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Living Water
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Chapter Thirteen


We ought always to deal justly, not only with those who are just to us, but likewise to those who endeavour to injure us; and this, for fear lest by rendering them evil for evil, we should fall into the same vice.



Australia’s first-ever publication by a woman was a remarkable document. Female Immigration Considered in a Brief Account of the Sydney Immigrants’ Home was written by Caroline Chisholm in 1842, in order to publicise the plight of the many young women migrants to Australia, and to urge the authorities to take appropriate measures.


At one level, it did just that. It is a 120-page political tract, full of powerful personal testimony about the evils that had befallen so many unmarried women in the young colony. Chisholm was a practical woman, and rather than talk theoretically she provided many harrowing stories.


But at another level, this is a deeply spiritual journal. For it is also a record of a passionately religious woman’s efforts to know the will of her Lord, and obey. She was a woman who at every juncture made clear her confidence in divine providence.


Chisholm had no doubts that her work on behalf of young women migrants was divinely inspired. As she wrote: “I was impressed with the idea that God had, in a peculiar manner, fitted me for this work.”


And she saw in this work a chance to enter into a deep spiritual relationship with her Lord:


During the season of Lent of that year I suffered much; but on the Easter Sunday I was enabled at the altar of our Lord to make an offering of my talents to the God who gave them. I promised to know neither country or creed, but to try and serve all justly and impartially. I asked only to be enabled to keep these poor girls from being tempted, by their need, to mortal sin; and resolved that to accomplish this I would in every way sacrifice my feelings—surrender all comfort—nor, in fact, consider my own wishes or feelings, but wholly devote myself to the work I had in hand. I felt my offering was accepted, and that God’s blessing was on my work: but it was his will to permit many serious difficulties to be thrown in my way, and to conduct me through a rugged path of deep humiliation.


One such humiliation came when a person she regarded as a friend wrote a letter to a newspaper, opposing her work. It was, she said:


a missile of great strength—I felt it keenly; no other person in the colony could have thrown more serious difficulties in my path: these things are permitted to try our faith and exercise our patience. I felt a dreariness of spirit creep over me, and, confirmed in my opinion, that to leave Sydney for a few days would be prudent; but it was the will of God to prevent this…


Caroline Chisholm’s achievements are well recognised in Australia, thanks especially to a steady rise recently in research into the role of women in our pioneering days.


But the spiritual impulse that directed her has not always been given much prominence, even though it was central to her activities. It is a shameful neglect that speaks to the kind of society we have become - one that somehow feels embarrassed by its spiritual side and wishes to conceal it, like Uncle Joe’s alcoholism or Cousin Joan’s mental troubles. It is little wonder so many younger Australians feel a spiritual vacuum in their lives.



Caroline Chisholm arrived in Sydney in 1838 with her husband - an army officer - and their children. Australia at that time was a hard land. It was certainly a man’s country: men out-numbered women by four to one in the towns and by as much as 20 to one in the country. Many young, unmarried women were lured with cheap fares and promises of non-existent jobs. Often they arrived alone, without family or friends in their new homeland. There were no facilities for finding work, and often not even cheap accommodation was available.


Concerned for these women, Caroline Chisholm began taking the most desperate of them to her home. Later, she managed to persuade the New South Wales governor to allow her to use an old military barracks as a sanctuary for woman immigrants. She often met migrant ships at the docks to arrange accommodation for the newly arrived young women, pre-empting the brothel madams who were also waiting.


She became a prolific writer of letters to the newspapers, and she frequently lobbied the government. After a woman migrant was assaulted during a voyage to Australia she took the captain and ship’s doctor to court. Each was sentenced to imprisonment, and shipboard conditions greatly improved.


As with so many other great people, Caroline Chisholm combined many of the traditional virtues. Her passion for justice was linked to humility, a sense of duty, wisdom and enormous reservoirs of faith.



Justice is an easy concept to teach kids. Most children develop a sense of what is fair and unfair from quite an early age. The hard part is maintaining that feeling as we grow older and life becomes complicated, and it is adults who seem to struggle with the notion of justice, even though it seems so easy in theory. For example, Aristotle described justice simply as that which is lawful and that which is fair and equitable.


Thomas Aquinas made what might seem like an obvious comment: that justice is directed towards another person. It is a significant statement. For the person who is totally self-absorbed is unlikely to be much exercised by the injustices of this world, except perhaps at a superficial and theoretical level. As Australia evolves into a nation of self-esteemers we can perhaps expect to see less and less regard paid to justice.


It is difficult to maintain that there is justice in this country when we have an Aboriginal population with a life expectancy that averages 16 years less than for other Australians, an incidence of diabetes 15 times as high as for other Australians and a death rate from infectious diseases that is more than 15 times as high as for other Australians.


I know the issues are complex, and I certainly do not have the answers. What I believe is that our country desperately needs more heroines and heroes with the character of a Caroline Chisholm, to deal with the problem.


Chisholm is now recognised as one of the pioneers of Australia, and she has been remembered in many ways. Suburbs in several cities have been named for her, and there is a federal electorate with her name, along with Chisholm College at La Trobe University. Until recently, her portrait was featured on our five-dollar note. In the words of Susanna De Vries in her volume Strength of Spirit: “Caroline Chisholm is one of the world’s great social reformers - a heroine on the grand scale”.


Many other books now profile her. They portray a great woman who took on mighty tasks in a man’s world, due to enormous strength of character. But sometimes they downplay her spiritual side. This is despite the fact that, for her, justice meant a lot more than just helping the poor; it meant a spiritual relationship with God.


The standard work on Chisholm’s life is Margaret Kiddle’s biography, published in 1950. In his introduction, Sir Douglas Copland, former Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, said it would be surprising if the book were not judged to be one of the great Australian biographies.


In her conclusion, Kiddle makes absolutely clear what drove Chisholm:


The conversion [Chisholm’s conversion to Catholicism just before her marriage] is evidence of the strain of mysticism which was a fundamental of her character, for her religion was the motive power of her life. Because she believed her work was divinely inspired she struggled on against ridicule and indifference until the Immigrants’ Home was firmly established. She was a member of the Roman Catholic Church, but her tolerance was so wide, and her love of humanity so strong that she gave of her best to all who asked her help no matter to what class or creed they belonged.


These are crucial sentences for explaining Chisholm and the force that brought forth her achievements. Yet in 1969, Melbourne University Press published a new, abridged edition of Kiddle’s work for “the general reader and student”. There was plenty left in about Chisholm’s strength of character as a guiding force in her work. But the sentences I have quoted were deleted; perhaps they were not considered appropriate for “the general reader and student” (a category which, surely, embraces every Australian other than academics and children).


Was this an attempt by authority figures to conceal our own spiritual heritage from us?  Perhaps, though I would suggest it is more likely that the book editors simply decided the average Aussie general reader and student don’t want to plough through a heap of stuff about God and spirituality in a book lauding one of our dinkum heroines.


What a shame. Caroline Chisholm was one of Australia’s greatest spiritual warriors. She is the very model of a heroine, just the kind of person our nation’s young people should strive to emulate. Our youth need strong role models, and if we wish to fill the spiritual vacuum that haunts them it is vital that somehow we present them with people like Caroline Chisholm, and the evidence of the transcendent forces that guided her.




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