Saturday, February 24, 2024  

John was one of the Catholic priests who worked with Ted Kennedy in the early days of the Block. That story is still to come; here he reminisces about the setting up of South Sydney Community Aid and some of their early inititiatives, and community action that created Douglas Street People's Park.


               SOUTH SYDNEY COMMUNITY AID    ------   some memories


Glancing through the May edition of ‘The South Sydney Herald ‘ and experiencing a bout of nostalgia after attending the farewell to Edna Turvey at the Raglan Street Church I happened upon ‘ The South Sydney Community Aid Story’ and felt moved to share a few personal memories of my experiences of SSCA and St Luke’s Community Centre during the 1970’s. However as these are recollections from 30 years ago I can’t vouch for their total accuracy, and we all remember the past from our different perspectives.


My first experience of life in South Sydney was in 1967 as a young Catholic priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Waterloo. During that year I formed an association with local Church ministers Dean Eland (Congregational) and Ron Denham (Presbyterian) who were part of the, at that time experimental, Inner Sydney Uniting Church parish and whose responsibility included the Raglan Street Church and St Luke’s in Regent St. At that time Dean and Ron were working towards the setting up of a local community welfare organisation, which was to become South Sydney Community Aid.


I was moved from the area in 1968 and returned in 1972 as one of the team of priests at St Vincent’s Church Redfern, and in that year joined the committee of South Sydney Community Aid. I remained involved for the rest of the 1970s, including a period as secretary from 1975-77. When I joined in 1972 SSCA was located in shop-front premises in Regent St which we shared with the Aboriginal Legal Service (the Aboriginal Medical Service was situated across the road).  The Aboriginal Legal Service grew out of and continued to be supported by SSCA.  The move to St Luke’s occurred at a later date. At that stage Dean Eland was the Secretary, Ron Denham the Treasurer, and South Sydney councilor Mick Ibbett was President. Those were turbulent and exciting years in South Sydney and SSCA was in the thick of it. In fact it was a pioneering organisation leading the way in the community welfare field.


We had a strained relationship with South Sydney Council which for a time suspended its annual $6000 grant because of conflicts we had with them over significant local matters:

-     their poor approach to local Aboriginal issues such as the excessive policing of the Empress Hotel,

-     the problems they caused for the Aboriginal Medical Service,

-     their unhelpful response to the situation of the homeless people being accommodated at St Vincent’s Church and to the Aboriginal Housing Project (the Block) which was developed in response to that situation.


We were also critical of the Council’s support for the Housing Commission’s plans to demolish Waterloo for high rise development, a fight which was won by the South Sydney Action Group, involving Marg & Marsha Barry, Peter Bradley and many others, with community and union (Green Bans) support. And members of SSCA were heavily involved in an extended campaign to democratise the closed, secretive, monocultural, all-male, one-party South Sydney Council.


There were many wonderful people associated with SSCA in those days including among the staff: Martin Mowbray, social worker and leading catalyst for local community development and political change and also the chronicler of local campaigns in ‘The South Sydney Observer’; migrant worker Vivi Koutsounadis, who was also a driving force in the development of the Addison Rd Community Centre and also Newtown Neighbourhood Centre; the Aboriginal project officers Dick Blair and later Richard Pacey, Miles Lalor and Sue Chilli; other workers Poppy Venardos and Trish McDonnell; dedicated volunteers like Kim Pavlovich; and the tireless Vivienne Abraham who generously and very patiently gave of her time and energy to carry out the long tedious process of incorporation; Martin Tuck, Convenor of the Quakers Race Relations Committee and the Donald Groom Centre in Chalmers St and also an activist SSCA board member. And there were many, many more.


The agency initiated many innovative projects:  the South Sydney Festival; the Tenants Rights Project energetically pursued by Robert Mowbray; environmental projects and information broadsheets developed by Colin James, Fred Turvey and the Environment Committee. We worked with and supported other local groups, Churches, and agencies; such as The Good Neighbour Council and Margaret Hellman based at that stage in a shop-front in Brown St, Newtown; Redfern House in Pitt St whose community worker, John Horne was largely responsible for establishing the South Sydney Australian Assistance Plan group. And there is much, much more. Too much to delve into for this brief recollection.


To conclude on a personal note. St Luke’s Community Centre holds special memories as it was the venue for the wonderful community celebration, featuring Fred Turvey on the accordion ( see accompanying photograph) and the Douglas St kids playing guitars on the occasion of my marriage in 1977 to Julie Spies, another of the resident activists of that time and also an SSCA board member. Julie initiated and coordinated the takeover of unused land owned by Rachel Forster Hospital to establish the Douglas Street Peoples’ Park in 1975.


Julie and I no longer live in South Sydney but the family association has been revived in recent years as our son, Ben, now lives in the area and continues the family resident activist tradition.


John Butcher, June 2004




‘The residents of Redfern win a battle  -----  and a park’. This was the headline of an article in ‘The National Times’ April 7-12, 1975 which described how ‘on February 22 the Press and the television cameras arrived to record the ‘Douglas Street takeover,’ the moment when a plot of vacant land owned by Rachel Forster Hospital was changed from a fenced off, unused derelict and rubbish strewn area to the ‘Douglas Street Peoples’ Park’ by the residents themselves. The kids – 85 of them, Aborigines, Greeks, Lebanese and a smattering of other nationalities – thought it was Christmas.’


The process was initiated and coordinated by Julie Spies, a resident of the street, aided by her housemates Marie McPherson and John Butcher. Julie and Marie had been conducting kids activities in their house and organising street parties and outings for some time. But our house was small and the street (behind South Sydney Leagues Club) was very short and very narrow. There was an empty house and a vacant block of land fenced off and unused directly opposite our house (no. 29). The property was owned by Rachel Forster Hospital and in August 1974 Julie and Marie initiated negotiations with the General Superintendent of the Hospital, Dr Clift,  for the use of the house and the land (unused for at least 40 years) for the residents of the street.


There followed months of negotiations between residents, including a petition signed by every householder in Douglas Street,  the hospital board and superintendent and South Sydney Council. The residents were strongly supported in the negotiation process by the recently established South Sydney Australian Assistance Plan group (AAP) and its coordinator, John Horne who wrote numerous letters on our behalf. Although the Council was somewhat sympathetic the Hospital authorities eventually ruled out any use of the land for recreational purposes.


With all avenues exhausted, at the suggestion of Martin Mowbray, social worker at South Sydney Community Aid, the decision was made to set a date to actually physically pull down the fence and take over the land, and with a massive working bee to transform the land and to demonstrate what it was possible to achieve with strong community support and, using donated equipment, at comparatively little cost.


Plans were drawn by architecture student Dick Jermyn who together with Julie solicited from local firms donations of necessary material—timber, bolts & nails, sand & cement, wheelbarrows, and garden & building tools. A detailed broadsheet outlining developments and plans was produced and distributed in the area. The AAP group provided funds for a film of the Takeover and subsequent work on the site. Supporters rallied from near and far.


The Takeover was successful, the locals were enthusiastic, the kids were ecstatic; everybody in the street joined in the work bees and barbecues and a real adventure playground was constructed. And the mass of publicity, and demonstrations by parents and their children outside the hospital, finally convinced the Hospital Board to lease the land to South Sydney Council. The Council fenced off the land, cleared away the constructions which we had created and put an end to the active community involvement in the project. After a lengthy delay and at much greater expense they eventually  produced a smaller park and playground on the site. That park, still called the Douglas Street Peoples Park, remains today 30 years after the original project was set in motion. The Council (more enlightened than its predecessor) has recently erected a sign paying tribute to the local community initiative which led to its establishment.


John Butcher, June 2004

    2 February 2021  

remembering Fr John Butcher, 1974 | LesMiller ARW

John Butcher.bmp
Father Butcher walks
away from Long Bay

from newspaper article
Priest to keep
battling council

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