It was a joyous occasion for Good Samaritan Sister Gemma Cahill when she gathered with family and friends recently to unveil a plaque in honour of her father’s commitment to the construction of the Sydney Opera House.
In 1956, despite internal party opposition, NSW Premier, John Joseph Cahill, commissioned the construction of the Sydney Opera House and launched an international competition to elicit architectural designs.
Gemma said the May 10 ceremony at the Opera House forecourt, which involved about 40 members of her family, as well as Jan Utzon, son of Opera House architect, Jorn Utzon, brought a great sense of pride, wonder, gratitude and joy.
Gemma doesn’t recall her father talking about his ideas for the Opera House because by that stage she had left home to join the Good Samaritan Sisters.
Quoting from Peter Golding’s biography of Joe Cahill, They Called Him Old Smoothie, she said her father’s “vision was that NSW, and indeed Australia, needed a great symbol and cultural centre to help develop and mould a better, more enlightened community housed in a building that would be a credit to the state for hundreds of years”.
According to Gemma, her father never intended the Opera House to be only the domain of “ladies in furs” or the “silvertails”, “even though at that stage they were probably the main people going to concerts and operas”. Rather, his wish was for it to be a building accessible for the average person.
While Joe Cahill was an instrumental figure in making the Opera House a reality, he is rarely remembered for that role and never saw the Opera House completed.
Cahill, who began his education with the Good Samaritan Sisters at St Brigid’s in Marrickville, is better known for his role in minimising the damage caused by the split in the NSW Labor Party during the 1950s, and for important infrastructure development, including the State Dockyard in Newcastle, the State Brickworks, and the Electricity Authority, which brought electricity to much of rural NSW.
For Gemma Cahill SGS, her father’s “whole life was a very formative influence”. She said he was always interested in people, the rights of workers and those less privileged.
“Social justice was definitely a big priority for him,” she said. God and the Church were also central.
With these influences, it is not surprising that Gemma joined a religious congregation committed to the Good News of God’s compassion and justice!