Remembering Conaci and Dirimera

Posted on August 21, 2013

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A reflection on the anniversary of Dirimera’s death,

Graeme Mundine

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Photo of Dirimera and Conaci from the Benedictine Comm. archives via http://www.theage.com.au/national/a-boys-own-adventure-20101215-18y6d.html

It was some time in the early 1990s when I first heard the story of two young Nyungar boys, Francis Xavier Conaci and John Baptist Dirimera. The boys became Benedictine monks and were taken from New Norcia in West Australian to Europe in 1849. Gabby Willaway, a West Australian member of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) at that time often told me the story of this strange experiment that was taking place in the early days of the Church’s presence in Australia. Gabby’s family was from around New Norcia and they had a great connection there.

The story resonated with me then, as it still does, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that it is a reminder of the connection Australian Aboriginal people had with the Church even in the very early days of the colonization of Australia.  It was only in 1840 that the first white people arrived in my home country and in 1843 the first mission was established on Stradbroke Island, so the boys’ story is about very early connections with the Church. Another reason the story resonated with me was because I was a Marist Brother when I first heard about them and, as I was reminded by Brother Fergus McCann who taught in New Norcia, the Marists also had connections to that place. As a Brother I was lucky enough to go to New Norcia and while I was there I saw a statue of Champagnat. So for me, there was the whole connection to New Norcia from an Aboriginal point of view, but also from a Marist Brother point of view.

The idea of training Aboriginal people to become priests and minister to their own people was a good idea.  In fact that is the basis of inculturation as we know it today. It is just such a pity that they had to train overseas to be able to do that. They took them away from their Home Country to a place that was so foreign and so different and the cost to them was very high. The younger fella Conaci died in Rome from respiratory diseases. Dirimera also got sick but he was well enough to get back to Australia.

We don’t really know how the boys or their family viewed the experiences because the records we do have are from the diaries of the Abbot, Rosendo Salvado’s, so they are a non-Indigenous observation of what was going. According to Salvaldo’s records there was a fight between Aboriginal groups and Dirimera was speared. He was taken into the monastery because Aboriginals had heard about these white men who could cure people. Little did they know that the white men weren’t too good at curing people at all, they were basically working with the equivalent of an aspirin or a bandage to cure all ills. But by some chance, through constant use of olive oil, which they grew there, and changing of bandages Dirimera actually survived. According to Salvaldo, as part of the Aboriginal custom of a life for a life, the father then offered the boy to the monastery to live there and to learn. Some others came to work in the monastery and on the property and others were brought there for schooling. Conaci was another who came.  We also know there was a young boy called Upumera, who was the first Aboriginal boy to be baptized at New Norcia, but he ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Upumera was in Perth with Salvaldo’s offsider when it was decided that they should set sail for England. Unfortunately Upumera died at sea during that voyage. 

You can imagine if you try and put yourself in the picture of the boys. It was exciting! They thought that the boat was a horse that you steer from the back not the front. I’m sure though when they got out to sea it would have been quite terrifying for them. When they got to Africa slavery was still taking place and there were other Black people there. Of course, they were looking at the boys really strangely and wondering why they were hanging around with this white priest. What a shock it would have been for the boys. Everything was so different.

I can imagine the stories Conaci and Dirimera could tell of mixing and mingling with the elites of the time, including royalty. They got to meet people like the King of Naples for example, who became a patron. They even received the habit from Pope Pius IX.  It was a very interesting time in Europe in the 1800s. Can you imagine those sorts of things happening now? It just shows how close to the Church Aboriginal people were then.

It’s also an interesting story about how they travelled. They travelled across to Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope and eventually landed in Swansea in England. It would have been very different, even the atmosphere. They would have arrived in a country that was industrialized and heavily polluted unlike the clean air of their home. They also travelled to Ireland. I often remind people that the statue of Queen Victoria which is outside the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney was in Ireland, so they would have seen that same statue while they were there. They went back through Liverpool, London through France and ended up in La Carva near Naples. Both of them got ill and they moved to the Benedictine monastery at St Paul’s Outside the Wall where Conaci died.

The story doesn’t end for Dirimera in Rome. He came back to Australia but in the years after he returned he didn’t spend much time in the monastery as a Benedictine he spent it back with his family, probably telling the stories of his adventures in Europe. It seems that there is a whole disconnect back to the mainstream type church that was there already in New Norcia. It was only a matter of a couple of years before he also died and was buried behind the chapel in New Norcia.

These two weren’t the only ones who were taken to train overseas and it also happened to the girls. At least one girl that I am aware of went to England and is buried there. It’s sad, but in some ways it is a revealing story about the connection to Church and Aborigines over all those years.  There is at least one girl that we know ended up in Islington in the UK. It would be interesting to know more about her. It was a religious school. But now it would be similar to a Catholic Education school here. I’m going to try and see what I can find out about her. Here’s a school in London who would not even be aware of that connection to Australia or Aboriginal people.

Of course there is the other side of the story. The Perth Diocese and New Norcia were going broke and they needed a way of shoring up some funding. What better way than bringing exhibit A and exhibit B to Europe. 

Many years after Gabby Willaway first told me this story I came across a book by Anouk Ride called the Grand Experiment. It was exciting after hearing what seemed to be a ‘folk’ story to see the actual factual parts of the story filled in by Anouk. It emphasised that everything Gabby had told me about this story was very much true. It also filled in a little bit, because really you have to go back to Salvaldo’s experience to see the whole of what was going on. I don’t know how many copies of Ride’s book I have bought since then and handed around so others could learn about this important story.

The title of the book, the Grand Experiment, highlights what Salvaldo’s plan was.  Salvaldo could see, unlike other people at the time, that Aboriginal people could learn and could understand a bit more of this western culture. They would have learnt Italian and Latin just to survive in the foreign place.  Salvaldo treated those people with a better respect than what was happening around them.  It’s an early part of Australia’s history with the Church and it would be interesting to do more research on Salvaldo’s diaries. Unfortunately, for me, they are all written in Spanish!

In 2010, I was in Rome for Mary MacKillop’s canonization, but as I said to the group at the time the reason I went to Rome was not just about Mary MacKillop. In fact, for me, the main purpose of the trip was about Conaci. Here we were – a group of Aborigines over there to celebrate Australia’s first saint and to play a very important part in all the celebrations.  But also we ended up at St Paul’s where this young fella was buried. The day before the Australian celebration of the canonization we were over there practicing. One of the monks came out of the monastery and said “come with us” and took us men inside the monastery. He showed us Salvaldo’s room and a plaque. He told us that the rooms in that area would have been where the two young fellas stayed close to Salvaldo. I also noticed that as you go into the monastery it definitely looks like a Benedictine monastery with the cloisters, but in the middle of the courtyard it looks like there are pandanas plants. I like to think they are from seeds that came with Conaci and Dirimera.

The monk then took us out to the front of the cathedral and when we were just outside the papal vestry he said “we think here is the spot where Conaci is buried”. If you look at the marble where it is thought Conaci is buried there are two blocks of marble with marks which very much look like a boomerang. This of course brought a lot of joy to everyone there because it seemed to connect. Also, every year since 1849 the Pope would arrive at that side gate and move across Conaci’s grave to enter the papal vestry to prepare for Mass.

After the Australian canonization celebration mass we all gathered and had a little prayer with the Aboriginal group at Conaci’s grave. The then former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and Tim Fisher also came over to remember this person.

It’s interesting that we make so much of Conaci because he’s buried so far from home. But Dirimera was about four years older, so he would have known a bit more about Aboriginal life and custom. The young fella was a lot more adventurous and seeing the world as it was and learning. But the older fella seemed to be a bit more reticent and it shows when he came home that he went back to the bush and back to his own people, to the people he knew and not to the foreign culture.

It is the anniversary of Dirimera’s death on August 21st; he died two years after Conaci. In September this year it’s the 160th anniversary of the death of Conaci. I’ll be in Rome on the anniversary. When we were there we always said we would be back and we’ve been trying to get back since 2010. I had hoped to take a group over on a pilgrimage, but it fell through. But it is important that people go back – not only to remind ourselves about that story, but also to remind the people that are there about our connection to those places. We need to remember the story and we also need to remind the people who are there in that particular place about this very important person. He is one of our own and he is buried in one of the four major cathedrals of Rome. This is Paul’s cathedral and Paul was the one who took the word to the gentiles, out into the world, to people like ourselves. This is where the boy Conaci, who was to be a missionary, is buried.  

I still hope to take people over there. It’s something that should be continually on our radar. While I am there I am also going to visit the tomb of Pope John Paul II who is soon to be canonized. We also need to remember the impact that particular man had on us as Aboriginal Catholics when he gave his speech in 1986 in Alice Springs. So I am going to Rome to remind us about the Pope John Paul II story, but also to make sure that we spend time with one of our own wherever possible. In 2015, it’s the 160th anniversary of Dirimera’s death so it would be good to get across to New Norcia.

It’s important that we do remember our ancestors; not only our ancestors in culture but also in faith and the Church. These people are the ones who broke ground. If you think about it that all happened in 1840s. The next big break through that I am aware of was in 1974 when Boniface Perjerdt was ordained as a permanent Deacon, followed by Pat Dodson as a priest. There have been other Religious but there seems to be a big gap in our history. Maybe we aren’t aware of it but people have been involved in church all this time. People were engaging in Church in Wadeye, Bathurst Island,  Melville Island Santa Theresa and so on. Likewise on the Eastern States. In fact, all over the place. Still though, there is a significant gap in leadership or training people to be ministers from 1849-1974. It’s understandable because during that time we had a White Australia policy, protectionism, assimilation and the mission era. But having been a Religious myself this story is an important reminder that we weren’t alone in all this. There have been attempts from an Aboriginal point of view of trying to engage with Church from at least the 1840s- even to the extent that these fellas were able to receive a habit from the Pope. It’s quite an amazing story. I still don’t know how well we are actually received within the Church. Yet here we are and we have been here since those times.

More information about Anouk Ride’s book is at http://www.anoukride.com/books.htm

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