A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Kiwi Zapped by Australia Day

The Founding of Australia by Algernon Talmadge

The Founding of Australia painting by Algernon Talmadge 1937

Some years ago I happened to be staying with friends on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne, and got caught up in Australia Day celebrations. It was on a Sunday that year so we went off to Mass at the nearby Sorrento parish. First shock was the Australian flag draped across the altar, and the second shock was the Hymn  ‘Advance Australia Fair’. At that time the Australian rugby team was dominating the All Blacks, and for a Kiwi to sing the Australian national anthem at Mass was like singing ‘God save the Queen’ in Dublin.


There was more to come. The preacher was on fire. He was down the aisle talking with energy and enthusiasm. I whispered to my friends: “Is this the Bishop?” they mouthed back: “No, a visitor from Melbourne”. He spoke about the discovery of the “Land of the Holy Spirit” like it was Columbus discovering America. He talked about gum trees, and we all promised to hug a gumtree before nightfall.

Fr Austin Cooper OMI

Fr Austin Cooper OMI AM
Born 1931 Sorrento Victoria
Ordained 1956
Awarded Order of Australia 2004

He spoke of holy Australians, and we all chanted “Saint Carolyn Chisholm” together. And at the end of the sermon there was a resounding round of applause. I was slightly shell-shocked, but recovered enough after Mass to shake his hand.He told me he was Austin Cooper OMI. Incidentally, the next morning in The Age I was scanning the list of those awarded the Order of Australia (AM) and there was his name ‘for services to education and scholarship’. I later discovered  books of his in our library. He is a church historian.

Later that morning at the local yacht club there was a re-enactment of the landing at Port Jackson in 1778,with  speeches and live music. In the afternoon I participated in a regatta of sail boats that formerly  were used to catch barracuda, ‘Couta Class.’ They were unlikely racers, beamy and slow with a bowsprit that curved downwards, and heavy on the tiller. It was very social and crews called out and ‘encouraged’ their rivals. It was a celebration of part of the history of this region, and such celebrations were happening all over Australia.

The ubiquitous barbecue is almost a ‘sacrament’ of summer living in Australia and New Zealand, and at least one bishop became famous for his skill at this kind of outdoor cooking, and deservedly was known as ‘the barbecue bishop’.

FleetAustralia Day is a day to celebrate culture and nationhood, but since it celebrates the arrival of European settlement, some sections of the population, notably the Aboriginal peoples, have less reason to celebrate. The impact of European settlement on Aboriginal people has been well documented, and successive administrations have tried to make good the losses of the indigenous people.

There is National Sorry Day (May m26)  when the nation expresses regret at the destruction of aboriginal culture.  The whole process has been controversial with racial overtones, and there is still major disagreement on how best to integrate aboriginal people and their unique cultures into national life. Aboriginal Art is greatly prized and sought after, and some elite athletes have raised the profile of indigenous Australians around the world. But ultimately Australia’s task of nationhood is a work in progress, and Australia Day is an excellent building block. As the song goes: From little things big things grow. 

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