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Northern Australia’s first missionary priest remembered 170 years later

Fr Angelo Confalonieri

Pioneering priest: An image of Fr Angelo Confalonieri, the first missionary priest in Northern Australia.

AT the long-abandoned British settlement in Northern Australia, a crumbling grave vault marks the resting place of an extraordinary pioneering Catholic missionary.

The largely forgotten story of Father Angelo Confalonieri has come alive, after the Consulate of Italy for Queensland and the Northern Territory and the Diocese of Darwin hosted a symposium on July 12 to commemorate his life, and, at the same time publicise a plan to build a memorial to mark his legacy.

About 170 years ago, Fr Confalonieri, lived amongst the aboriginal people at Port Essington a military garrison on the remote Coburg Peninsular, now part of the Northern Territory.

As Northern Australia’s first Catholic missionary, Fr Confalonieri spent only two years (from 1846-48) on this mission before his untimely death, but he achieved something remarkably courageous and out-of-step for his time – he lived with the local indigenous Iwaidja people, entered their realm as a pioneering cleric, studied their daily lives and quickly mastered their language.

Academics, clerics and philanthropists came together at the symposium to highlight Fr Confalonieri’s legacy and contribution to the understanding and documentation of Aboriginal languages, culture and customs.

Fr Confalonieri was born in 1813 in the rugged Dolomite country of present-day northern Italy.

He spent his secondary schooling years in the town of Trent where he felt the inclination to become a priest, particularly a missionary priest and he entered the diocesan seminary there.

He was ordained a priest in 1839 and according to the parish priest in his first posting, he was both a strong pastoral carer and preacher.

Fr Confalonieri transferred several times in the following years and the idea of becoming a missionary priest grew.

According to Rolando Pizzini, a writer and researcher from Trent who attended the symposium, Fr Confalonieri was a perfectionist and did all he could to prepare himself for a mission vocation, including training as “as sort of extreme athlete”.

He took up hiking in the mountains with a definite plan to strengthen his body and also to be able to control hunger and thirst.

He ventured out of dangerous treks crossing four or five consecutive mountains in a straight line, spending nights alone on the mountains

“I assure you that these are extreme undertakings. In my youth I myself tried one time – unsuccessfully, however – to reach just one peak in a straight line, and I assure you that it was an enormously difficult and dangerous undertaking,” Mr Pizzini said, addressing the symposium in Darwin.

In his early priestly life, Fr Confalonieri also studied oratory, practicing by reading the Gospel in local villages.

And he became interested in foreign languages.

“(Fr) Confalonieri was a perfectionist and didn’t underestimate the value of anything which may one day help him evangelise,” Mr Pizzini said.

Fr Confalonieri's grave

Remembered: At Father Angelo Confalonieri’s gravesite at Northern Australia’s long abandoned Port Essington are from left, Dr Frances Booth, Dr Stefano Girola, Cesare Ciola, Fr Frank Bertagnolli, Gabriele Bressan, Patricia Sesti and Rolando Pizzini.

In Rome, as a student at the missionary College, Propaganda Fide, Fr Confalonieri made a special study of Oceania, and studied English and French.

His future destination was becoming clearer, and he became a favourite of the 80-year-old Pope Gregory XVI, who was keen to expand the missionary enterprise of the Catholic Church into Oceania.

Then in 1845, Fr John Bradly was made the first bishop of Perth, covering all of West Australia, and came to Europe to find priests and religious ready to come to the new diocese as missionaries amongst the aboriginal people.

Fr Confalonieri was one of those picked.

Nearly a year later, on April 6, 1846, he found himself with two catechists, James Fagan and Nicholas Hogan, aboard a trading vessel, Heroine, leaving Sydney and heading to the far north.

Although the missionaries’ ultimate destination wasn’t clear, the vessel was carrying supplies for the Port Essington military base.

One night off the Queensland coast the Heroine hit a reef and sank quickly.

Most of the crew and passengers drowned, including the two catechists, but Fr Confalonieri survived.

He and other survivors were picked up the following morning by a passing ship and taken to Port Essington.

Fr Confalonieri arrived with nothing – no personal possessions or his vestments and sacred vessels.

But his missionary drive was in tact.

He was given clothes and supplies and granted land at the mouth of Port Essington to set up camp – a basic arrangement, a place to sleep and eat, to write and to pray and “to be more among the natives”, according to the journal of John Sweatman, an English writer who was there on a surveying mission.

From all accounts Fr Confalonieri struggled at first in simple, practical ways just to survive with monthly provisions sent to him by Port Essington’s commander, John MacArthur.

When he was given flour, he didn’t know how to cook it.

And he pined for a spoon, because he said “it was miserable to eat pea soup with a fork”.

However, Fr Confalonieri never lost his enthusiasm and trust in his mission.

He began working seriously for the aborigines in mid-1846.

Mr MacArthur’s writings describe the low benchmark of relations with the local Iwaidja people: “We really have learned very little of the actual state of the Aborigines; we have the same difficulties that I believe are experienced wherever we settle. They seem averse to our learning anything concerning them, and they prefer the adoption of some of our language rather than we should acquire theirs.”

It was this barrier that  Fr Confalonieri succeeded in breaking down.

Instead of trying to convince them to adopt a sedentary lifestyle, he travelled with the Iwaidja tribe, sharing their daily nomadic life.

He also shared his own meagre possessions with the tribe, offered them medical care and gained their respect by helping to arbitrate in disputes with the colonial settlers.

John Sweatman observed Fr Confalonieri was “much liked” by the Iwaidja people, kind, committed and passionate when evangelising and emphasised his detailed knowledge of the Aboriginal language, saying it was “a thing no other European had even succeeded in doing and he was constantly in the bush amongst them notebook in hand”.

Mr Pizzini said Fr Confalonieri, after two years living with the Aborigines, was able to perfectly speak their language, and wrote two language phrasebooks.

“He learnt the language by living with them, by engaging in conversation, deep listening, friendship and even conflicts, but, most of all, by his desire of knowledge, which was reciprocated by the Aborigines,” Mr Pizzini said.

“And by sharing their nomadic lifestyle, he became ‘Nagoyo (Father), and was adopted as one of them… “

In June 1848, just two years into his mission, Fr Confalonieri was struck by malaria and died quickly.

He was only 35 years old.

Mr MacArthur oversaw the burial and wrote that Fr Confalonieri deserved the utmost respect, recounting “His mortal remains were accompanied to the tomb by all the officers and soldiers with the respect due to such a highly esteemed man”.

Some years ago there were plans to open Fr Confalonieri’s tomb at Port Essington and move his remains to Darwin’s St Mary’s Star of the Sea Cathedral.

However, its now likely this outstanding Italian missionary will be honoured with a memorial plaque inside the cathedral.

Thanks in preparation of this story to symposium participants: Professor Rolando Pizzini, writer and researcher from Trent, Italy and Dr Stefano Girola of the School of Theology at the Australian Catholic University, Brisbane.  Both are co-authors of Nagoyo: The life of Don Angelo Confalonieri among the Aborigines of Australia 1846-1848. Fondazione Museo Storico del Trentino, 238pp, $27.50
Written by: Mark Bowling

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