Ch. 5: The Catholic Young Men’s Society of Victoria, 1929-34

The Catholic Young Men’s Society of Victoria had by no means been standing still during the years in which the Campion Society had experienced its early growth. Indeed, the Depression had had an effect on the older society scarcely less pronounced than on the newer one. With the beginning of co-operation between the two bodies, their mutual vitality was to be compounded.

The C.Y.M.S. was already in a healthy condition when the Depression began. During 1929 its metropolitan branches had increased in number from twenty-seven to thirty-two, and at that figure remained steady until the end of 1934.’ This represented an average of one branch to every three parishes, which apparently constituted a near-saturation point for the archdiocese. Accurate figures on overall membership are difficult to obtain, as fees were collected on a monthly basis, and many young men joined only for the duration of a particular sporting season. However, the ordinary branch strength seems to have been about fifty.2 In view of the massive unemployment, constant membership would have been beyond the financial resources of many.3

It was not in Melbourne, however, but in the country areas that the statistics of the Young Men’s Society most clearly reflected the insecurity of the times. As young men sought both a sense of security and inexpensive entertainment in group enterprises, the C.Y.M.S. branches began to proliferate at an unprecedented rate. Prior to the Depression rural expansion had been slow; and despite a drive launched in 1925, by the end of 1927 there were only three affiliated country branches. Two years later the figure was seven; and by late 1931 it had increased to fourteen. After a further two years there were thirty-two; and at the end of 1934 the total of country branches stood at forty-six. During 1933 and 1934 regional C.Y.M.S. associations were formed in the North-East, the Central North, and the Western Districts.4 In all areas the initiative and co-operation of the younger clergy was a major factor in allowing this growth to take place. The end result of it all was that by the close of 1934 a new sense of unity, a new body of leaders, and a new organisational viability, were becoming evident among the Catholic young men of rural Victoria.

In the Melbourne metropolitan area, although branch numbers remained static, the early ’thirties saw a great deal of C.Y.M.S. activity. In December 1930 a C.Y.M.S. Past Members’ Association was formed, its quart ‘Smoke Nights’ bringing together many leading business and political identities who looked back with gratitude to their C.Y.M.S. training.5 At Easter 1933 an Australasian C.Y.M.S. was founded, capping five years’ effort on the part of the Melbourne Society. It incorporated the C.Y.M.S. of Victoria; the New South Wales Catholic Debating Societies’ Union; the tiny C.Y.M.S. of South Australia; the C.Y.M.S. of Cairns, Queensland; and the C.Y.M.S. of Western Australia.4 Although it never functioned except as a paper organisation, its formation was hailed at the time as a major success for the Victorian body.

The drive behind these endeavours was provided by a vigorous and cohesive Board of Management,7 and in particular by R. E. (Reg) Hodgkinson, the General Secretary from 1928 to 1940. Hodgkinson was employed for most of his life as chief assistant to J. J. Liston, director of the Liquor Trades’ Protection Association, and himself a former C.Y.M.S. General President.

Yet for all the diversity of its activities, one element was notably missing from the C.Y.M.S., and that was an intellectual consciousness. Debating may have served to sharpen the wits of members, but it did not give them a systematic intellectual formation. Indeed, although Catholic Young Men s Societies had originally been intended to provide educational as well as social and sporting services for members, all attempts to give mis added dimension to the Victorian Society had failed. The ‘Ozanam Club’, formed within the Society during the 1921 Presidency of Michael Chamberlin, had sustained a feeble existence for three years before folding up. A simultaneous enterprise initiated by Chamberlin, the ‘C.Y.M.S. Business Institute’, a commercial night-school, had prospered initially but had closed through lack of interest after a couple of years? A short span of life was also the fate of the ‘C.Y.M.S. Forum’, which was founded in 1926 as a kind of large-scale current affairs discussion group. It functioned for two years before petering out.’

The intellectual and ideological challenges posed by the Depression era, however, were of a different order of urgency from those of the preceding decades, and they weighed more heavily on the consciousness of young people. During the early ’thirties some C.Y.M.S. branches formed discussion groups,” and others puzzled over the central issues of the age in branch magazines.” As the desire to study social questions spread, C.Y.M.S. eyes turned increasingly to the University-based Campion Society as the most suitable source of intellectual guidance available. Thus the Campion initiatives aimed at securing systematic co-operation between the two Societies were favourably received; and by the end of 1933 formal negotiations were well under way. A central figure in these talks was Michael F. Hynes then the Junior Vice-President of the Young Men’s Society. In September he was responsible for bringing into being a monthly magazine which was to serve as an important means of C.Y.M.S./Campion joint action the Catholic Young Man.

The inspiration for the Catholic Young Man had come from the Oakleigh branch magazine? which Hynes had launched in 1932, financing it solely by selling advertising space. In 1933 he received the permission of his fellows on the Board of Management to establish a general Society magazine on the same basis; obtained the services of a young advertising agent, W. J. Ingleby; and set about organising the venture. He was assisted from the start by two close friends, John L. Thomas, a graduate teacher, and D. Leo Canavan, a Commerce graduate; and by three young priests, Father James Murtagh, Father James Cleary, and Dr. James Hannan.12 Since Thomas and Canavan were minor members of the Campion Society,13 and Father Murtagh a close associate of that Society, Hynes was kept well informed on what the Campions were doing.

The aim of the Catholic Young Man, as professed in its first editorial, was to wed the old and the new: to ‘maintain the previous ideals of the Society’, and to ‘stand alongside other organs in typifying Catholic Action’. The inaugural issue featured infra-Society news, light articles, and essays of a more serious kind. An article by Dr. James Hannan, D.D., dealt with the topic of ‘Fascism: Ideals and Practice’. Even more evocative of the crucial conflicts of the age was a short contribution by the Honorable E. L. Kiernan, M.L.C., an ex-General President of the Society, a foundation member of the Victorian Knights of the Southern Cross,14 and an ex-Minister in the Victorian Hogan Labor Government. In tones reminiscent of the Campion Society, Kiernan despaired of the state of the world, and presented the Catholic Church as the only reliable guardian of order remaining to mankind:

Shall we strive for a greater measure of social justice, a nobler ideal of progress, and civic and religious liberty … or shall we witness the wreckage of that Christian culture and civilisation so painfully and continuously built up in Europe during the early and Middle Ages, under the guidance of the Catholic Church?

He called on every Catholic young man to face up to ‘the necessity of resolute Catholic Action, if civilisation is to be saved’.

At the beginning of 1934 Michael Hynes was elected General President of the Catholic Young Men’s Society, and Campion/C.Y.M.S. co-operation began in earnest. Hynes not only realised the contribution which Campion (writers could make to the Catholic Young Man; he shared none of the suspicion with which many C.Y.M.S. leaders regarded the other Society15 – a suspicion partly occasioned by the over-confidence and undergraduate brashness of some Campion members. Early in 1934 the Campions agreed to write articles on a regular basis for the Catholic Young Man; and they agreed further to help set up joint study-groups, of which they were to be given complete operational control.14

Access to the Catholic Young Man came at an opportune time for the Campion Society, as at the beginning of 1934 it had been forced to sever its links with Father A. J. Mills’ Brisbane-based magazine, Australia. Discontent with this periodical had surfaced at the October 1933 Quarterly Meeting, where it had been pointed out that Australia’s circulation was small, and its economic policy ‘ill considered’. Above all, members objected to Mills’ contention that the Australian Labor Party stood implicitly condemned by the Church on account of its Socialization Objective.17

Subsequent letters of protest from the Campion Council failed to persu d him to alter his position; and so at the Quarterly Meeting of 24 January 1934, on a motion put by Bob Santamaria, the Society withdrew its support from Australia.1*

Campion contributions to the Catholic Young Man began in February 1934, with at least one and generally two Campion articles appearing each month. In content, they were fairly evenly divided between historical/ literary themes, and contemporary social ones. A series on ‘Catholic Writers and Writings’, which was sustained throughout the year, gave literary/ biographical sketches of such figures as Belloc, Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Arnold Lunn, Christopher Hollis, and Cardinal Newman. Of the essays on social themes, the first, and perhaps the most impressive article to appear in the magazine, was Denys Jackson (as ‘Sulla’) on ‘The Rights of Labour’ in the April issue. This was presumably a condensation of his prizewinning 1932 Newman Society Competition essay. Other articles by Campion men in subsequent issues for that year dealt with the Modem Mind, Capitalism, Freemasonry, Religion and Science, Education, and Sex in Advertising.

The second major C.Y.M.S./Campion co-operative venture, the joint study-groups, began with an appeal for support by Frank Maher in the February 1934 issue of the Catholic Young Man. He warned of the possibility of an ‘imminent collapse of Western civilisation’, and asserted that

Anyone, then, who has the faintest knowledge of the dangerous state of the world he lives in; who is anxious to save Australia from the menace of civil war, industrial chaos, of social revolution and Atheism, will see the need for Study-groups in the C.Y.M.S.

Following on this, an organisational meeting for interested persons was held on 24 April. The Campions had expected to form one study-group, but the response was so overwhelming that they decided to begin with five.” The groups were strategically spaced around Melbourne, centring on Clifton Hill, North Essendon, East St. Kilda, the Cathedral Hall at Fitzroy, and Newport. Senior Campion members were appointed to guide and supervise each of them.20 Meetings were held fortnightly, mostly in private homes. Participants were expected to join the Central Catholic Library, the circulation figures for which can virtually be used as an index of the intellectual vitality of Victorian Catholicism.2’

The initial three-month programme for the groups was designed to give the members a broad Campion perspective on the role of the Church in the modem world. The topics covered were: ‘Collapse of Paganism’; ‘Catholics and the Modern World’; ‘Sterilisation’; ‘Catholicism and the Modem Mind’; and ‘Fascism’.22 The programme for the subsequent quarter was a little less general; and that for the final three months of the year was more specific again, dealing with ‘Fascism (in Italy)’; ‘Social and Economic Theories of the Middle Ages’; ‘Nazism in Germany’; ‘Catholicism in England To-day; and ‘The Renaissance’.23 The well-tried Campion technique of alternating historical with contemporary subjects, sweeping perspectives with closer analyses, was followed throughout.

Two of the groups, those at the Cathedral and Newport, died out after a few months;24 however, the others functioned successfully. The North Essendon group; according to Frank Maher, owed its prosperity largely to the ‘time and enthusiasm’ devoted to it by Father James Murtagh, who was then a curate in the parish.25 Overall, the C.Y.M.S. study-groups found so much support that by as early as July their total membership, at seventy, was already equal to that of the Campion Society itself.26 The Catholic Young Man was exuberant at their success, which it interpreted as striking proof that

the magnetic and mystical attraction of the Faith for clear-minded and stout-hearted men is as powerful as at any time in our history.0

Towards the end of the year Arthur Adams became founder and first President of a Glenhuntly C.Y.M.S., which from the beginning incorporated a study-group.* About the same time ‘the nucleus of a small group’ was formed at Carlton by J. Scarborough.29

Thus by the end of 1934 the Campion Society was actively imparting a new Catholic intellectual consciousness to the Melbourne Catholic Young Men’s Society. For the opportunity to do so it could thank the C.YM.S. Board of Management, and in particular the 1934 C.YM.S. General President, Michael F. Hynes.

In addition to this, the same twelve months witnessed a parallel expansion of Campion influence among the Catholic young men of rural Victoria, an expansion which dove-tailed in with the end of the five-year boom which the C.YM.S. had experienced in the country districts. This phase of Campion growth likewise warrants examination.

The first Campion group to appear outside Melbourne was established at Ballarat, a city seventy miles to the north-west. Its founder was Gerard Sherry, then a pharmaceutical apprentice, who for some time had been utilising the Central Catholic Library’s postal lending scheme. While on a visit to Melbourne early in 1934 he had chanced to fall into conversation with Kevin Kelly at the Library, and had learned from him of the work of the Campion Society. Upon returning to Ballarat he reflected that in that city ‘All other forms of Catholic activity flourish’, but that ‘Catholic Action … in its all important apostolic sense is practically unknown’. He decided that there was ‘no more pressing need here in Ballarat than an organised effort to produce a few intellectually integral Catholics’*

Sherry opened a correspondence with Kelly, and began seeking appropriate members for a study-group from among his friends and acquaintances. Enough support was forthcoming for a first meeting to be held on 21 April, and before long the group was flourishing. Most of the young men who became active were drawn from the small class of Catholics in the city in professional or semi-professional occupations. The main early members were Sherry; John Lynch, a teacher; John Sheehan, a law clerk and later a teacher; John Larkins, a law clerk; John Walsh, a civil servant; John Bongiorno, the son of a local businessman; James Kenny, a Railways clerk; William Ratcliffe, also a clerk; and James Murray, a dentist.” A few months after the group started it was joined by Father James McInerney, a close friend of Fathers Murtagh and Cleary in Melbourne, and a keen activist who was henceforth to be a key figure in the Ballarat Campion. Furthermore, Sheehan and Larkins were the foremost debaters in the local 1 C.Y.M.S.;” and the aims of the group explicitly included the influencing of ‘various Catholic societies’, and ‘especially [the] C.Y.M.S.‘”

Two months after the formation of the Ballarat Campion group, another ; appeared in Geelong, fifty miles south of Melbourne. It began with five members, the initiator being John Downey, an early member of the Melbourne Campion Society, who had been transferred to Geelong as a j I Clerk of Courts.14 Two of the others, John Patterson, a Bank Officer, and Roger O’Halloran, a Legal Manager, were C.Y.M.S. debaters.11 The Geelong Campion did not prosper, however, and soon became dormant. It was to remain that way until stirred into new life by the Spanish Civil War I controversy.

News of the spectacular achievements of the Melbourne Campion Society continued to spread. In July of 1934 Father Les McKenna, a priest from Crookwell, near Goulbum, N.S.W., visited Melbourne and ‘learned from Father Murtagh of the existence of the Campion Society, and something of its splendid work among Catholic intellectuals’. He ‘resolved to study the possibility of establishing a branch in N.S.W.’ However, while motoring through the N.S.W. border town of Albury on his return journey, he chanced to meet a twenty-three year old law clerk, Norman Barnett, who was ‘anxious for a lift enroute to Sydney, for an exam’’. McKenna drove him as far as Crookwell, telling him on the way of what he had learned of the Melbourne Campion Society.14 Barnett was impressed, and upon returning from Sydney began seeking support for an Albury Campion group. An initial meeting was held on 6 September.37

As with the Ballarat Campion, the Albury group was composed predominantly of young Catholics in professional and semi-professional occupations. Apart from Barnett himself, it included J. McKenzie- McHarg, a Wodonga lawyer; E. Tietyens, an articled law clerk; Dr. Worch, a medical practitioner; and Alf. J. Schmude, an ex-Manly seminarian.38 McKenzie-McHarg and Schmude were both leading C.Y.M.S. debaters of the district.19 The Albury Campion was as much a social circle as a study- group; but even so, due largely to a group postal subscription to the Central Catholic Library, it was able to sustain a lively intellectual life.”

Shortly after the formation of the Albury group another was founded at Wangaratta, forty-five miles away in North-Eastern Victoria? The initiator was E. (Ted) Hennessy, a school-eacher, already a prolific readier of popular Catholic literature.4’ Others involved were Alf. Gerrard, also a schoolteacher, a recent convert to Catholicism and a devotee of G. K. Chesterton; A. Bernard Vosti, an insurance representative; and brothers Bill and Patrick Findlay, who had already accumulated a small Catholic library at their home at nearby Chiitem.42 Again, there was a substantial overlap with the C.Y.M.S. Hennessy had been foundation President of the Wangaratta C.Y.M.S. in 1933;” Bill Findlay had been the 1933 Chiitem C.Y.M.S President;44 and Vosti had been a member of the Victorian C.Y.M.S. Board of Management before being transferred in his employment from Melbourne to the country.”

Thus in metropolitan and country areas alike, the Depression era had seen a new solidarity develop among Victoria’s Catholic young men, and a new Catholic intellectual consciousness take root amongst their leaders. The Catholic Young Men’s Society was the source of the solidarity, and the Campion Society of the intellectuality. A survey of the other States will now serve to show in what degree this phenomenon was common to Australian Catholic young men generally, and to what extent it was peculiar to Victoria.