Sarah and James Scullin: parishioners of St Christopher’s, Canberra
It has been noted that by the late 1940s when it was just 20 years old the parish of St Christopher’s Canberra could claim to have had four Prime Ministers among its parishioners – James Scullin, Joseph Lyons, Francis Forde and Ben Chifley.
The first of these, James Scullin – the first Catholic to rise to the position of Prime Minister – became leader of the Australian Labor Party (and Federal Opposition Leader) in April 1928, less than 12 months after Federal Parliament had commenced sitting in Canberra, and a just a handful of weeks after St Christopher’s Parish was established. It was following a general election held in October 1929 that, with the ALP victorious, he became Prime Minister.
History has recorded that Scullin’s time in office – from October 1929 until December 1931 – was beset with difficulty. The effects of the Great Depression were crippling the nation as the economy stalled, businesses struggled and unemployment rose. As Scullin’s government worked to find remedies it has to face mounting overseas debt, a hostile Senate and, eventually, multiple splits in the governing ALP. His government was defeated in a December 1931 election. With troubling health issues he resigned as party leader in 1935, but remained in Parliament until 1949.
A second side to this story is that of James Scullin and his wife Sarah as parishioners of St Christophers.
Originally from the Ballarat region of Victoria, where they married in 1908, the Scullins had lived in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond from the early 1920s when James entered the Commonwealth Parliament representing the seat of Yarra. With the Parliament relocating to Canberra and James rising to leadership positions in his party, he was required to spend increasing amounts of time in Canberra. Unlike many of the parliamentary wives of the time Sarah chose to accompany her husband for the periods he was in Canberra. The Scullins did not have children.
As early as May 1928 the St Christopher’s parish newspaper, The Angelus, refers to the Scullins as being ‘in the number of our parishioners’. Where the majority of politicians would depart Canberra at the end of the parliamentary sitting week, the Scullins would remain for the weekends, and thus became regular attendees at Sunday mass at St Christopher’s church-school. The Scullin name appears among the ‘Monthly Collection lists’ published by The Angelus.
It should be noted that at no time did the Scullins live in the Prime Minister’s Lodge. As a cost saving measure in difficult times they chose to ‘mothball’ the official residence and live more economically in their rooms at the Hotel Canberra, where many of the out-of-town politicians stayed.
The Angelus contains a number of reports of James Scullin opening parish bazaars, speaking at the laying of the foundation stone on ‘Cathedral Hill’, visiting the children at St Christopher’s School, and attending parish balls and St Patrick’s Day concerts, but it is Sarah Scullin who is regularly noted as being involved in the organisation of parish events. In those early years parish events occurred regularly, both as fundraisers but also as initiatives to build a sense of parish community. Sarah was chair of the parish ball committee in 1930 and 1931, and the host of bridge parties and ladies’ afternoon teas. On some occasions these were hosted at the Hotel Canberra, but on others the St Christopher’s School was used.
With the opening of the parish presbytery in November 1931 – now the Archbishop’s House – Sarah was given the appointment of parish hostess by parish priest Fr Patrick Haydon. She led the team of ladies who provided the catering at the building’s opening. Under this title Sarah also had responsibility for hosting arrangements during visits by the Apostolic Nuncio or other visiting Archbishops/Bishops. She also hosted the wives of Catholic diplomats representing their countries in Australia on their arrival in Canberra.
James Scullin’s health deteriorated after the end of his Prime Ministership, and after collapsing while attending mass in the parish church in his Melbourne electorate, he stepped aside from the ALP leadership. Not deterred by this Sarah remained as parish hostess, and did not step down until 1945.
Expressing appreciation for the contribution made by the Scullins, The Angelus in August 1935 gives the following tribute:
St Christopher’s, Canberra has god reason to be grateful to Mr and Mrs Scullin. They nursed the little church-school and convent during the early years of 1928–1931. The many functions organised by Mrs Scullin and patronised by them both will never be forgotten.