Fr Confalonieri's Legacy in the Australian Church
Stefano Girola

An avant-garde missionary to the Aborigines

On the morning of 11 June 1848, something unusual happened at Port Essington, an isolated English military outpost in the Cobourg Peninsula at the far end of northern Australia. The full contingent, soldiers and officers, gave a military tribute to the body of a 35-year-old priest who had died of his exertions and malaria two days earlier. They accompanied him to his grave "with all the respect that was due to a man so highly esteemed", Commandant MacArthur assured John Bede Polding, the first Archbishop of Sydney.

The fact that Protestant soldiers were paying homage to a Catholic missionary perhaps would have passed unobserved in Australia today.

But in the middle of the 19th century, many living in the British colony shared the views of John Dunmore Lang, the Presbyterian clergyman who held that the Pope was the anti-Christ and that the spread of the "papist superstition" in the new continent was a threat to be warded off at all costs.

Who was the man for whom anti-Catholic prejudice was set aside?

Fr Angelo Bartolomeo Confalonieri was born in Riva del Garda in June 1813 and was educated at various Capuchin institutes in the Trentino. To fulfil his vocation as a missionary among the Aborigines he had trained not only spiritually, at the Propaganda Fide's Urban College, but also physically, in the mountains of his region, undergoing extreme tests of withstanding fasting, the cold and intense heat.

It was in Rome that he met John Brady, an Irishman who was Vicar General for Western Australia, whose intention was to bring back with him to Perth a large group of European missionaries willing to help build the Church in the western and northern regions of Australia, recently colonized.

Confalonieri accepted Brady's invitation and on 15 September 1845, set out from London for the Antipodes. Barely two years before, on Stradbroke Island near Brisbane, three Italian priests and one Swiss who belonged to the Congregation of the Passion founded the first Catholic mission among the Aborigines in the east of the country.

It was then also a question of giving life to new missions in the rest of the colony, especially the areas in which contact between Europeans and Aborigines were recent or non-existent, a circumstance considered favourable for the task of evangelization.

Shortly after arriving in Perth, on 1 March 1846, Confalonieri embarked for Port Essington in the north-east of the area in which today the city of Darwin is located. He was accompanied by two young Irish catechists, James Fagan and Nicholas Hogan, with whom he was to found the mission. Since at that time there was no maritime service in Western Australia, they had to circumnavigate the entire island continent in a sailing ship, passing through Sydney. While they were crossing the Strait of Endeavour between Australia and New Guinea, the ship hit a coral reef and sank almost immediately. Although he was unable to swim, Confalonieri succeeded in saying himself by clinging to a rock with the captain. All the other passengers perished in the shipwreck, including the captain's little daughter.

The two shipwrecked men were saved the following day by a small British vessel that took them to Port Essington. It would be hard to imagine a more disastrous beginning for the new mission.

Deprived of his companions who had died tragically, Confalonieri had also lost all his possessions. Commandant MacArthur provided him with clothing and the basic necessities.

In spite of all, Confalonieri did not lose heart and camped by himself at the entrance to the bay, 14 miles from the closest European settlement. It should be remembered that in those days it was generally believed that the Aborigines of the remote north were very aggressive and practised cannibalism. Confalonieri seemed to attach no importance to this sinister reputation and indeed even obtained the help of several Aborigines in the construction of a hut

As the historian Tom Luscombe emphasized, the missionary from Trent seemed "to subscribe to a different scale of values from those followed by other men". After coming into contact with the indigenous peoples, Confalonieri made a decision that was quite unusual for the missionaries working in Australia in those times.

Instead of seeking to convince them of the benefits of a sedentary life, he chose to follow the Aborigines on the move, adopting their nomadic way of life. In this choice he was to be imitated few years later by the most famous Catholic missionary to have worked among the Aborigines, Rosendo Salvado, the founder of the Benedictine Monastery of New Norcia.

Sharing their daily life, Confalonieri soon succeeded in acquiring a good knowledge of the language of the tribal group of the Iwaidja. In addition, he drew a map of the area in which he outlined the different tribal areas with precision. Today this map is preserved at Melbourne State Library.

Mastery of the Aboriginal languages must have seemed to the priest from Trent essential for the task of evangelization. In those very years the other Italian mission at Stradbroke Island was failing, partly because of the lack of communication between the missionaries and the Aborigines.

Confalonieri set to work on a dictionary of the Iwaidja language and also translated into this idiom prayers and readings from the New Testament. In addition, he built a basic field hospital and, in treating the Aborigines during an influenza epidemic, put into practice the medical skills he had learned in Italy.

However, nomadic life, loneliness and the difficulty of adapting to a climate and diet so different from those in Europe undermined Confalonieri's physical and moral constitution. Only two years after his arrival at Port Essington, the young priest died from a fever caused by malaria.

Having learned of his condition, the English soldiers sought in vain to help him recover and, in the few lucid moments he had left, the missionary asked Commandant MacArthur to give his sister a small cross and a scapular, his only material possessions.

Reflecting on Confalonieri's experience, Georg Walter, a German missionary who lived for many years with the Aborigines of Kimberley, described in 1928 what was a crucial dilemma for many missionaries in Australia: "The basic rule for every Missionary is to adapt himself to local conditions and to the lifestyle of the people to whom he tries to bring the light of Faith. The problem with the Aborigines is that is impossible to follow their nomadic ways, they are too harsh for those who are not used to them".

As regards the evangelization of the Aborigines, it is difficult to judge the immediate results of Confalonieri's preaching. The affirmation of Cardinal Patrick Moran of Sydney in 1896, according to whom the missionary converted 400 Aborigines to Catholicism, was in all likelihood overly optimistic. But in other aspects the importance of Confalonieri's brief and dramatic Australian experience becomes increasingly clear. It is also thanks to his work that the image of missionaries as the "wreckers of traditional cultures", very popular in the past with historians and anthropologists, appears ever more inadequate.

Even lay scholars, particularly linguists, are increasingly admitting their debt to the studies made by missionaries, who were among the first to seriously undertake the study of indigenous languages, many of which have now disappeared.

Furthermore, missionary interest in this field, in addition to its cultural significance, had an ever deeper value. In Confalonieri's day, public opinion for the most part even denied the full humanity of Aborigines or considered them a curious prehistoric relic.

The decision to demonstrate the complexity and riches of Aboriginal lexical or grammatical structures was one that went against the tide, unmasking the falsity of the most widespread opinions on the indigenous peoples.

It was not by chance that almost 40 years after Confalonieri's mission the Austrian Jesuits, who continued his evangelizing work in the Northern Territory, sought to convince colonial public opinion that Aboriginal languages were as rich as the classical European ones.

Nor was it by chance that when in 1992 the Aborigines at last obtained recognition of their rights to their traditional lands, it frequently proved necessary to refer to the missionaries' maps in order to settle questions connected with tribal boundaries at tribunals which were not always willing to accept the proof of the indigenous oral memory.

For all these reasons Confalonieri's contribution has never been forgotten in northern Australia and in particular in the Diocese of Darwin, in which the inculturation of the Christian faith underwent a remarkable development. It suffices to think that in 1973 a group of Aborigines set out precisely from this diocese for the Eucharistic Congress of Melbourne which brought into being the first "Aboriginal Mass", with a liturgy adapted to the indigenous rites and symbols.

It seems that traces of Confalonieri can still be found in the oral histories of some of the indigenous peoples living in this area. He is also commemorated by a plaque on a wall in the Cathedral of Darwin, a city in which a park is dedicated to the memory of the young missionary from the Trentino.

However, the memory of Fr Confalonieri has so far been confined mainly to the Diocese of Darwin. All this could change, partly thanks to the initiative of Rolando Pizzini, a religion teacher at the Prati High School in Trent.

Following several conversations with immigrants from Trent in Australia, Pizzini came to hear of his fellow-citizen. A journey to the Cobourg Peninsula, which made quite clear the extremely tough environmental and climatic conditions that Confalonieri had had to face in solitude, convinced Pizzini that the history of the missionary from Riva del Garda deserved to be examined and recounted.

Thus, thanks to the generous support of the History Museum of Trent and the Province, the teacher succeeded in gathering a group of scholars, from both Italy and Australia who are dedicated to an ambitious research project that will lead to the publication in 2010 of a book and a documentary, dedicated to Confalonieri and to the historico-geographical context of his mission.

The intention is to present the results of this research at an important meeting, scheduled to take place in Trent in September 2010, in the presence of missionaries who are natives of Trentino and work in Asia and in Oceania.

Elena Franchi is one of the experts involved in this research, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Trent who sees Confalonieri as "a missionary who never fully subscribed to the myth of the good savage and in this sense qualified as anthropologically avant-garde".


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 October 2009, page 23

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