The tale of Conaci and Dirimera: Good intentions, poor results

15 Oct 2020

By Contributor

A piece of Aboriginal artwork in the New Norcia Museum & Art Gallery. Photo: Feby Plando.

By Desmond O’Grady

The mid-19th century efforts to educate two aboriginal boys in Italy, who could become missionaries to their own people, started with the best intentions but finished badly.

In all, five Indigenous youths were sent but only one returned to Australia, with most being known about pair from the New Norcia community which had been founded in 1846 by two Spanish Benedictines: Rosendo Salvado, the robust, extrovert, and strong-willed future bishop, and the diminutive, yet well-organised Jose Maria Serra.

The boys were Francis Xavier Conaci, who may have been as young as 8, and 14-year-old John Dirimera, whose life had been saved by the monks after he was speared in the stomach.

The boys had originally only asked to go with Salvado when he took the community’s wool to Perth for sale, but in 1849, when Bishop Brady found himself unable to sail for Europe to gather funds and missionaries and he asked Salvado to replace him, the boys wanted to go with Salvado and he obtained their families’ consent.

The 100-day trip to Swansea provided one surprise after another for the boys and both of them thought the sailing ships, upon seeing them for the first time, were amphibious creatures.

A statue of Benedictine monk Bishop Rosendo Salvado in the New Norcia Museum & Art Gallery. Photo: Feby Plando.

The trio went to Dublin, London and then Paris, where they witnessed fighting in the streets when students and radical republicans, agitated by the failure of King Louis Philippe to end political corruption, joined forces with discontented workers to build barricades in the poorest quarters of the city – the boys were witness to the violence that inspired Les Miserables.

Francis, disturbed by what he saw, asked Salvado why he didn’t intervene to stop the violence and when Salvado said he could not do so, as it was not his country, the boy responded that Australia was not Salvado’s country either, but he had stopped aboriginals’ clashes – something which made the Spaniard reflect deeply.

Next stop was Lyon, the headquarters of the Aid to the Missions Society, where Salvado petitioned on behalf of New Norcia, before hurrying on to Italy after John took ill.

Pope Pius IX, having fled insurgents in Rome, was living in Gaeta, part of the Italian Bourbon kingdom, and upon their arrival in Italy, Salvado presented the boys to both Pius, who vested them as Benedictines, and to the Bourbon King of southern Italy, Ferdinando II, who made them his wards.

Following their presentation, Salvado placed them in the primary school attached to the monastery of Cava dei Tirreni in the mountains near Naples and after a few weeks to settle in, he gave them both the opportunity to return home with him to Australia.

Both boys refused however, preferring to continue their studies – even though John found school difficult, whereas Francis had good results – and bid their priestly mentor farewell.

Yet despite their commitment, the two boys from WA were used to a hot, dry climate whereas Cava dei Tirreni was humid in summer and dank in winter, and it was not long before Francis health broke down, afflicted with many illnesses, the worst of which was grave bronchitis.

It was better that they return home.

However, with Salvado returned to Australia, it was uncertain who would pay for the boys’ voyage and whilst negotiations were started, the boys had to find another residence – the Benedictine monastery at St Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome.

The Monastery proved fatally unsuitable – too close to the Tiber River – and shortly afterwards, Francis died there.

Serra, now the newly appointed Bishop of Perth, returned to Europe on a diplomatic mission to visit Queen Isabella of Spain and, hearing of Francis’ death and John’s isolation, decided to take the later with him.

It is not clear whether John reached Isabella, as Serra had to rush off to London, but he did sail with the Bishop back to Australia, dying shortly after arrival.

At a time when many believed it was impossible to teach aborigines anything, the idea of further education for them in Italy, perhaps leading to the priesthood, was admirable but no account was taken of the difficulties of climate and adaptation.

Salvado used his two boys as a help in raising funds when he preached in various European cities, but he did not regard them simply as money spinners: in his memoirs, Salvado showed that he was a fierce defender of the aborigines, even wanting to be considered as an aborigine himself, whilst complaining that funds which should have been used for the aborigines were diverted to white Catholics.

He insisted that New Norcia existed for the aborigines rather than the aborigines existing for New Norcia.

He must have been thinking of his two charges when, later, Florence Nightingale wrote to him asking if aborigines could be civilised without it killing them.

In response, he described the eerie changes in an aborigine admitted to European institutions, saying that first they flourished but then “a fatal melancholy takes possession…[until] daily and almost at sight [he] loses his flesh, strength and health”.

Salvado was to die on a visit to St Paul’s Basilica in 1900 and on his death bed, he recalled by name the aboriginal children of New Norcia moving his hand as if caressing their hair, with Francis and John closest of all.