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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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