The Brotherhood of St Laurence is a non-government, community-based organisation concerned with social justice. Based in Melbourne, it is working for a better deal for disadvantaged people and provides important services for people who need them most.
The Brotherhood of St Laurence was named after St Laurence, the patron saint of the poor. Laurence lived in Rome at the time of Pope Sixtus (AD 258–276). He was one of seven deacons appointed by the Christian church in Rome, responsible for collecting donations and distributing them to people in need.
Under the Emperor Valerian, the church came under attack. Laurence was ordered by the Prefect of Rome to hand over the church’s treasures. He assembled the poor of the city, among whom he had shared the church’s possessions. Then he presented them to the Prefect, saying, 'These are the treasures of the church'.
For this action he was punished by being slowly roasted to death on a gridiron. He is one of the most famous Christian martyrs.
How the Brotherhood began
The Brotherhood of St Laurence was founded on 8 December 1930 in the Anglican parish church of St Stephen in Adamstown, a working class suburb of Newcastle. Its founder, Father Gerard Kennedy Tucker, dreamed of building a dedicated group of like-minded men who would serve the church and the community.
The Brotherhood was established as a religious order of the Anglican Church, with members including priests and lay brothers.
In 1933 the Brotherhood of St Laurence accepted the invitation of Canon Maynard of St Peter’s Church Eastern Hill (who gained the approval of the Archbishop of Melbourne), and moved to St Mary's Mission in Fitzroy to help the poor in that neighbourhood. Young men who wished to serve others in the name of Christ came together as a community at St Mary’s and attended lectures at St Peter’s. They lived simply, studied, prayed and helped with social welfare activities.
At the height of the Great Depression, when some 30 per cent of the workforce were without jobs, the Brotherhood became more actively involved in helping the unemployed. Several hostels were set up to provide accommodation for homeless unemployed men and boys; and a settlement at Carrum Downs gave some men and their families simple shelter and a place to produce some of their own food.
After the 1939–45 War, much to Father Tucker’s disappointment, there was little interest in expanding the Brotherhood as a religious order. The last new member was admitted in 1944 and from 1947 till his death in 1974, Father Tucker himself was the sole remaining member.
While the religious order did not survive, the welfare work of the Brotherhood continued and expanded under Father Tucker’s leadership. In 1971, the Brotherhood of St Laurence was incorporated by a Victorian Act of Parliament.
How the Brotherhood’s work developed
Father Tucker believed in putting his Christian faith into action by campaigning for justice and social reform.
As early as 1943 the Brotherhood employed a social research officer to investigate the causes of poverty. Father Tucker used dramatic films to show others the awful living conditions of poor families. On two occasions, he and others staged sit-ins to protest against unfair laws for tenants and landlords. The Brotherhood played a key role in abolishing the unhealthy slums of inner-suburban Melbourne.
Many of Father Tucker’s ideas were ahead of their time and were later adopted by the community. He developed programs such as free milk for school children and senior citizens’ centres, beginning with the Coolibah Club in Fitzroy. After World War II, the land at Carrum Downs was gradually redeveloped as a village for the aged.
In the 1950s the Donated Goods division was established and more opportunity shops were opened, so large volumes of clothing and furniture could be recycled to help people in need. New services, including legal aid and family planning, were offered for people on low incomes. The Food for Peace campaign grew into Community Aid Abroad, extending Australians' concern to people overseas, which today is known as Oxfam Australia, a leading aid and international development agency.
The Brotherhood’s reputation for social research and policy advice grew, through publications about housing and other social issues. An important development in the 1970s was the Family Centre Project, which aimed to give low-income families more control over resources and decisions.
In the 1980s, the organisation took particular interest in employment and taxation, and called for increased social security benefits. The Employment Action Centre was set up to help job seekers. Services for families and older people expanded. The Promise the Children campaign in 1989 successfully drew attention to the struggles of children and families living in poverty.
In the 1990s, the Food for All emergency appeal for families in difficult circumstances led to the establishment of Foodbank Victoria. The Brotherhood’s work extended for a time to Ballarat, providing support for unemployed and young people. With sweeping changes to government employment services, the Brotherhood increased its role in helping job seekers.
At the start of the 21st century, the Brotherhood’s vision was restated as ‘Australia Free of Poverty’. A special building appeal enabled the Brotherhood to redevelop hostel and rooming-house accommodation in Fitzroy. The organisation has developed initiatives such as HIPPY (assisting parents to prepare their young children for school) and Given the Chance (a training and employment program that provides refugees with supported work experience). An important aim is for successful small-scale programs to be adopted more widely by governments and by other community organisations.
Major areas of the Brotherhood’s work include caring for older Australians, family and children’s services, assistance for job-seekers, support for refugees, undertaking research and policy development work and continuing to promote social change for a fairer, more inclusive society.
Leaders of the Brotherhood
Gerard Kennedy Tucker 1933–54
founded the Brotherhood as a religious order
pioneered social welfare activities to address poverty.
As part of Anti-Poverty Week 2014, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, together with the Fitzroy Historical Society, led a free public walk around Fitzroy, tracing the history of social justice in the area. View the map and information.