Missionary Priest Angelo Ambrosoli in 19th-century Australia

Author: Stefano Girola

Missionary Priest Angelo Ambrosoli in 19th-century Australia

Stefano Girola
Australian Catholic University

'Little Saint' shapes Church in Sydney

The gold rush had already begun. It was the early 1850s and thousands of people from every part of Australia and also Europe and China were flocking to the streams in New South Wales and Victoria, frantically seeking gold nuggets.

This fever did not infect everyone. "A great deal of gold is being found here, not far from us; everyone is rushing to grab it and we are distancing ourselves from it", commented a young Italian priest on the recent occurrence in Australia, from on board a ship bound for the missions on the oceanic Islands of Woodlark and Rook. "This is not our kind of thing. For us it is souls. Oh yes, these are worth far more than gold. The acquisition of a single soul is of far greater value than all the gold in the world".

The missionary from the Lombard Seminary for Foreign Missions — which in 1926 became the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) — was called Angelo Ambrosoli. He was born in 1824 in Madonna in Campagna, a subdivision of Gallarate. A study recently published by Virgilio Cognoli and Paolo Labate for the historical archives of the PIME (solitario di Sydney, Studi e documenti dagli archivi del PIME) reconstructs the long period that Fr. Ambrosoli spent in Sydney after his tragic missionary experience in Woodlark and Rook which ended with the martyrdom of Fr. Giovanni Mazzucconi.

Fr. Ambrosoli's stay in Sydney should have been temporary, a brief respite to recover from ailments before sailing for other missions in Oceania or Asia.

Things turned out differently. Persistent health problems and the wish of Benedictine John Bede Polding — Archbishop of Sydney since 1842 — to keep the Italian priest for the service of the Archdiocese obliged Ambrosoli to abandon his vocation to evangelize "savages" in the "boundless horizons of the Pacific Ocean".

At Polding's request, Ambrosoli became chaplain of the small Italian community in Sydney and the spiritual director of the Benedictine sisters in the Subiaco Convent at Parramatta, near Sydney, which was founded by the Benedictine nuns in honour of the famous Italian Benedictine monastery.

Frequent visits between the Archbishop and Ambrosoli made the latter an eye witness of the problems within the nascent Australian Church, which he recounted in rich detail in the many letters he sent to his confreres in Italy and especially to his superior, Fr. Giuseppe Marinoni. Precisely these letters are the primary source on which Cognoli and Labate based their account of Fr. Ambrosoli's Australian mission.

The portrait of the Australian Church — in particular of the Archdiocese of Sydney — that emerges from the correspondence of the priest from Gallarate is in some respects depressing. This is due to continual conflict that saw the Archbishop and his Vicar General Mons. Gregory on one side, and a large part of Sydney's clergy and laity on the other.

It did not take Ambrosoli long to identify the cause of such discord as Polding's tendency to place the administration of the Church in the hands of the Benedictine Order, to the detriment of secular priests and the other religious orders. The friendship and esteem in which Ambrosoli held Polding did not prevent him from recognizing the validity of the arguments of those opposed to the episcopal policies.

Reflecting on the campaigns launched by the Catholic publication Freeman's Journal, Ambrosoli wrote: "I do not approve of the savage attacks but I cannot but be of the public opinion: that is, that there is a dire need for priests here and something must be done to obtain them".

What saddened Ambrosoli too was the lack of concern for liturgical decorum of which he complained in a letter of 1878: "I greatly love being able to have beautiful things for Our Lord, also in order to give a little impetus to improving the adornment of the holy altars, many of which have been left in a most squalid state".

Ambrosoli put his words into practice, often using his own small savings to commission Italian craftsmen to make sacred objects.

The problems that afflicted the local Church and the loneliness that Ambrosoli felt for many years in the Subiaco Convent prompted him to toy with the temptation to withdraw to live in the Australian forests. But the depth of his vocation to the priesthood prevented him from becoming the umpteenth fugitive to the bush. Having overcome his crisis, Ambrosoli spared no effort to contribute to the development of the Archdiocese of Sydney.

Among his commitments, he helped immigrants from the various Italian States, which were unifying at precisely that time. Writing to his superior in 1855, Ambrosoli commented negatively on the attitude of many of these immigrants: "I have never seen one of them donate a cent to charity. Only if they are sick or poverty-stricken do they come to the priest, full of complaints and cursing Australia. Their families might be starving at home and here they go adrift, seeing nothing but misfortune".

Yet not all Italians were this way. Others were able to make sacrifices and to keep the faith of their fathers alive. To start with, there was Ambrosoli's illiterate brother, who arrived in Australia unexpectedly and was able to earn respect by his hard work and irreproachable life. He died suddenly, when he was about to return to Italy to visit his elderly mother.

At the time of his death it was known that in addition to the constant financial support of his relatives in Madonna in Campagna, Giosue had also saved his money to help "some poor young man with his studies" in Italy.

A turning point in Ambrosoli's mission came with his transfer to the St. Vincent Convent of the Sisters of Charity between 1876 and 1877. The letters attest to an intense activity of spiritual assistance to the sisters, the novices and the sick at the two hospitals, St. Vincent's and St. Joseph's. Also evident is a great commitment to the formation of religious groups among the young Catholics of Sydney, including the Societies of the Child Jesus, of St. Aloysius Gonazaga and of the Daughters of Mary.

From 1889 Ambrosoli also began to care for the orphans of St. Anne's Orphanage, which the Sisters of Charity had opened in the suburb of Liverpool. Throughout his life he was generous to the poor in Sydney.

Recognizing his deep honesty and intelligence, the Sisters of Charity entrusted Ambrosoli with important responsibilities in the construction of new convents and schools in the suburbs of Woolhara, Liverpool, Petersham and Ashfield. Ambrosoli also played an important role in the history of St. Mary's Cathedral, the most majestic Catholic building in Australia: he collaborated with Polding's successors, Mons. Vaughan and Cardinal Moran, raising funds to cover building costs and maintaining contact with the Italian artisans involved in the project.

With regard to Ambrosoli's relationship with Moran, Cognoli and Lobate suggest that a petition from Ambrosoli sent to Cardinal Simeoni of Propaganda Fide, presented on behalf of the Sisters of Charity, seems to have contributed both to Moran being raised to the dignity of Cardinal in July 1885 and to the convocation of the first Plenary Council of the Australian Church. This is an interesting hypothesis that would give Ambrosoli an important role in the development of Australian Catholicism during one of its most crucial phases.

For this very reason, it is surprising that a recent biography of Cardinal Moran does not even mention Fr. Angelo Ambrosoli (Philip Ayres Prince of the Church: Patrick Francis Moran 1830-1911. Carlton, Victoria, The Miegunyah Press, 2007). This omission is also common to the major works of the deans of Australian Catholic historiogaphy, Patrick O'Farrell and Edmund Campion, despite the ample space they dedicate to the Archdiocese of Sydney.

This is a strange omission if one thinks of the moving portrait of Ambrosoli that Cardinal Moran himself outlined in his monumental work on the history of the Church in Australia, published in 1896. Moran dedicated three pages filled with admiration to the man known in Sydney as the "Little Saint", whose spirituality can be grasped in a passage from a letter sent to relatives in 1852: "But let us take this soul of ours into account, let us not kill it with sin, let us not neglect it but help it to grow with good works of patience and charity.

"Yes, suffer your tribulations peacefully, love all men and women wholeheartedly, especially those who cause you pain and always be in harmony with everyone; but above all, your home must be like a sanctuary of peace and concord. If we do this, we will sanctify our souls which will then all be able to meet again in Heaven".

The nickname "Little Saint" was far more than a recognition of the extraordinary spiritual and moral qualities of Ambrosoli; at his death in 1891 the Sisters of Charity contacted the Vicar Apostolic of Hong Kong to discuss with him the possibility of beginning the cause of beatification for their chaplain. They were discouraged by the realization that the thought of an Italian priest beatified would have caused "opposition, jealousy and other miseries". However, in the early 1970s, the Archdiocese of Sydney contacted the PIME, requesting relevant material to initiate the process of Ambrosoli's beatification. Nothing appears to have happened since then, but time will tell whether the study by Cognoli and Lobate has contributed to nurturing the Sisters of Charity's hope.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
11 March 2009, page 13

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