Celebrating 100 years of Relief Society in Victoria, Australia

Celebrating 100 years of Relief Society in Victoria, Australia
Sister Emma Galloway (far right), with her pram full of food and drink, feeding the men at the East Melbourne chapel building site in 1922. Arthur Butler (8th from the left) is in the middle.

By Margot Butler & Dianne Davenport

It has been 100 years since the first Relief Society meeting was conducted in Victoria, Australia – on the 5th July 1921 at the missionaries’ home at 21 Ramsden Street Collingwood. The events of 1921 to 1923 were significant for establishing a church community in Victoria.

Up until the year 1900, converts of the Church in Victoria were generally migrating to Utah, either as a branch, as family groups, or with missionaries who had baptized them. Church leaders encouraged converts to remain in their homelands from 1898, but migration continued since the lure of temple ordinances, church community and lifestyle opportunity in America was compelling.

However, the seeds for change were being sown starting in 1902. Several sisters were baptized about this time who remained in their homes in Victoria and who were to be instrumental in building a community from which the Church in Melbourne would grow. Let us begin with the story of one of these sisters, the main character in this period – Sister Emma Watts Galloway.

Emma’s question to the missionaries focused on the preaching of the gospel to those who had died, especially her mother, and the availability of ordinances to these deceased folk. Emma was converted to the doctrine of the eternal family, including the binding of generations beyond the veil.

Emma opened her home for Sunday meetings and to people who wanted to meet the missionaries. After church, she and another Relief Society sister, Sister Milne fed those who attended. Elsie Davidson recalled that she met the missionaries at Sister Galloway’s home in 1912, before being baptized later that year. This feeling of sisterhood and serving others was evident.

Then came World War One. Sisters spent their energies preparing parcels to send to the troops at the front in Europe and in the Middle East. The horrors of war fell upon almost every family where a brother, a son, or a grandson had been killed. Sisters were re-energized to support each other. Not everyone had a telephone, so sisters looked forward to Sunday meetings not only for religious renewal, but also for social needs and personal uplift.

American missionaries had been called home after the United States entered the war. By the end of the war in 1918, there were two missionaries in the whole of Victoria keeping the small congregations together and preaching the gospel. The Federal Government had also kept a quota on the number of missionaries allowed into the country. In 1919, the president of the Victorian Conference (District), Elder Calvin B. Robbins’, first thought was to arrange for more missionaries to be allowed back into the country. He went to the official whose permission was necessary for this to happen. Although the Australian mission headquarters was located in Sydney, the Australian Federal Government and its public service were located in Melbourne.

Elder Robbins sat day by day at the official’s office, patiently waiting, but without success. Finally, one day as he left, the secretary, feeling sorry for him, told him the official was of the Catholic faith and would never see him. Elder Robbins thanked her and said he would see her the next day.

When he got home, a letter was waiting from his mother telling him of the death of President Joseph F. Smith. It included a newspaper photo of the cortege going up to South Temple Street to the Salt Lake cemetery, past the Cathedral of the Madeline. Standing in front of the cathedral stood a line of Catholic priests and nuns in quiet respect.

The next morning the secretary welcomed Elder Robbins and with some surprise announced that her boss would see him. She had been right about her boss’s attitude. He felt that bringing missionaries of a church with teachings and lifestyles so different from the accepted religions of the community would cause trouble and dissension. Elder Robbins replied that the Church teaches love and brotherhood and that there is no dissension between The Church of Jesus Christ and the Catholic church at home. From his pocket, he then displayed the newspaper clipping sent by his mother showing the Catholic leaders' respectful attitude towards the president of the Church. What could the official say? Elder Robbins exited the office with the authorization for more missionaries, but the government approval also stipulated that converts no longer be encouraged to leave Australia.

Elder Robbins’ experience illustrated the suspicion toward the Church that existed within Australian society and government. This was blatantly obvious in the context of marriage licenses. For a marriage license to be issued to a church, official requirements were sufficient adherents and a place of worship. Church leaders had been unable to secure marriage licenses as the community fear was that the Church would practice polygamous marriages if licensed.

The way forward for the Church in Victoria was to both build a chapel and win the confidence of the public and government officials. In late 1919, Elder Robins organized a concert with the proceeds going toward building a chapel. By 14 December 1919, a fundraising chapel building committee had been formed, including local members Ray Kneale, Ernest Burness, and Arthur Butler.

The cost of building a chapel was well beyond the means of local members. Upon his return to America, Elder Robbins sought donations from former missionaries and members who had migrated to America. It was also clear that church financial support would be needed. Elder Robbins, together with another missionary, Elder Clarence Tingey, met with members of the First Presidency. After reporting on the circumstances of the Church in Australia, the returning missionaries said that the Church was strong enough for members to meet in their own chapels. At that time, the Church was not building much in foreign lands. Elder Tingey recalled that President Grant asked them how much they would need for a building and then agreed to the funding. In return, church leaders asked local members to provide the labor, buy the land and purchase a house for the missionaries to live in.

By early 1921, the building committee included the president of the Australian Mission, Don Carlos Rushton. The first project with church funding for Australia was the East Melbourne chapel. The building at the site commenced in May 1922 and was dedicated on 13 August 1922. Chapels were then built with church funding support in the other capital cities. Church leaders showed further support for members in Australia, with Elder David O McKay visiting Australian missions and church schools on his world trip in 1921. 

An important recognition in preparing for the building project was about the focus of the few missionaries and men of the branch. The Victorian Conference leadership was strengthened with the calling of 68-year-old President Arnold Miller and his wife, who had just been released as the Australian Mission President. President Arnold’s decision in mid-1921 to organise the Relief Society under priesthood direction enabled the sisters to more effectively organize themselves to care for the needs of families, assist the workforce on the chapel building site, and raise funds. The minutes of the first meeting of the Relief Society stated the goals were to give “help for the poor and needy; visiting the sick; the organisation of a working-class; and spiritual study.” By 1923 there were 22 sisters enrolled in the Melbourne branch Relief Society.

First Meeting place
21 Ramsden Street, Clifton Hill – the home where the sisters of the Melbourne Branch Relief Society first met on 15th July 1921.

The blessing of Relief Society is more than a capacity to assist a branch or ward. Lucy Mack Smith counseled the sisters on their relationship with each other. She said, “We must cherish one another, comfort one another, and gain instruction, that we may all sit down in heaven together.”

Relief Society does this by:

(1) preparing women for the blessings of eternal life… as they increase their faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and His atonement;

(2) strengthening individuals, families and homes through ordinances and covenants, and

(3) working in unity to help those in need.”

Historically, the Relief Society organisation in the Australian Mission was presided over by the wife of the Australian Mission President. A local Relief Society organisation, presided over by local sisters had been organised in Brisbane in 1898. The monthly Relief Society Magazine published by the general Relief Society Presidency had begun in 1915, and in 1916 visiting teachers had begun discussing a gospel message with sisters each month.

The members of the first Melbourne branch Relief Society presidency were: Edith Willsea (president), a single 52-year-old spinster whose father Henry Willsea, the son of a gentleman, had been baptized at Melbourne in 1904, at the age of 71. After his death, Edith was baptized in 1914. Edith was described as a “gracious lady who had a placid manner and who never raised her voice.”

When Elder Arnold Miller’s wife fell ill, Edith emigrated to the US in 1922 to care for her. After sister Miller died, Edith married Arnold Miller in Salt Lake City in 1923.

Hannah Elizabeth Croskell Griggs (first counselor) was married when she was baptized in 1908. She lived in Richmond. She and Sister Edith Willsea were close friends of similar age. Sister Griggs became the second president of the Melbourne Branch Relief Society when Edith emigrated, serving from 1922 to 1926. Hannah Griggs was a great worker for the Church and for the ladies in Relief Society. She would buy rolls of cloth at a time and make ladies' dresses and underclothes, pants, nighties, and petticoats out of flannelette and sell the lot. She was a very clever woman with the machine and her needle. She smocked children’s dresses and boys' shirts. She was a great battler for the fledgling Church in East Melbourne.

Emma Hayle (second counselor) was baptized in 1920.

Blanche Cayley (secretary) was baptized in 1920 aged 46. She had been widowed for 10 years. She was the mother of 11 children and raised her family in Ballarat. Her eldest son, John Thomas Caley, who was born in 1893 was baptized in 1917 (ae 24yrs) and later migrated to Utah, where he received his endowment in 1922 and was married in 1930.

The sisters collectively stitched clothing and made hand-made articles as part of their fundraising. Fundraising was not an easy task. Many sisters struggled quietly along, some having no husband in the Church to pay tithes or offerings towards the building program. Contributions they gave would have been earned through their wise housekeeping, sacrifice, and by donating their labor and time.

When the chapel was being built, Relief Society sisters assisted at the building site by feeding the missionaries. Emma Galloway visited the site regularly with her pram filled with food and drink. At the age of 73, she and the pram would ride the tram and walk from her home, a return trip of 7 miles. Sister Elsie Davidson Hadden’s husband, not then a member, made the baptismal font of the chapel out of beaten copper.

Laying the stone
Laying the Foundation stone for the East Melbourne chapel 13 May 1922.

The chapel construction at 52 Albert Street, East Melbourne, commenced in May 1922, with the laying of the foundation stone, and was dedicated on 13 August 1922. It was a red brick building with a series of columns, of which two were large and two were smaller. When you entered the building, you were faced with a partition wall and then would walk straight into the chapel. The building was designed to seat 200 persons. Due to a lack of space, the baptismal font was placed under the rostrum. The cover of the font was removable and when required, the font had to be filled by carrying hot and cold water from the mission home located next door. Later the font would be filled with a hose. After the Baptismal service, the flooring covering would be replaced so that the rostrum area could be used again. There was no heating or cooling. 

East Melbourne Chapel
The East Melbourne chapel was dedicated 13 August 1922

The dedication of the East Melbourne chapel together with the sizeable congregation qualified the Church for a Victorian marriage license. In 1922 and 1923, the Victorian parliament debated an amendment of the Marriage Act. Later on 25th September 1923, the Victorian government officially recognised the Church for the purposes of the marriage act, thereby granting them a marriage license. A widowed missionary, Elder Joseph Baxter Gunnell, was registered on 1st October 1923, as the first church marriage celebrant. The first marriage was officiated in the East Melbourne chapel on 20th October 1923.

The Government's recognition of the Church caused some public uproar. The Victorian Attorney-General defended the government’s action by clarifying that the Victorian marriage act defended monogamy and that a religious organisation with sufficient members and a fixed place of worship satisfied the legal requirements of a marriage license. Queensland followed suit in 1924, and Tasmania and Western Australia followed shortly after their chapels had been built.

By 1923, the sisters of the Relief Society in the Melbourne Branch could meet in their own chapel, be married by their own celebrant, hold functions, workdays, and plays, host lunches, and generally meet and be together. These were the happy times where sisters could strengthen and feel strengthened. The urge to emigrate had receded.


About the authors

Margot Butler, an educator served on general boards of the Church. Her father Arthur Butler served on the East Melbourne building committee in 1919, and laboured on the East Melbourne chapel. Arthur Butler later served as President of the Victorian district, and Acting President of the Australian mission (1945). Margot’s mother Edith Gladys Butler served as the third Relief Society President in the Melbourne branch (1927-29), and later as Acting President of the Relief Society in Australia (1945).

Dianne Davenport, a church history specialist, has served as a ward relief society president. Her grandmother Elsie Davidson Hadden served as the seventh Relief Society president (1937-38)

We wish to acknowledge the assistance of:

Kay Le Vannais whose grandfather Ray Kneale served as the first President of the Melbourne branch, and her grandmother Elsie Kneale who served as the fifth President of the Melbourne Relief Society (1933-35). Kay served as a ward Relief Society President.

Linda Hutchinson whose daughters are great great granddaughters of Hannah Elizabeth Croskell Griggs, a counsellor in the first Victorian Relief Society Presidency (1921-2) and second President (1922-26). Linda complied oral histories and photos regarding the historic development of Relief Society in Victoria.