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The Macquarie dictionary definition - 'adherence or excessive devotion to a particular sect, especially in religion' - hardly conveys the intensity, over more than a century in Melbourne, of the Protestant-Catholic animus imported from England, Scotland and Ireland at the beginning of European settlement.

Although the sectarian violence that marked the 1840s primarily reflected divisions within the immigrant Irish community, the ill-feeling became apparent at the highest levels of society in 1847, when Anglican bishop Charles Perry declined the offer of friendship from incoming Catholic bishop James Alipius Goold and denied his right to be called 'Bishop of Melbourne'. To the evangelical Perry, the Catholic Church was 'apostate and idolatrous' and its members victims of 'satanic delusion'. In an intemperate attack, Congregationalist John Pascoe Fawkner, founder of Collins Street Independent Church (now St Michael's), denounced convents as prisons for innocent girls and places of misconduct by clergy. The Melbourne Age and Argus were also blatantly anti-Catholic. Their invective was reciprocated; Catholic newspapers were equally offensive. Protestants responded to the rise of Catholics John O'Shanassy and Charles Gavan Duffy to be colonial premiers by founding, in 1863, the Australasian Reform Association 'to unite Protestants of all denominations, for the purpose of securing such political reforms as may be considered necessary for the prosperity of the colony'.

These divisions were accentuated by the Catholic Church's decision to maintain a separate school system, staffed by members of imported religious orders, after the withdrawal of State aid in 1872. If this decision was seen by Protestants as evidence of Catholic militancy, they were not without their own; the Loyal Orange Lodge, Protestant Federation and Freemasonry all helped hold the Protestant fort well into this century, controlling access to employment in both public and private workplaces. In a city where 'nondenominational' came increasingly to mean Protestant, Catholics struggled in philanthropy as well as education to protect their poorer members from proselytism. Schoolyard lore bristled with cruel rhymes used by children on both sides of the sectarian divide to deride each other. With the sectarian divide often reflecting differences in class and ethnic origins, adults grew up in social worlds constructed by religious allegiances.

Increasingly associated with a gospel of respectability, which their opponents labelled as wowserism, Protestants saw their prejudices personified in John Wren, proprietor of the Collingwood Tote, believed to occupy a position of influence in criminal, Australian Labor Party (ALP) and Catholic circles. Their doubts about Catholic loyalty intensified when, in the wake of the 1916 Irish uprising, Daniel Mannix, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne from 1913 to 1963, led the successful 'No' campaign during the conscription referendums. The imprimatur given by Mannix to the anti-communist activities of B.A. Santamaria's Catholic Action, which resulted in the split of the ALP in 1954, further confirmed these suspicions.

Yet, with the decline of religion in the postwar period, sectarianism was losing its power. In 1964, the year after Mannix's death, St Patrick's Day parades ended. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) brought dramatic change to an increasingly diverse Catholic community. Meanwhile mainstream Protestant churches were also moving to transcend the old divisions. In a city in which the symbolic links between churches are marked in the two major cathedrals, the divisions between progressives and conservatives within denominations run far deeper than those along the older sectarian lines.

John Bodycomb

Hogan, Michael, The sectarian strand: religion in Australian history, Penguin Books, Melbourne, 1987. Details
Pawsey, Margaret M., The popish plot: culture clashes in Victoria 1860-1863, Catholic Theological Faculty, St Patrick's College, Sydney, 1983. Details