Carmelite in Van Diemen's Land

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The story of Fr Samuel Coote, OCarm

In 1824 a Carmelite priest arrived in Australia. He was Fr Samuel Coote, a Kilkenny man who studied at Maynooth and was ordained in 1818. Although he was only the fourth priest to come free to work on the Australian continent, he is a little known and rather neglected figure in Australian Catholic history.

He was known to the family of Fr Therry in Cork, and it was perhaps through them that he came to be interested in the Australian mission. In September 1823 he secured official government permission to minister to Catholics in Van Diemen's Land, and sailed from Ireland in the Ardent that November, arriving in Hobart in Mary 1824. There he met with a cool reception from the resident chaplain, Fr Conolly.

It is difficult now to reconstruct exactly what happened. Although Fr Coote had letter of introduction from the British Colonial Office and from Dr Poynter, the Vicar Apostolic of London, Fr Conolly seems to have objected that he did not have the necessary faculties from Dr Slater of Mauritius, the bishop responsible for New Holland. As a return of correspondence with Mauritius could take up to two years, Conolly in the meantime gave permission for Coote to minister at some of the outlying settlements, celebrating Mass on Sundays and teaching the children catechism. Fr Coote moved about the smaller settlements, and seems to have impressed the Catholic settlers in many of them.

cooteletterFr Conolly, however, was a hard man to impress, and within a few month the two priests had fallen out: Conolly forbade Coote to exercise his ministry, and Coote sought to replace Conolly as the official Catholic chaplain. In April 1825, 169 free Catholic settlers (probably a goodly proportion of the Catholic population at the time) petitioned the Governor, expressing their satisfaction with Fr Coote's work for themselves and their children. "This rev. gentleman has officiated in several districts", they wrote, "and the conciliatory and pious manner in which he has invariably conducted himself since his arrival in this colony, his unremitting endeavours in instruction in this confined sphere of action, and his disinterested behaviour have secured for him the highest esteem." At the same time they complained of Fr Conolly's failure to complete the Hobart chapel, despite the provision of funds for the purpose.

The Governor, however, was not prepared to support Fr Coote and in December 1825 he left the colony for England, never to return. Columbus Fitzpatrick remembers that he spent some time in Sydney, but whether he had any contact with the other two Carmelites in Sydney at this time, James Dempsey and John Butler, we now have no way of knowing. He died in London of consumption on 18 September 1837, aged fifty.

Fr Paul Chandler, OCarm