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Uncovering the parish priest who changed the tastebuds of Stanthorpe

Ian Bonaccorso: “(Fr Davadi’s) sermon platform alternatively changed from the pulpit to the open land where he advanced his theory on the suitability of the district for the growing of deciduous fruit trees, (such as) apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots.”

WHEN Ian Bonaccorso began researching the life and pastoral legacy of the first parish priest of Stanthorpe from its foundation in 1874, he reconnected not only with his familial roots but also credited the Holy Spirit as the “driving force” behind the project.

“Stanthorpe’s very dear to me,” Ian, who was baptised Ignatius, said of the parish, now in Toowoomba diocese.

“Both my paternal and maternal grandparents formed part of the first wave of Italian pioneers who settled in the Granite Belt district in the 1930s.” 

Ian’s ancestors were “orchardists and viticulturists” who cultivated a “niche market of north Queensland southern European sugar-cane plantation owners”.

Well-known for their output, he said familial vintners mirrored the philosophy of the region’s first parish priest Fr Jerome (Girolamo) Davadi, about 30 years prior, who also took to winemaking. 

The research project’s inception in 2012 will culminate with the launch of Davadi: Fruit, Wine and Religion in Stanthorpe parish on January 26, to coincide with the 120-year anniversary of Fr Davadi’s death on January 22, 1900.

Common with historical research, it was a process met with some difficulty however. 

“Research initially proved difficult given the limited information available on this early Queensland pioneer,” Ian said. 

“Prior records on Fr Davadi had been lost or destroyed and little information was known about ‘the Father of the Fruit and Wine Industry of Stanthorpe’.”

It was current Stanthorpe parish priest Fr Brian Connolly who spurred the author forward, “planting the seed” that sprouted “inroads” into history. 

Ian said the “breakthrough” came when visiting Fr Davadi’s Montecarotto birthplace in the Ancona Province of The Marches region in Italy, north-east of Rome, in 2014.

“I arrived in the town to what proved to be a joyous welcome by the Montecarottese mayor, the Bishop of Jesi Diocese and the parishioners,“ he said.

“With their assistance, I was able to establish the formative years of Davadi.”

Continued research and persistence “to provide a fair and objective assessment of Davadi’s life history” brought Ian “with God’s grace” to the work’s completion late last year. 

Only seen by a choice few to date, the historical text traces Fr Davadi’s life journey and impact on the agricultural industry on the Granite Belt, the fruits of which are known worldwide today.

The work has been described as “a holistic overview in the early establishment of the Catholic Church in Queensland” where the author “examines the volatility in Italy during the second half of the 19th century as the independent states of Italy reluctantly submitted into becoming a unified nation”. 

Ian said such historical events “intertwined with the life outcomes” of Fr Davadi who “was acquainted at an early age in fruit growing as well as ‘religious versus state’ political conflicts” and ordained on December 19, 1868.

“Fortunately, for the young Davadi, his family was quite prosperous and influential,” Ian wrote in the book. 

“He spent his formative years studying under the guidance of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor in his hometown, at the minor seminary in the nearby city of Jesi, and his final seminary studies were conducted in Rome.”  

Ian’s research details the young cleric opting to become a missionary priest in Queensland “to avoid military conscription” alongside seminary colleagues Fathers Constantine Rossolini and Benedict Scortechini. 

“They set sail for the other side of the world in order to leave religious and political turmoil only to encounter another version of religious and state politics in Australia,” the book details of the March 1871 arrival. 

“Nonetheless, the newly arrived clergymen were soon transferred to respective parishes within the diocese of Queensland, (Fr Davadi) … officially taking up his permanent appointment as the first priest-in-charge of the Stanthorpe parish in July 1874. 

“He found a bustling and boisterous mining township with a transient population … (and) he formulated a strategy to retain the itinerant population of Stanthorpe once the mining of alluvial tin petered out.”

Fr Davadi “defied his detractors by planting the first experimental deciduous fruit orchard and vineyard in the district”, Ian wrote. 

“His sermon platform alternatively changed from the pulpit to the open land where he advanced his theory on the suitability of the district for the growing of deciduous fruit trees, (such as) apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots”, and of vineyards. 

With an unwavering commitment to his faith and priestly role, Fr Davadi “made his own wine which he used during religious services” and “convinced engrained miners to commit themselves to becoming orchardists and vignerons”.

He “set about in the building of St Joseph’s Church, school, presbytery and convent with attached dormitory for girl pupils,” the book details, also acquiring land in the adjoining townships of Texas and Wallangarra. 

Visiting the faithful “by horse and buggy” before the railway line was established, Fr Davadi “left an endearing mark of love and respect on the whole community”, Ian wrote, and heralded the arrival of the first wave of Italian migrants who helped “transfigure” Stanthorpe “into a rich and prosperous agricultural town”. 

And like the lovingly prepared book, Ian’s personal faith journey is a “work in progress”. 

“Over the years, there have been many external and inherent family factors that have influenced my perception of the Catholic faith,” Ian, who was baptised in Stanthorpe’s St Joseph’s Church by Fr Roger Burke, said.  

“The greatest influence has been from my parents and grandparents. 

“Through their own example and love of the Catholic faith, they laid down a solid foundation for me to commence my faith-filled, life-long journey.”

At age four, Ian’s father died in a tractor accident on the family’s orchard property in Broadwater, west of Stanthorpe. 

His ancestors insisted on “a sound Catholic education”, Ian recalling catechism studies with the local Sisters of Mercy, later nurtured by the Sisters of St Joseph at Mary Immaculate School, Annerley, and the Christian Brothers at St James College, Fortitude Valley.

All the while, “many wonderful priests” came into Ian’s life, not the least of which is former Stanthorpe parish priest Fr Lino Valente, now in retirement in Toowoomba. 

“Fr Lino … personified love and selflessness for others during his priestly life,” Ian said. 

“For example, without any consideration to his personal comfort, he drove to Brisbane on a Saturday to marry my wife and I only to then drive back the same evening so that he could conduct Sunday Masses in the Stanthorpe district the next day. 

“He remains a very dear family friend.”

With the continued grace of God, St Joseph’s Church will be overflowing for the 8.30am Mass on January 26 and book launch activities afterwards. 

A pilgrimage to the local cemetery will be part of the day, to bless Fr Davadi’s tombstone and in recognition of one of the first Sisters of Mercy to arrive in Stanthorpe, Sister Mary Muredach Ford, who died on August 10, 1875.

All involved in the planning of the event are keen to roll out the welcome mat and ask for RSVPs, for catering purposes, to be sent to stjosephsparish@halenet.com.au

Southern Down Regional Council also encourage visitors to Stanthorpe over the Australia Day long weekend and have an events co-ordinator who can be contacted on 0409 769 866 for help with details and bookings. 

Copies of Davadi: Fruit, Wine and Religion cost $35 and will be available from January 26.

Written by: Selina Venier
Catholic Church Insurance

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