The Caroline Chisholm Society (CCS), an organisation dedicated to providing much-needed support to vulnerable pregnant women, has been operating for more than 50 years, inspired both by the spirit of its namesake and by one of its founding members, Dr Philomene Joshua Tenni. Although the society has grown as an organisation, it all started in Philomene’s Box Hill family home in the early 1970s, where she ran a phone-support service and provided emergency aid to women in need.

Recognising the significance of her work and achievements, her friends and family had pushed for a long time for her to be acknowledged in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. But sadly, in 2022, Dr Joshua, who had also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, died of an infection that progressed too rapidly for her doctors to cure. So it was only in the 2023 King’s Birthday Honours that her services to community health were recognised with a posthumous OAM.

On 14 September, two of her daughters, Anne-Marie Tenni and Virginia Symonds, attended the investiture ceremony at Government House, where Anne-Marie received the medal on her mother’s behalf. The sisters describe having ‘mixed feelings’ as they received the award.

‘I would have preferred Mum to have received it in person,’ Anne-Marie says, ‘but I was really pleased to be able to recognise her work with the Caroline Chisholm Society, her GP medical practice and her involvement in the community over all those years.’

Dr Joshua’s life was one dedicated to the service of others, especially women and babies. Virginia remembers that even as a GP, her mother loved delivering babies. ‘The phone would go in the middle of the night and Mum would get up and leave the house, and she was always happy if she’d deliver a baby. It made her day. She didn’t care if it was the middle of the night because she just loved it.’

But Dr Joshua’s time as a GP also convinced her of something important: what pregnant women needed was so much more than medical support. They needed a variety of social and material support, including housing, food, nappies—basic things—and often on a long-term basis. With some women even being disowned by their families for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, they needed the kind of support that would make keeping the child a viable path for them.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, doctors such as Bertram Wainer were campaigning for legal access to abortion in Victoria. Partly in response to Dr Wainer’s campaigns, a pro-life movement was growing in Victoria, and Dr Joshua became part of it. Anne-Marie relates how during a brief conversation with Dr Wainer, her mother said to him directly that women needed alternatives to abortion. His reply was blunt: ‘Why don’t you do something?’ And that was the unlikely genesis of the idea for a pregnancy support service.

With the support of her husband and family, Dr Joshua met this challenge head on. Gathering friends and local volunteers, they began running the Pregnancy Support Phone Service from their family home. The assistance offered by Dr Joshua’s growing network of volunteers was often personally tailored to the needs of each woman and included such things as accommodation, advice, meals, home visits, donations of basic goods such as prams and cots, and even accompanying them to medical check-ups.

The volunteers running this service were convinced that along with opposing legal access to abortion, they had to provide practical support to vulnerable women. They needed a holistic approach to the issue, and that’s what they offered.

The sisters’ memories of growing up in that Box Hill home are vivid. The place was often bursting at the seams, Anne-Marie says.

She already had five children, a husband, two dogs and a cat, and then we would have these other ladies come and stay with us. Some had experienced bad luck in their lives and were suffering the social fallout that would befall an unmarried mother in those times.

Many women also felt pressured to marry the man with whom they had mistakenly gotten pregnant. Virginia says, ‘One thing I remember Mum saying to me was that she wanted to give the women choices so they didn’t feel they had to marry whoever the father was, because making a bad marriage was not a solution to their problem.’

Eventually, running this service from their family home proved an unsustainable strategy. As an alternative, Dr Joshua and her husband, Bernie, purchased a house nearby that would provide comfortable accommodation for women.

From very early on, this group of volunteers referred to themselves informally as the Caroline Chisholm Society, inspired by the 19th-century Catholic and social reformer who also did so much for families in colonial Australia.

Reflecting on her mother’s life of service, Anne-Marie says she was very much driven by her faith. ‘She was part of a group of people that believed in trying to do something, that it’s about making your faith real and not just going to church for an hour on Sunday. It’s about doing something about it and making a better world.’

She was also convinced that as a society we should be nurturing the relationship between mothers and their children, from the womb to well after birth.

‘The basic premise was that a mother and a child should be able to grow together and should be safe and should be nurtured by society and not shunned,’ Anne-Marie says. ‘If society is not providing facilities to do that, then somebody needs to step up and try to change it.’

Anne-Marie also wonders if there’s an expectation that the government should fix things these days, as opposed to being empowered ourselves to step up and do something.

‘You have to take that step back and go, “What can I do? Can I actually make any difference here?” And Mum couldn’t change things necessarily at that political level, but this was something that her and Dad could do within their means. And I think it is about just taking that step, and then you attract people. People come and help because the cause is worth it.’

That sense of rolling up their sleeves and getting involved has flowed into the rest of the family, too. Both Virginia and Anne-Marie report that their children are often involved in community and charitable works, inspired by that same drive to see the world around them be made better.

Dr Philomene Joshua Tenni’s legacy may have started small, with just a few volunteers, but it is no small thing. More than 50 years on, the Caroline Chisholm Society, which she co-founded with Pat Coffey OAM, continues to offer the kind of practical support women need at the most vulnerable time in their lives. They continue to support the nurturing of one of society’s most important relationships: that of a mother and her baby.

Philomene 50 Year Book Launch4 min 2023 09 27 001358 nscn 2
Dr Philomene Joshua Tenni at the launch party of the Caroline Chisholm Society’s 50th anniversary book. (Photo supplied.)

The Caroline Chisholm Society is an accredited and registered community service that provides a broad range of supports with a focus on working with women and their families to promote and enhance early childhood and parenting outcomes.

Banner image: (L–R) Mrs Pat Coffey OAM (co-founder of CCS), Dr Philomene Joshua Tenni OAM (co-founder of CCS), Mr James Chisholm (direct descendent of the Chisholm family) and Dr Jennifer Weber (CEO Caroline Chisholm Society). (Photo supplied.)