The principal co-founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Charles Gordon O’Neill, is the subject of a biography, Engineer of Charity, due for publication next year.
O’Neill’s links with the society go back to his early years in Dumbarton, Scotland, where he joined in 1851 and moved quickly through its ranks becoming president of the Superior Council for the Western District of Scotland in 1860 and a member of the Society’s Council General in Paris.
In 1863 he briefly served as president of the Superior Council of Glasgow before leaving for Otago, New Zealand.
O’Neill’s talent and drive were quickly recognised in colonial New Zealand, as district engineer and surveyor for the Otago Provincial Government. He became a parliamentarian in 1866 and represented the Goldfields, Otago, and then the Thames Goldfields. He moved to Wellington in 1875 as colonial engineer and worked with a private engineering team building the first steam tramway in the southern hemisphere.
In 1876 O’Neill founded a Conference of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Wellington, built churches and helped establish an orphanage in Nelson.
He was then persuaded to move to Australia to work with the Marist Fathers to re-establish a Conference of the Society in Mebourne and to set up new Conferences in Sydney and other Australian cities.
He based himself at The Rocks, Sydney, which overlooked a sea of misery, as the desperate of the empire flooded into the emerging nation from the wharves of Darling Harbour and Circular Quay.
Foul slums, lack of accommodation, whiskey, rum, opium, shanghaied sailors, filthy lanes, sickness and unemployment were a natural part of the desperation of Sydney Rocks and inner city precincts.
Within 10 years, O’Neill had established 20 conferences in the Sydney Metropolitan area.
By day he worked as a professional engineer, submitting a tender in 1885 to build two tunnels, one road, one rail, under Sydney Harbour. By night he applied his genius to the practical needs of the poor and in building the spiritual and organisational foundations of an effective charity.
After tireless years of working for the poor in Sydney and promoting the cause of the Society, Charles Gordon O’Neill died in St Vincent’s Hospital on 8 November 1900.