A PRIEST, CON­VERTED

His Aus­tralian spir­i­tual jour­ney turned him into more of a lin­guist than a mis­sion­ary, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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