In 1891, in the midst of a severe depression, the St Vincent de Paul Society set up a house in Surry Hills as a refuge for homeless children. The refuge moved to Redfern then to Five Dock, and finally to Westmead in 1896.
The foundation at Westmead, then a sparsely populated farming area in Sydney's west, was intended to be a large Home where boys could learn a trade and the basics of farming. Following a recommendation by the Archbishop, the Society invited the Marist Brothers to partner with them to operate the Home.
The Catholic Church set up children's homes to defend the Catholic faith, which was still a minority religion in Australia in the early 20th century. The goal of organisations like Westmead was to ensure Catholic children did not end up being housed with Protestants or given Protestant religious instruction. In 1914 Archbishop Dr Kelly caused a controversy by attacking the Mittagong Farm Home, run by the State Children's Relief Board. Charles Mackellar, the Board's President, was angered by a Herald report about Kelly:
'The report says that at a meeting of the Westmead Catholic Homes for Boys "Dr Kelly said that the institution (i.e., the Westmead Home) was a home in the true sense of the word-not like the State Home at Mittagong with its prison conditions, where nearly every child had a policeman's hand on his shoulder, etc., etc." I shall refrain from stigmatising Dr Kelly's remarks in any harsher way than by saying that they give an absolutely incorrect idea of the management of the Mittagong Farm …'
Kelly's remarks were made to the wealthy Catholics who funded the Westmead Home, and were probably exaggerated. Catholics, Protestants and the State Children's Relief Board were in competition for children, with each convinced their method was best, but the irony was, their methods varied little. Like Mittagong, St Vincent's was a farm home for boys, run as an industrial school.
The industrial school model continued until World War II when secondary education became more important. Boys from Croagh Patrick Home were sent to St Vincent's to do secondary school. After World War II the industrial school model was seen as inappropriate and the trade aspect of the Home was wound down. By the mid-1950s, St Vincent's was run more like a boarding school for disadvantaged boys.
In the early 1960s there was further change when the internal schooling of the boys at Westmead began to be phased out, with the boys first attending local Catholic schools and eventually a wide range of schools in the area.
Until 1968, the Home at Westmead was a joint venture of the Society and the Marists. The Society of St Vincent De Paul was responsible not only for the financing of the work, but also for controlling the admission of the boys, most of whom were referred by the local branches of the Society. The affairs of the Home were controlled by a Management Committee made up of men from the Society who met on a monthly basis at Westmead to oversee the operation and to decide on admissions. In 1968 St Vincent De Paul withdrew, leaving the Marist Brothers in charge.
By the 1970s, Australia was a very different society from Australia in the days when the Home was founded. Attitudes to social welfare had changed considerably, and the 1970s was a period in which the older models of institutional out-of-home care gave way to foster care and smaller residential units. St Vincent's went through a process which saw the reduction of numbers and a change of program on the Westmead site. Eventually, in 1985, the old Home was vacated in favour of smaller group homes.
The Home was founded at a time when Australia saw its future in material growth and rural expansion. The vision of the men of the Society in founding a Home on the industrial school model was seen as way of giving boys from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to be part of the Australian dream. The gradual change to the boarding school model was seen as a means of allowing orphaned boys and those whose families could not support them to gain an education. Later, however, as social welfare policy came to emphasise the maintenance of the family unit wherever possible, and Government funding arrangements supported this approach, removing children from their families fell from favour.
By the time it moved from the Westmead site, St Vincent's was one of a range of services in Western Sydney working, in close liaison with Government departments, with boys who could not live with their families for whatever reason. St Vincent's was the beginnings of Marist Community Services and Marist Youth Care.
St Vincent's Boys' Home was mentioned in the Lost Innocents Report (2001) as an institution involved in the migration of children to Australia.
07 June 2023
Cite this: http://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/nsw/NE00137
First published by the Find & Connect Web Resource Project for the Commonwealth of Australia, 2011
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