A PRIEST, CONVERTED
His Australian spiritual journey turned him into more of a linguist than a missionary, writes
THERE is a tombstone in North Australia that sadness seems to mantle with a particular intensity. It stands in the graveyard of the abandoned British settlement of Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula. Scorched, withered eucalypt leaves lie in drifts around its base. The bush is silent. The hot wind from the seashore blows. This is the resting place of Angelo Confalonieri, one of the first and most remarkable Catholic missionaries to make the long ocean journey south from Europe to spread the word of God. He died young, far from his alpine homeland. For more than a century and a half, he was nothing but an obscure name in the illkept annals of North Australian history. Travellers who found their way to the deserted settlement and strolled amid its stone houses used to pause when they came across Confalonieri’s grave, with the odd, misspelled word of blessing “kismit” stencilled on its cross, and wonder what twists and turns could have brought an Italian cleric to such a place, where kites hover and sea eagles soar.
Now, at last, the story is set down, in a landmark study by Italian and Australian scholars: Confalonieri has been restored to history, and returned to memory. He deserves the attention of those who come after him: he is a suggestive figure, and his traits of character are now visible through the veils of time. His temperament was “strange and original”, he had a “self-assured freshness” to go with his compassionate bearing and his polite demeanour. But in the field he was a man who defied easy categories: he was at once priest and linguist, pioneer of frontier understanding and minister of grace. He was born 200 years ago at Riva del Garda, in what was then the Austrian South Tyrol region. His background was humble but he felt a keen vocation for the priesthood, and struggled to overcome the obstacles that lay in his path. He suffered from a poor physique. He had a weak, hoarse voice which restricted his ability to preach effectively. How could such a man strengthen himself to become a missionary in the harshest corners of the world? The author of a brief biographic portrait of Confalonieri describes his resolve “to wear light clothes during the coldest weather in winter and wool and flannel during the suffocating heat of summer; during the autumn holidays, to climb up the highest mountains alone with his rifle, to withstand thirst and fatigue, to sleep out in the snow, to climb straight up four or five mountains without a break”.
Learning posed less of a problem for him: by the time he reached the College of Propaganda Fide in Rome Confalonieri was already an expert in Latin and on the way to mastery of English and French as well as the German and Italian and dialects of his own multilingual region. He soon became a favourite of the 80year-old Pope Gregory XVI, who was keen to expand the missionary enterprise of the Cath- Nagoyo: The Life of don Angelo Confalonieri Among the Aborigines of Australia 1846-1848 Edited by Stefano Girola and Rolando Pizzini Fondazione Museo Storico del Trentino, 238pp, $27.50 olic Church into Oceania. Perhaps unfortunately, the instrument the Pope chose to fulfil this design was the Irish monsignor John Brady, newly appointed as bishop of Perth. In a short, scintillating preface, Sydney man of letters Father Edmund Campion provides a brisk account of this strange figure and his role in the tale. “Bishop Brady was a fantasist who had told Roman authorities there were millions of Aborigines waiting to be converted in the west. On the lookout for recruits to his diocese, he swiftly attached Confalonieri to his retinue that included priests, nuns, seminarians and lay catechists. Who would feed them all? The bishop had told the nuns there were 4000 children needing education but when they opened a school only six pupils turned up. There were fewer than 300 Catholics in the whole western side of the continent, so the newcomers often went hungry.”
Clearly there was a need for some strategic redeployment of personnel. Confalonieri was dispatched from Perth to Sydney with two catechists, there to board a ship for remote Port Essington, a most unlikely place for missionary activity. Confalonieri began making preparations but things started to go wrong. The bank draft for 60 Brady had given him proved to be invalid. He was broke: he had no other means of support. A friendly priest stepped in with bridging funds. Off the team sailed, in early April