This year we celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Catholic Diocese (later Archdiocese) of Melbourne. During this time there have been many waves of migrant and ethnic communities from across the globe who have helped shaped Melbourne into the rich and multicultural society that we enjoy today – from the Irish, English and Germans in the 1800s, to the Southern and Eastern Europeans from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s, to the Middle Eastern, Asian, Latin American, and African communities of more recent years. Together, these vibrant and diverse communities reflect the rich tapestry of life and faith that makes up the Catholic Church of Melbourne, today.

Desmond Cahill is Emeritus Professor of Intercultural Studies in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. He is an expert in multicultural studies in Australia and maintains a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the nation’s multicultural history, particularly around the experience of post-World War II migrant communities – Italians, Maltese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Polish to name a few – many of which are covered in his myriad of books, reports, and papers published over the past 45 years.

Given the vast number of peoples and communities that have migrated to Melbourne over the past two centuries and the circumstances in which they’ve have had to leave their homes – whether by choice, necessity, or force – Prof. Cahill says it is a ‘complex task’ to map out the movement of migration.

He suggests a good place to start, however, is the data collated and shared by the National Centre for Pastoral Research, which undertakes pastoral research to support the mission of the Church in Australia. Looking at the 2016 Census data (the 2021 data won’t be released until later this year), of the total 1,067,030 people who identify as Catholics within the Archdiocese of Melbourne, around 30 per cent were born overseas. The majority of these have come from Italy (56,353 people, or 5.3%). This is followed by the Philippines (3%), the United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland, 1.9%), India (1.8%) and Vietnam (1.5%).

Interestingly, our most recent waves of arrivals between 2013 to 2016 – ‘waves’ being the word commonly used to describe movements of people arriving over a certain period of time, according to Prof. Cahill – have come from Colombia (42%); Brazil (41%); Iraq (23%); Indonesia (21%); and France (20%).

These waves of migrants differ from earlier migration patterns around 2011, which indicated the largest number of Catholic ‘recent arrivals’ as being from South Korea (33% of recent arrivals), followed by Ireland (26%); Indonesia (25%), Iraq (23%) and North America (22%).

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Professor Desmond Cahill Photo by Fiona Basile

Understanding the waves

Prof. Cahill says the World War II and the federal Labor government’s post-war immigration scheme played a major role in the large wave of Europeans coming to Australia in the mid-1940s and 50s. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, Ben Chifley, the Labor Prime Minister of Australia (1945-1949) established the federal Department of Immigration to administer the large-scale immigration program. Arthur Calwell (1896-1973), a Catholic man born and bred in Melbourne, was then appointed as the first Minister for Immigration. Calwell, whom Prof. Cahill describes as a ‘very good Catholic man’, held this position from 1945 to 1949, before Harold Holt took over in the role.

‘When the migration program started, which has since transformed Australia, the initial aims were to accept 90 per cent of migrants from Britain, and those who were “rurally-oriented” to fill up Australia’s empty land spaces after the Japanese scare during WWII,’ explained Prof. Cahill.

At the time, many of those arriving were sent from Station Pier to an old army camp at Bonegilla in far north-east Victoria, which was used as a migration centre. This was to encourage them to settle in rural areas. However, due to the increasing and growing industries in city areas, many didn’t stay. Instead, they moved to Melbourne and Sydney.’

Prof. Cahill explained that since World War II, the most significant and largest number of migrants have come from Southern Europe – Italy, in particular. ‘The numbers from Italy are just so huge,’ he said. The Scalabrinian Order, which arrived in Australia in 1952, came to Melbourne in 1959 upon the specific request of then Archbishop Daniel Mannix to minister to the ever-increasing migrant population from Italy, which peaked in the 1950s. Prof. Cahill has written an extensive history of the Scalabrinian Order in his 2004 book, Missionaries on the Move: A Pastoral History of the Scalabrinians in Australia and Asia (1952-2002). The Capuchin Friars, also from Italy, arrived in Melbourne during the 1950s to help serve the growing Italian migrant population.

From 1949 and throughout the 1950s, refugees and displaced persons from Poland, Latvia and Lithuania started arriving and between 1949 and 1957, migrants from The Netherlands arrived in Victoria. ‘There was a very short, sharp wave of Dutch migrants,’ according to Prof. Cahill, as he describes in his book about the Dutch migration experience (The Dutch Down Under). ‘It was just seven to eight years and then it finished.

Also arriving as displaced persons between 1948 and 1952 were the Ukrainians. Just over half were Catholic. They’ve become a highly organised community with their cathedral in North Melbourne. Now, another wave is about to arrive.’

Prof. Cahill explained that by the mid-1960s there were waves of Catholic migrants from Slovenia, Croatia, and Lebanon. In the late 1960s and 70s waves of Catholic migrants arrived from Egypt, Latin America, the Philippines, and East Timor. And then the Vietnamese migrants started coming after 1975 with the fall of Saigon.

A significant factor is that over these years of post-WWII migration, Australia’s long-held White Australia Policy, implemented in 1901, was slowly being dismantled. It was eventually abolished in early 1973 by the Whitlam Government. ‘The Immigration Department realised that you couldn’t have a country on the edge of Asia with a White Australia policy,’ according to Prof. Cahill. He also credits the Catholic Church in playing a very positive role in changing the policy.

Prof. Cahill again emphasised that the story of migration in Australia is a ‘complex story’. Even when considering ‘one group such as the Chinese, you need to consider that there are different ethnic groups within this larger one,’ he said. ‘There are Mandarin-speaking Chinese and Cantonese-speaking Chinese. There are those who come from the mainland, the Republic of China, while others come from Singapore, Hong Kong or East Timor. There are also many Chinese-Vietnamese.

It’s also important to mention the Eastern Rite Catholics who make a significant contribution to the wider diversity of the Melbourne Catholic Church. They include the Chaldeans, Maronites and Melkites from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, the Syro-Malabar Catholics from Kerala in India, and Ukrainian Catholics.’

The migration story continues

The story of migration continues to grow and evolve, particularly as world events see more and more people coming to Australia to seek refuge and asylum. Indeed, the story of the Melbourne Archdiocese’s current migrant experience can be seen in the myriad of chaplains that minister to the various migrant communities.

Currently, there are more than 40 chaplains who minister to migrant communities across the Archdiocese. They include chaplains for those who speak Spanish, Portuguese and Tamil. There are also chaplains for migrant communities from Armenia, Cambodia and Lao, China (Mandarin-speaking and Cantonese-speaking), Croatia, the Philippines, Germany, Hungary, Indonesia, Italy, Korea, Lithuania, Malta, Myanmar, Poland, Syria, Tonga, Vietnam, and the Coptic faith community in Melbourne.

More broadly, Prof. Cahill explained that 2020 research into the number of priests actively serving within the Archdiocese of Melbourne showed that 55 per cent of priests were born overseas — 35% were born in Vietnam, 34% born in India, 13% in the Philippines, 8% in Africa, 7% in Malta, 6% in Poland, and 4% in Italy.

Melbourne has been graced and continues to be graced by God through migration,’ Prof. Cahill said.

‘Its migration profile has evolved since WWII into one of the world’s most diverse Archdioceses – a microcosm of the global village, a laboratory for the worlds’ many languages and a showcase of multicultural and interfaith harmony.’

Top 10 Birthplaces of Catholics Born Overseas, now living in Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne*

  • Italy: 56,353
  • Philippines: 32,146
  • United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland): 20,089
  • India: 19,396
  • Vietnam: 15,518
  • Malta: 14,938
  • Croatia and other Former Yugoslavia: 14,633
  • Ireland: 10,367
  • Sri Lanka: 10,740
  • New Zealand: 9,785

*based on the 2016 Census

Over the coming months, Melbourne Catholic will be highlighting specific migrant communities to celebrate the rich tapestry of faith life in the Archdiocese.