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Will the 'Vinnies Vatican' at Lewisham be sold?

The Society of St Vincent de Paul this week began an investigation of the possibility of selling its State headquarters, the historic Lewisham Hospital, a prime piece of real estate in Sydney's inner west.

The so called "Vinnies Vatican" has strong Catholic connections and atmosphere, and was used by ABC TV to film the series, Brides of Christ. The site was last sold in 1988, when the Little Company of Mary (the "Blue Sisters") sold it for $8 million to the St Vincent de Paul Society.

One major Sydney developer has already been approached to test market reaction to the possible sale of all or part of Ozanam Village which is named after the Society's founder, Frederic Ozanam.

Some say the sale could bring as much as forty million dollars, but there are many obstacles because much of the site is heritage listed, it contains three chapels and the hospital complex.

The investigation of a possible sale is likely to be very long with many difficulties.

Aged care facilities and nursing home on the site are not part of any possible sale.

When the nuns sold the property to the Society it was bound by a condition that it could only be sold to a Catholic organization. It is not clear whether this condition still applies.

Another problem is the site's close connection with Catholic history.

Patrick Francis Cardinal Moran, Sydney's third archbishop, 1884-1911, opened the first wing of the hospital on a rain-drenched June 9, 1889.

The first patients were blind children.

His successor, Michael Kelly, on August 21, 1924 laid the foundation stone of the Maternal Heart of Mary Chapel, one of the most beautiful ecclesiastical buildings in Sydney whose large barrel vault creates one of the finest acoustics to be found. In more recent times it has been used for traditional Latin Masses with Gregorian chant. The chapel was consecrated on December 5, 1935.

There are also memories of Mother Xavier Lynch, Provincial Superior of the LCM, 'always an immaculately robed and imposing figure as she glided along the corridors.'

The LCM congregation - also known as the Blue Sisters - was founded by Mary Potter in England in 1877, and has always specialised in health care. Many of its hospitals take the name Calvary. Since they closed the large Lewisham Hospital their health service has since focused on the acquisition of smaller private hospitals and aged care facilities.

The 'Blue Sisters', who began their work in Australia in 1885, sold the building to the Society when the New South Wales government indicated that it did not wish to continue to support the hospital, which was in need of much maintenance.

Previously the Society was located in Young Street, near Circular Quay.

There, Society executives and staff frequently came into contact with poor people. The Matthew Talbot Hostel for Homeless Men was first located there. The Society's bookshop and adjacent Marist Chapel also meant much interaction with the public and close links with the Marist Fathers who have been strong supporters of the Society since the Founder, Charles Gordon O'Neill arrived in the Colony and began to encourage charitable works in The Rocks.

The Young Street premises were donated without charge to the New South Wales State Council of the Society in the mid-1980s by the national council headed by Eric Ellem.

The NSW State president of the Society, Vince Pedemont, now a retired priest, was the prime mover in the decision to sell Young Street property for twelve million dollars and to buy the old Lewisham Hospital in 1988 for eight million dollars.

The move was strongly opposed by the then national council president Rupe Hudson, national president from 1986 to 1991, who said that the money should be 'spent on the poor, not on property'. He said that the purchase would remove the Society into a fortress mentality away from poor people who were the Society's true treasure. Money would be spent on buildings and their maintenance rather than on needy people.

Hudson claims that the purchase only went through because Pedemont gained votes from regional leaders of the Society rather than in the city.

The State Council switch to Lewisham rendered Hudson and his national council homeless and it had to find emergency accommodation in the city.

The national council had voted to stay in the city and acquire property there where homeless and poor interant poor people were seeking refuge.

However, it was refused any proceeds from the twelve million dollars from the sale of the Young Street property.

A donation from a philanthropist eventually enabled the national council to rent premises in a rundown property in Oxford Street, Darlinghurst.

After the deposing of Hudson's successor, Brian Murnane, national president 1991 to 1994, by secessionist state presidents in 1994, both NSW and national headquarters became centred on Lewisham to make it a 'Vinnies Vatican'.

Hudson has remained a constant critic of the purchase of the Lewisham property.

'It should be sold immediately and the money used for the poor,' Hudson said this week.

Despite the interest of developers, the Society has said nothing about its investigation of a possible sale.

But there is growing anxiety about the increasing maintenance costs of the old buildings at Lewisham and the drain on funds for poor people through the State.

Further information:

  • St Vincent de Paul Society, Australia
  • St Vincent de Paul NSW
  • Blessed Frederic Ozanam

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