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My tribute to Vicki Clark's passionate ministry


At the conclusion of the mass held at St Pauls Outside the Walls in Rome the day after the canonization of Mary MacKillop, Vicki Clark and a few of her Aboriginal companions invited those gathered around them to join them outside the entrance to the church.  

They had visited the church the previous day, concluding their researches and ascertaining the burial place of Francis Xavier Conaci. They led us in the most moving prayer for Francis, the Aboriginal boy who left Western Australia on 9 January 1849 for training as a Benedictine monk. Francis died on 17 September 1853 aged about thirteen and he lies buried outside the front of the basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls. Gathered around his burial place, we were moved to tears.

The didgeridoo was played; a traditional dance was performed; Graeme Mundine and Elsie Heiss led the prayers; and Vicki led the singing of “The Old Wooden Cross” (the hymn which is sung at most Aboriginal funerals) and the Aboriginal Our Father.   I will never forget it.  It was one of the great liturgies of my life.

Little is known about Conaci other than what is found in the memoirs of Bishop Salvado who departed for Europe with two Aboriginal boys on 9 January 1849.  He had come to Perth from the New Norcia mission a hundred miles away in order to sell produce there.  

The boys insisted on travelling with him.  Salvado was then asked to travel to Europe.  He reported, ‘When the two boys heard of my imminent departure, they begged me to obtain permission from the Bishop for them to go with me to Europe.  The Bishop was happy to meet their eager wishes, and so I got the approval of their parents and made everything ready for the voyage.  On 6 January the boys were baptized by the Bishop with the names of Francis Xavier Conaci and John Baptist Dirimera’.

The boys entered the Benedictine noviceship at La Cava in Italy on 5 August 1849.   Francis fell ill at La Cava, he was taken to St Paul’s Outside the Walls to take the fresher air.  He died there, and there he was buried.

Many of us who had arrived at St Paul’s Outside the Walls knew nothing of this story.  The simple Aboriginal ritual over the burial site of Conaci was in stark contrast to the pomp and hierarchical ceremony in St Peter’s Square the previous day.  Vicki and her companions were there leading those of us who are the descendants of their colonizers, teaching us the history, sharing the story, and enabling us to embrace the mystery of it all in prayer.  Our role was to follow, to join in prayer and to express thanks for the gracious sharing and leadership of the indigenous people.  

Thank you Vicki for your passionate ministry, your sense of fun in life, and your eternal hope that the Kingdom will come even for those most dispossessed and marginalized in our world.  Have a great retirement.  I am sure we have not heard the last of you.

This is an address given to mark 25 years of dedicated service, leadership and achievements at the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry..




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Existing comments


Peter Goers | 28 June 2015  

I heard the story many years ago of two aboriginal boys going to Rome from the New Norcia mission. It was related as an example of the church 'blackbirding' indigenous youths into a foreign culture and environment in which they had little hope of surviving - that is unless they became Europeanised. I dismissed the story as anti-catholic propaganda and did not follow it up. I had met several Asian and African priests who had been trained in European seminaries or in seminaries in their own country following the European model. They were as comfortable and socially accepted in their vocation as any Australian or Irish cleric. Reading Father Frank's article pulled me up short. I had met only the survivors of the European model of priestly education. I had no inkling about those who did not finish the course - for whatever reason.
I'm presuming today in the wake of Vatican 2 which advocates Acculturation that the education of priests, both in Junior and Senior Seminaries, takes into account their cultural background and beliefs.
Father Frank was graced to partake in an Aboriginal liturgy of such poignancy.

Uncle Pat | 28 June 2015  

A very sad story indeed. The Spanish missionaries have a lot to answer for in the communities they evangelised in their expansion to the new world in the Americas and in Aboriginal Australia. The Jesuits saw and opposed their attitude to the native peoples of Sth America and acted against that. Thank goodness they had such a limited expansion in this country.

john frawley | 28 June 2015  

Mr Frawley; Our can-do-no-wrong Pope Francis will canonise Blessed Juniper Serra OFM in September[Spanish missioners were not all badies] Blessed Serra, a priest, lived in modern-day California in the 1700s. A Spanish-born Franciscan missionary, he founded the first nine of 21 eventual missions in California. He worked tirelessly with the American Indians there. He is said to have baptized more than 6,000 people and confirmed 5,000 in his lifetime. History presents both sides on these issues belying facile reductionisms!

Father John George | 29 June 2015