publication by a woman was a remarkable document. Female Immigration
Considered in a Brief Account of the Sydney Immigrants’ Home was written
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
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
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
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…
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.
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
The standard work on
Chisholm’s life is Margaret Kiddle’s
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
In her conclusion,
Kiddle makes absolutely clear what drove Chisholm:
[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
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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