The Charles O’Neill story
“What the lily is among flowers, purity is among virtues.”
This quote, an insight into Catholic devotion in the 19th century, inspired Charles O’Neill, the engineer, politician and principal co-founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia and New Zealand.
He cut it out and kept it in the St Vincent de Paul manual he carried with him everywhere as he worked tirelessly with Sydney’s poor.
He, in turn, is inspiring others as the story of his amazing life is pieced together through intensive research by the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Australian Catholic University.
More than 150 people, including St Vincent de Paul Society staff and volunteers, clergy and members of the public, gathered recently at Petersham’s RSL Club on the 101st anniversary of O’Neill’s death to see what the research had revealed about his life.
The results were shown for the first time in From Parliamentarian to Pauper, a biographical presentation in three parts.
The first, God’s Engineer, looked at O’Neill’s work as a young engineer in Scotland, his career in public life in Scotland and New Zealand and his early championing of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia.
Part two, Rosettes to Rostrums, explained how O’Neill used his talents and expertise to establish the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia between 1881 and 1886.
This included his pioneering efforts in founding local conferences using civic leaders and politicians and novel fundraising initiatives.
The final part of the presentation, The Puzzle of the Pauper’s End, examined the inner spirituality of O’Neill in the context of the growing social crisis in NSW and the colonies during the 1890s, and O’Neill’s personal response, including his slum ministry.
The presentation was followed by a question and answer session with a panel of the experts who have volunteered much time, energy, knowledge and experience to the ongoing research.
After the presentation, in a tribute to one truly pure of heart, lilies were placed on Charles O’Neill’s grave which is among the graves of the poor in Rookwood Cemetery.