Ever since the Industrial Revolution, tuberculosis—colloquially known as ‘the white death’—has been one of the most damaging diseases for urban populations.

In 1882, the bacteria that caused tuberculosis was discovered, and people became more aware of the factors contributing to its spread, including urban density, poverty, malnutrition, lack of hygiene, and low immune systems.

It is no wonder that throughout the two world wars, tuberculosis was an ongoing problem for the military, with malnourished soldiers crowded together in unhygienic trenches for weeks and months on end.

Immediately following the Second World War, tuberculosis continued to be a problem across Europe, though it was notoriously difficult to establish the exact number of deaths that it caused.

During this time, Justin Daniel Simonds (the country’s first Australia-born Archbishop) was Coadjutor Archbishop of Melbourne, assisting Archbishop Mannix with the administration of the Archdiocese in his later years. In 1946, Simonds toured post-war Europe on behalf of the Church in Australia, offering solidarity and relief, and looking for opportunities to help settle war orphans in Australia.

During this tour, he visited the seminary in Cologne, Germany, discovering that 60 per cent of the seminarians were ill with tuberculosis. Many of the students had been soldiers themselves and had often suffered malnutrition as prisoners of war.

One year they managed to organise three different shipments, each to the value of 500 pounds (just over A$47,000 per shipment in today’s money).

When he returned to Melbourne, Simonds reflected on his experience in Europe, and after informing the seminarians of Corpus Christi College about the plight of those in Cologne, the students formed a committee to organise relief packages for the seminarians. Beginning as a spontaneous initiative of the students, shipping out regular but small parcels of food and clothing, the operation soon became much bigger as they began to collaborate with a wider network of donors.

Through the Cologne Relief Fund, thousands of pounds of items were shipped from Werribee (the location of Corpus Christi at the time) to Germany in the years that followed.

One year they managed to organise three different shipments, each to the value of 500 pounds (just over A$47,000 per shipment in today’s money).

In 1949, the archdiocesan newspaper, The Advocate, reported on the seminarians’ initiative, describing how Werribee had ‘adopted’ the Cologne seminary and brought much hope to those who were suffering.

Based upon a very grateful letter they received from Cologne, one of their shipments arrived just in time for Christmas 1948.

‘Last Christmas is one not likely to be quickly forgotten by the Cologne seminarians and many old people living nearby,’ The Advocate reported. ‘With little prospects of anything substantial to eat, let alone any celebrations, the situation looked forlorn—only to be relieved by the timely arrival of a large shipment from Werribee just three days before Christmas. The joy and happiness experienced over the Christmas meal is indescribable—and, besides, 175 old people from the neighbourhood were invited to the college to share in their great fortune.’

The clothes they sent also kept many people warm during the frigid European winters.

The Rector of the Cologne seminary was so grateful for Werribee’s generosity that he reported it to Pope Pius XII. In 1949, Archbishop Montini, the Vatican’s Secretary of State at the time, sent a letter to the Rector of Corpus Christi College expressing the Pope’s gratitude.

‘His Holiness has been much consoled to learn, through the acting Rector of Cologne seminary, of your many benefactions,’ Montini wrote. ‘He would have me assure you, and all those associated with you in this beneficent work, that he warmly admires the spirit of fraternal charity and Catholic solidarity which animates you in showing such thoughtful consideration towards your brethren in Christ.

‘He feels confident that Our Divine Lord, who regards such fraternal charity as the distinguishing mark of his intimate followers, will shower abundant graces upon you, and upon the priests and students of Corpus Christi College, for the effective contribution for which you are making to the very necessary work of the education of priests for the Archdiocese of Cologne, by such timely and helpful aid.’

In 1955, in appreciation, the Rector of Cologne’s seminary sent Werribee the gift of a chalice and paten of beaten gold.

The Cologne appeal continued for many years, though eventually, once the German seminarians had been looked after, the community at Werribee diverted its attention elsewhere.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, with so much of their home destroyed and so many refugees flooding in from the Russian-occupied zone, many Germans were living in former air raid shelters without adequate air or light. They needed work, food and clothing. The shipments of warm woollen clothes continued, providing for people desperately in need.

As the years progressed, and world events developed, so did the recipients of Werribee’s appeals. In the 1960s, they also supported refugees in Hong Kong and South Korea fleeing Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Although their initiative began small, a spontaneous idea among students, it became a creative and effective way to stand in global solidarity with those who were suffering for years to come.

10 Colombo Appeal Advocate 20 October 1966 p25 2
A newspaper clipping about the Colombo Appeal, helping refugee families in Hong Kong.

This story has drawn on sources in the latest edition of Footprints and an article written by David Schultz and Rachel Naughton.