In 1846, the famous Catholic social reformer Caroline Chisholm wrote a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, responding—in an uncharacteristically weary tone—to a letter the paper had published from the Rev Dr John Dunmore Lang, a prominent Presbyterian clergyman and politician, who, she complained, had unjustly impugned her character.

Written only weeks before Chisholm was due to depart for England (where she intended to promote her scheme to support the immigration of women and families to the colonies), much of Lang’s long and rambling letter to the Herald had focused on hurling sarcastic, anti-Catholic insults at the editor of the (Catholic) Morning Chronicle, who had been busy hurling insults of his own at Lang. In the course of his rant, Lang turned his attention to Chisholm, who found herself unwittingly caught in the sectarian crossfire.

While referring to the much-admired Mrs Chisholm as a ‘benevolent lady’ and lauding the ‘valuable services’ she had provided to many poor immigrants, he nevertheless clearly implied that her Catholicism rendered her untrustworthy when it came to representing the best interests of the colony in the old country. He implied that as a ‘zealous and devoted Roman Catholic’ (his italics), she must inevitably have a secret agenda to recruit thousands of Irish Catholic immigrants with the aim of overrunning the Protestants and bringing about ‘that most intolerable and degrading of all dictatorships—the dictatorship of a Romish priesthood’—a horrifying prospect for a man who wanted, as he said, ‘to live and die among my own people’ (again, his italics).

John Dunmore Lang
A posthumous portrait of John Dunmore Lang, c. 1888, National Library of Australia.

The dispirited tone of Chisholm’s response indicates how hurt she was by his insinuations, not because she was labouring under any delusions about the strength of sectarian sentiment among her neighbours—Protestant and Catholic alike—but because she had tried so hard in her work to rise above it, and because she and Lang were, after all, personally acquainted. They had served together on committees; he had supported many of her causes, and she appears to have regarded him as an ally, if an unlikely one. The subtext of her letter is that this acquaintance, not just with her work but with her, should have provided him with more than enough evidence of her motives and integrity; her long and admirable record of serving the poor and destitute of every creed, without fear or favour, should speak for itself.

Instead, Chisholm implies, Lang had unfairly tarred her with his own sectarian brush. ‘There is something unkind in all this,’ she writes. ‘I feel conscious that I do not deserve it—I can fearlessly appeal to every clergyman, to every man, woman, and child in the colony, if I have either directly or indirectly lent my influence to a Sectarian purpose.’

To do good is often weary work; to watch our motives, and to endeavour to keep them pure and holy is a struggle.

Indeed, as she goes on to point out, she had at one time lost the support of some of the Catholic leadership precisely because she had refused to approach her work in a sectarian, anti-Protestant or proselytising way, instead building a reputation throughout the colony as someone who would offer compassion and assistance to any who sought her help, Catholic or not. Given the sectarian tenor of her times—not to mention the obstacles and scepticism she would have faced as a woman in such a public role—this was no small achievement.

‘To do good is often weary work,’ she writes, ‘to watch our motives, and to endeavour to keep them pure and holy is a struggle—a constant warfare with human nature;—to act on the Samaritan principle requires the grace of God; conscious of my own weakness, anxious to do good to all men, am I not to be allowed to address my Maker after a weary day’s work in the way that my conscience dictates; I dearly love justice, and the praise of men may be pleasant to me; but a consciousness of my own integrity is more so: for when I lose the approbation of my own mind, I forfeit one of the sweetest comforts that God permits a human being.’

I must have your confidence: for I cannot reconcile it to my feelings to be praised at one moment, and doubted the next.

Chisholm responds to Lang not with the kind of snide inuendo and bitter rhetoric that he had indulged in, but with dignity and resolve: ‘Disposed to do all in my power to advance the interests of this colony and the welfare of my fellow creatures, I am inclined to give my service gratuitously in furtherance thereof (as far as I can command time and means) after my arrival in England; I do so, however, on one condition—I must have your confidence: for I cannot reconcile it to my feelings to be praised at one moment, and doubted the next.’

Portrait of Caroline Chisholm on the frontispiece of her memoirs, published in 1852.

Chisholm’s anti-sectarian convictions and impulses had their roots in her own history. Before converting to Catholicism at around the time of her marriage, Chisholm was raised in the Church of England. Evangelical notions of philanthropy were strongly emphasised in her childhood home, and Christian hospitality regularly practised.

Chisholm’s family would later pass down stories of two formative incidents in her early childhood. In one, her father, William Jones—a man known for his welcoming and compassionate nature—brought home and cared for an old soldier injured during the Napoleonic wars, who told Caroline exotic tales of his adventures visiting far-flung outposts of the British Empire. In another, her father rescued an old Catholic priest who was being pelted with stones in the street. Having fled the revolution in France, the priest had been living a semi-itinerant existence as he moved from one recusant family to another. Again, Chisholm’s father invited him home to be cared for by the family, clearly unperturbed by his religion. The young Caroline took a shine to the French priest, and when he left, he blessed the family, bestowing a particular blessing on Caroline.

Perhaps these experiences influenced a childhood game that Chisholm would later recall in her memoirs, in which, as a six-year-old, she would set broadbean ‘ships’ afloat on a ‘sea’ that she created in a basin, transporting cargoes of wheat and of people (dolls) between England and the colonies (represented by a quilt). At one point, she recalls placing a Wesleyan minister and a Catholic priest in a boat together and praying earnestly to God ‘to make them love each other’.

I must be trusted or I cannot work; the only favour then I ask, is, that you judge me by my acts.

This early aversion to religious prejudice could only have been reinforced when, at age 22, she fell in love with Archibald Chisholm, a soldier from an old Catholic family. Given Caroline’s Protestant and lower-class background, and the religious antagonism prevalent at that time, one might have expected the courtship to cause ructions within Archibald’s family—or her subsequent conversion to displease her own—but there is no clear evidence that this was the case. Later, as the couple’s travels took them to different parts of the globe, Caroline maintained a regular and warm correspondence with her husband’s family, and with her own siblings.

Some of her personal history, then, can perhaps be heard in her reply to Lang. Noting his wish ‘to live and die among his own people’, she pointedly remarks that her ‘idea of good neighbourhood is not so contracted’. Having lived (and established a school for the daughters of soldiers) in India while Archibald was stationed there with the East India Company’s Madras Army, she points out that she has ‘happily’ lived among both Muslims and Hindus, who never interfered with her devotions, ‘nor did I insult them at theirs; and am I not to enjoy the same privilege in New South Wales?’

As she concludes her letter, her frustration is evident. ‘I must be trusted or I cannot work,’ she insists; ‘the only favour then I ask, is, that you judge me by my acts—by them I am willing to stand or fall, as others have done before me, and will after me.’

In our own time, much has been written about the erosion of public trust in individuals and institutions, and about deepening polarisation. There is much in this exchange between Chisholm and Lang with which we can still identify. Personally invested in a different kind of ‘culture war’, Lang had succumbed to a familiar temptation, discounting his own positive experience of Chisholm—all the good he had seen her do, all her selfless service—in favour of his own fear and prejudice, allowing that, rather than the actual fruit of her life and service, to colour his judgement.

What labels might be blinding us to the gifts, contributions and essential human dignity of those outside our usual orbit?

In a second letter, responding to Chisholm’s own, Lang would claim that ‘Nothing could possibly have been farther from my intention … than either to hurt the feelings, or to depreciate the self-denying and praiseworthy exertions of Mrs. Chisholm’, while maintaining that he had ‘felt bound on public grounds to allude to her, as a prominent public character, in connection with the procedure of [the Morning Chronicle] towards myself’. He goes on to repeat his ‘Catholic dictatorship’ conspiracy theory, resolving ‘to do my best to deliver this colony and hemisphere, for all time coming, from the justly apprehended and intolerably degrading despotism of Rome’.

In the end, the label ‘Catholic’, for Lang, obscured both the humanity and the powerful Christian witness of Chisholm and other Catholics. What labels, I wonder, might be blinding us to the gifts, contributions and essential human dignity of those outside our usual orbit? And by succumbing to suspicion and distrust, how might we be hindering and discouraging those who sincerely seek the good of all?