, Fred?" he asked in a pastoral way, after the introductions. My father pointed, with some pride, to the Jesuit college across the lawn. The cathedral, he would proudly say, was his school chapel. The school's motto semper et ubique fidelis (always and everywhere faithful) would be the guiding spirit of his life. "And you, young lady?" the priest continued happily.  "St Michael's," she said, "Sisters of the Church." "A mixed marriage," the priest pronounced with some venom, "it will never last." And he turned inside, possibly to cleanse himself.

More than 20 years later into this lifelong and happy marriage I told my mother that I intended to apply to become a Jesuit. If she felt the pain of this approaching parting she never once showed it. She had honoured her vow to bring up any children of the marriage as Catholics with the same integrity she brought to every part of her life. She chided us to church if we looked like wavering, she honoured all the rigmarole of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, and she worked hard to help raise money for a new chapel at our school. Perhaps the memory of the priest at the cathedral door just days before her wedding spurred her to this endeavour. Or perhaps it was just her innate goodness. Former school friends from St Michael's watched her on this life journey, wary perhaps, of the Catholicism she had got herself into. But for one, a Jewish woman, I was the last straw. "I could swallow you taking on a Catholic," she told my mother, "but to raise a son to be a Jesuit, it's just too much." And they never spoke again.

We understood that, really. Bigotted Melburnians had been discriminating against us for decades, even before the First World War. Yet that was the high-water mark. And it was conscription that turned the tide of public opinion. Until October 1916, Catholics were assumed to be playing their part. Prominent Catholics had died at Gallipoli but hardly anyone had noticed their religion. They were all just Anzacs; that one word was enough. But when Archbishop Mannix campaigned vigorously against conscription, especially in 1917, he allowed conscriptionists to allege the disloyalty of all his co-religionists. Conscription, he said, was the "undignified process of spurring the willing steed"; Catholics, they said, gloried in their allegiance to Ireland and their hatred of the Empire. Why, they said, they even had a statue of Daniel O'Connell, outside their cathedral. He was no saint.

By 1919 the influenza pandemic, the "Spanish flu", had at last reached Australia. As elsewhere throughout the world, the medical facilities simply could not cope. The State Government would open a temporary hospital in Melbourne's Exhibition Building.  "I'll staff it," Archbishop Mannix offered, conscripting a small party of his army of religious sisters and brothers for the work. Only some had nursing experience, but in any case they would be a workforce. The supply of trained people had simply run out. The archbishop's offer stipulated that the nuns and brothers would be working as volunteers, "without fee or reward". The Government accepted the offer but two days later, at Wesley Church, an excitable Methodist, the Rev. Henry Worrall, denounced the deal: "The garb worn by the nuns and brothers, the ceremonies they observed, the customs they follow, were things that should not be introduced into a state hospital." The Government backed down and Mannix felt he had to withdraw his offer. To ensure that Catholics clearly understood the attack on those they regarded with some reverence, Mannix later published his correspondence with the Government in a pamphlet. Catholics, we learnt, were not wanted, even in a grave emergency.

 

THIS WAS THE SECTARIANISM THAT WE RECOGNISED AND UNDERSTOOD. Something done to us. We were its victims. But we little recognised the sectarianism we perpetrated on others – even that practised by Arthur Fox on a happy young bride. It shocked us, though personally we knew some of these stories, to learn how others believed us to be exclusive, intolerant, fanatical. More than a decade later, the Jesuit years behind me, I was writing a doctoral thesis on the Australian churches in the Great War.  "I know nothing about religion," my supervisor Professor John La Nauze, had told me – famously he had written a two-volume biography of Alfred Deakin and omitted discussion of his subject's near obsessive private religious system. "But I know about war," La Nauze continued. "Will you be writing about the cost of war to widows, to little boys who grew up without fathers?" That was at our first meeting and I soon forgot this fine historian's hesitant question in my gratitude for the rigour of his supervision.

Soon enough I was nearing the end of the thesis business. The armistice was signed. Churches in Australia could ring their bells again and proclaim a joyous message, still wrapped in grief, but celebrating nevertheless that the horror was at last over. Catholic dignitaries processed past Daniel O'Connell on their way into the cathedral, the chief of them, Archbishop Mannix, around whom the conscription controversy still swirled with just as much hatred as when he had become a figure of Protestant passion just a year earlier. The provincial bishops, come to the mother church to add solemnity, the monsignori of the archdiocese and the priests followed by the archbishop; smiling again, hoping to put the past behind them, to show that Catholics were indeed an integral part of the fabric of Australian society. The Catholic people had pulled their weight in this terrible war, they believed, despite what the prime minister had alleged, and now they should reap, too, the benefits of their sacrifice. To deny them that would be to entrench sectarianism in the society, and hadn't we been fighting for the rights of the weak and unprotected?

Bishop Phelan of Sale in Victoria's Gippsland, whither Bishop Fox was later dispatched, was to preach the celebratory sermon. "One great sigh of relief went up," wrote the official historian Ernest Scrott, "all business seemed to stop, flags fluttered from every flagstaff; bonfires flamed on the hills"; there was universally, "an unrestrained burst of delight". And in the cathedrals, he continued, "stately services and anthems set to solemn music expressed the fervour of thankfulness There was not a religious building from end to end of the continent," Scott concluded, "that did not add to the volume of gratitude and praise."

It would be easy to portray Phelan as an unremitting sectarian who had stridently defended ne temere, and other Catholic oddities, as he certainly did, for example, against the Presbyterian Chaplain-General "Fighting Larry", Professor J.L. Rentoul. But Phelan was a more complex man than that. Speaking of all the good things of Gippsland, on the first anniversary, in 1914, of his elevation to the bishop's see there, Bishop Phelan publicly rejoiced in "the complete absence of that prolific mother of strife, sectarianism". By that he meant, I suspect, that the Catholics of Gippsland seemed to be treated on equal terms with the rest. There was no overt discrimination. Sectarianism, for him, meant intolerance or discrimination against Catholics. He meant no offence, I suspect, with his end-of-war sermon; he was stating what he believed to be catholic truths. Reading it in print many years later, and incorporating it into my final chapter, the sermon failed to astonish me, too. Sectarianism, I still instinctively believed, was done to us, not by us.

IT WAS A REGULAR APPOINTMENT WITH PROFESSOR LA NAUZE, every Thursday morning at 10."You will have something for me to read each week," he had instructed as we had set out on our three-year journey together. "At first it might be stuff that will never make it into the thesis," he said, but writers must write. As the journey progressed, whole chapters, or parts of them, would be the basis for our weekly talks. It was wonderful teaching. "In you go," Jean Dillon, his secretary, said, "but be careful, he's in a very bad mood." Indeed he was. It sounds melodramatic, I know, but in my memory anyway, he was pacing the floor. If not when I came in, then certainly as he became more agitated.

"How dare he," he asked, "how dare he say that?" Had another student, a staff member perhaps, given offence, I wondered. John La Nauze was not an easy man, many thought; though this was the first time I was seeing that side of him. "Say what?" I asked. "This bishop, in St Patrick's, you've written it down. Surely you haven't misquoted him?" He pushed the page towards me. He was deeply upset, even 56 years later. Hell, it's only history, I thought. "Phelan, the bishop of Sale," I had written, "spoke of the heroic deeds of the Australian troops, more praiseworthy because the men had enlisted freely, without the need for compulsion." "Let it go, on this day of all days," a wiser man might have counselled, "don't bring conscription into your sermon now, be magnanimous, be gracious." But no, the bishop persisted: "Their gift of sacrifice and life was a free gift; no cruel law dragged them from their parents and their friends." Was that it? I wondered. Was this Phelan's offence? Somehow I thought not and I read on down the page with my professor, perhaps a little calmer now but looking carefully at me.

"When Phelan spoke of the dead," I had written, "he reminded Catholic mothers that their sons, who almost universally received confession and communion before battle, were assured of salvation. The mothers of other Australians had no such consolation. ‘The war had shown,' the bishop continued, ‘what little use on the battlefield was the Bible-reading clergyman who had no power to forgive sins. Furthermore the Catholic mother could follow her son beyond the grave with her prayers; the Protestant mother was taught that her prayers were useless.' "

"How dare he say that?" La Nauze asked again. And my mind flew back to our first interview.  "I know nothing about religion," he had said, "but I know about war."

Charles Andrew La Nauze had been a bank officer at Boulder on the Western Australian goldfields and had a wife and two children when he joined the 11th Battalion Australian Imperial Force in September 1914 and was appointed captain. Perhaps it was a sense of responsibility that, having served in the militia for several years, he felt he must set an example to the others. Or perhaps it was a sense of imperial solidarity, for his antecedents had worked in the colonial service in India in the 19th century and John La Nauze's grandfather had been a police officer and magistrate, again in colonial service, before retiring to Melbourne. Yet in the first days of the war, Defence Minister Senator Edward Millen had ruled that, "only single men need apply" to go away to fight the war. The minister reversed that decision three days later, but might it not have given a 32-year-old father and husband good reason against such early enlistment? His wife, Lily, widowed on June 28, 1915, just two months into the fighting at Gallipoli, moved to South Perth and raised her two children on the war widow's pension, income as a teacher and contributions to The West Australian. She never remarried.

Captain Charles La Nauze is buried in the Shell Green Cemetery, above Anzac Cove, and below the Lone Pine plateau. John La Nauze had grown to manhood without a father, worrying for his hard-working mother. And, nearly 60 years later, here was this bishop telling him that his father's sacrifice gave no guarantee of immortality such as the Catholic soldiers enjoyed. My professor was not a religious man, I do not know if he believed in an afterlife. But he deeply resented any suggestion that his father's life was less worthy than that of any other soldier. It was sectarianism at its most vile, John La Nauze said to me. The trouble was the bishop's words had not, until then, really shocked me. Sectarianism was done to us; it was not something we did.

 

BUT WHAT OTHER WORD THAN SECTARIANISM SHOULD HAVE BEEN USED for that inter-tribal warfare that broke out among Melbourne Catholics in the 1950s? If sectarianism means intolerance for the views of others, a certainty, bordering on fanaticism, in one's own position, a determination to discredit and discriminate against those with differing opinions, then surely one of the most virulent episodes of sectarianism in Australia was Catholic against Catholic in Melbourne in my youth. "There is to be a meeting in the parish hall," our priest said, "of utmost importance to Catholic men. All must attend."  "What trade union do you belong to?" someone asked my father when he dutifully responded to the parish priest's "invitation". "None, I'm afraid," he replied, a professional man, a small businessman. "You're no use to us," he was told, turfed out of a meeting the purpose of which he only then began to glimpse. Thereafter he never bought Santamaria's News-Weekly, though it was thrust at all departing parishioners, sales urged each week from the pulpit.

Arthur Fox was made a bishop in November 1956, as auxiliary to Archbishop Mannix. More an administrator than a man with pastoral experience, Fox was a part of Archbishop Mannix's small "bureaucratic monopoly" at the cathedral, where he had been appointed administrator in 1944. He was also Mannix's personal secretary and vicar-general. He revered Mannix "to the point of adulation" but he had spent less than a decade in the parishes before becoming a church bureaucrat at the cathedral. Described as "studious but far from brilliant" and "always dapper even when gardening", "his reverence for his new exalted office [of bishop] led him to exact meticulous deference". And obedience. The voice of the bishop, he believed, was the voice of God.

One of Melbourne's most prominent Cold War warriors, Fox had predicted, in 1951, a third world war as "a punishment for sin", had banned the sale of the Catholic Worker newspaper from the cathedral and, by implication, from parish churches in Melbourne, had said during the course of the 1955 federal election campaign that "no Catholic with a good conscience can vote for the ALP", had described prominent federal Labor parliamentarian Arthur Calwell as a "misled and misguided Catholic", and nominated, in 1960, the Democratic Labor Party as "the true Labor Party". How can it be a sin to vote for the ALP in Melbourne, people asked, but not in Sydney or Adelaide?

 

THE PETTINESS OF IT IS DEPRESSING, THE RIGHTEOUS CERTAINTY, OFFENSIVE. We heard of people being jostled on their way to Communion if they remained members of the ALP, of snubs and insults from the clergy. There was one prominent Catholic, father of a large family, who adopted the rubric of prominently exiting the church, with his family, as his priest climbed into the pulpit to begin his sermon, and just as publicly to return at its end. The priest remorselessly preached politics, as so many of them did. Archbishop Mannix ordered extra prayers at the end of each Mass, "crusade prayers for the safety of Australia". We were all at risk, apparently. Communism could dominate Australia yet, they believed.

Arthur Calwell's son, also Arthur, died aged 16 in 1948, of leukemia, bringing a grief that never lessened to a man who would later lead the ALP. Asked to do so, Calwell agreed to donate a new tabernacle to his refurbished parish church in the 1950s. It would be in memory of his boy. But by the time it came for the blessing of the church and the consecration of the tabernacle, Calwell was the "misled and misguided Catholic", as Bishop Fox had described him, unwelcome among his own people. The parish priest was embarrassed but what could he do? Calwell declined the invitation of a private viewing and never set foot in that church again. Never saw his tribute to his son. Although, after the death of his son, for the rest of his life, he wore a black tie of mourning. Loyal Catholic, Arthur Calwell thereafter worshipped at a city church, a church of "Catholic refugees" as he described it, where he heard "the gospel preached pure and undefiled". He had been driven out of his local community.

We knew these stories then, but no bishop pulled erring priests and people into line. And we would not have branded such behaviour sectarian. That was done to us, not by us. All in the name of God.  ♦

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review