Rome or Ireland? the Religious Control of the Italian Community

By Cappello, Anthony | Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Rome or Ireland? the Religious Control of the Italian Community


Cappello, Anthony, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society


The period from 1944 until the end of 1945 was marked by the ecclesiastical fight for the chaplaincy of the Italian community in Australia, which ultimately led to the removal overseas of Fr Ugo Modotti sj, chaplain to the Italian community of Melbourne. Fr Modotti had introduced a programme of religious renewal for the Italian community (Opera Religiosa Italiana). But Rome had its own policy carried out by the Apostolic Delegate, Giovanni Panico. (1) It was in the implementation of this Roman policy and the actions of the Apostolic Delegate that the predominantly Irish Australian Catholic Church was transformed. The Italian community would prove fundamental to that change.

Giovanni Panico, who came to Australia in 1936, was keen to end the appointment of Irish bishops to Australian sees. (2) Beginning with Bartholomew Cattaneo in 1917, Rome was committed to the notion that an Australian episcopacy should be built from Australian-born (and usually Roman-trained) priests. The so-called 'Roman policy' ultimately created tension between the Roman Curia, represented by the Apostolic Delegates, and the Irish-Australian hierarchy.

Instances of this tension date back to 1873 when the first Archbishop of Sydney, English Benedictine, Bede Polding, appealed to Rome about the appointment of Irish bishops. Polding argued at the time that the Australian church would be identified as an Irish church if Irish bishops only were appointed. (3) This confusion was compounded when local bishops would sign Irish episcopal statements, such as the 1870 documents about the occupation of Rome by Italian nationalists. (4)

The Roman Curia attempted to rectify the problem by appointing three Italian-born bishops: E. Torreggiani in 1879, John Cani in 1879 and, later, Ernest Coppo in 1923. The clergy resented such moves, as did the laity, which remained principally of Irish descent. By the time of Panico's arrival in 1936, the Irish position was as strong as ever and Panico secretly advised those around him that his task was to 'break the influence exercised in the appointment of bishops'. (5) That year saw the appointment of the first non-Irish Archbishop--Justin Simonds in Hobart.

Panico had certainly come into an Irish-dominated Australian church. In the well known journal, The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, John Hennig in 1944 wrote an article entitled: 'Ireland's Spiritual Empire: Church Dedications in Australia', and concluded:

   Thus, up to the most recent times, in dedications of churches and of
   educational, ecclesiastical and charitable institutions, Australasia
   has established a lively connection with her spiritual
   mother-country, a bond of faithful gratitude and a document of
   Ireland's enduring significance as an Island of Saints. (6)

Even the Italian migrants were affected. One can get a glimpse of the Irishness of the church by recollections of Peter Dalseno on his friend, Peter:

   He was Italian by birth, Australian by domicility, and Irish in
   spirit. He learnt much of Irish folklore, came to revere the
   Shamrock, admired John MacCormack the tenor, idolised St. Patrick
   for his exploits with the serpents of Ireland, and loved listening
   to the Irish brogue. His only pet resentment was the Sisters'
   assertion that the Irish were stronger Catholics than the Italians.
   (7)

With the influx of Italian migrants and various other ethnic groups, it was vital the transformation should begin earlier rather than later.

Archbishop Panico versus Archbishop Mannix

Between the ambitious Panico carrying out his mission and Daniel Mannix, determined chieftain of Irish Australian Catholicism, there developed quite a strong animosity. Labor Minister, Arthur Calwell, recalls in his biography the less than friendly rivalry between Mannix and Panico: 'there was bad blood, real bad blood, between Panico and Mannix and I've got the whole story from Mannix's own lips'. …

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