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Coaldrake, Frank William (1912–1970)

by Laurie O'Brien

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Frank William Coaldrake (1912-1970), Anglican priest and missionary, was born on 12 March 1912 in Brisbane, second child of native-born parents Thomas John Coaldrake, insurance superintendent, and his wife Eliza Rose, née Smith. After attending Sandgate State School and Brisbane Grammar School, Frank enrolled at the Teachers' Training College, Brisbane, and, during a short teaching career, became an external student at the University of Queensland.

His meeting with members of the Bush Brotherhoods led Coaldrake to Anglo-Catholicism and to an interest in the Church's ministry in the Australian outback. In 1932 he went to the pastoral town of Charleville in south-west Queensland as warden of the boys' hostel run by the Brotherhood of St Paul. There, for four years, despite meagre resources, his enthusiasm, talent for community work and rapport with the young turned the hostel into a hive of purposeful activity. Deeply influenced by the Brothers, he found his vocation to the ministry.

In 1936 Coaldrake returned to study full time at the university (B.A., 1938; M.A., 1944) in the school of mental and moral philosophy. A tall, striking figure, he threw himself into university life, excelling at intervarsity debating, winning a Blue for rowing while at St John's College and editing the student newspaper, Semper Floreat. In 1937 he represented his student union at a meeting in Adelaide at which the National Union of Australian University Students was formed; as a postgraduate student, he was its third president (1940). Yet, it was within the Australian Student Christian Movement that he found spiritual and intellectual affinities which stimulated him to apply his Christian faith to what he saw as the great moral issues confronting his generation. During his term as travelling secretary (1938-39) for the A.S.C.M. he grew convinced that, for a true Christian, pacifism was imperative. Three weeks after Australia's declaration of war in 1939, he founded the Peacemaker, a monthly paper to inform and assist men who conscientiously objected to military service.

That year Fr Gerard Tucker recruited Coaldrake to the Brotherhood of St Laurence to work in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. His personality and gifts as a community worker made him a dynamic member of the chapter. He supervised a hostel for homeless youth, lobbied local councils and State ministers, served as a probation officer, and organized non-violent protests against the injustices of the landlord and tenant legislation. Sleeping only sparingly, he completed his M.A. thesis on 'A Theory of Evil' and obtained his licentiate from the Australian College of Theology (1942). Made deacon in 1942 and ordained priest in 1943, he served as curate at St Cuthbert's, East Brunswick, and was assistant to the dean at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne.

Coaldrake's presidency (1943-46) of the Federal Pacifist Council of Australia and his prominence in radical social protest were viewed with concern by many in the Church's hierarchy and by the Australian security service. He fervently believed that the Christian response to Japanese aggression should be to build a 'bridge of reconciliation' between Australia and Japan. His offer to serve as a missionary in Japan was supported by Bishop George Cranswick, chairman of the Anglican Church's Australian Board of Missions. During fifteen months of preparation, Coaldrake studied Japanese language and culture at the University of Sydney and was assistant priest to Rev. John Hope at Christ Church St Laurence.

Mastering the language and overcoming daunting physical and cultural barriers, from June 1947 Coaldrake served in the battered and demoralized Japanese Episcopal Church, initially assisting a Japanese priest at Odawara in the diocese of Yokohama. Early in 1949 he embarked on what was to be his most remarkable achievement as priest in charge of the mountainous Izu peninsula, south of Tokyo. There he employed the methods of the Bush Brotherhoods to penetrate the isolated villages of a region which had never been evangelized by Christian missionaries. On furlough, Coaldrake married a Tasmanian diocesan youth organizer Maida Stelmar Williams on 3 December 1949 at Christ Church St Laurence. She was to share with him the creation of an Izu mission community centred on the city of Ito, Japan. On being offered the chairmanship of the Australian Board of Missions in 1956, Coaldrake returned with his wife and two children to Sydney.

For the next fourteen years, with his clear vision of the Church's responsibility for mission and his formidable capacity for administration, Coaldrake sought to shape the A.B.M.'s policies to meet the rapidly changing world of the 1960s. While remaining a devout Anglo-Catholic, he encouraged the development of ecumenical ties between missionary bodies of all denominations through his roles in the National Missionary Council of Australia and the Australian Council of Churches. More than a decade in advance of the world Anglican communion's advocacy of 'partnership in mission', he argued that Western concepts of mission were untenable in the post-colonial era and held that indigenous Christians in 'emerging' nations should be assisted to conduct missionary exchange with the 'home' churches on a basis of equality.

In 1960 Coaldrake was made a canon of All Souls Quetta Memorial Cathedral, Thursday Island. Convinced that, in mission work with Aborigines, the goal of 'assimilation' was harmfully racist, he persuaded the A.B.M. to adopt 'acceptance' as a guiding principle and to appoint an Aborigine as policy adviser in 1969. Although the privations of his early years in Japan had left Coaldrake less robust than in his exuberant youth, an inner asceticism enabled him to sustain a punishing administrative workload and to withstand the rigours of constant travel to mission stations. He relaxed at home in his workshop with carpentry and bookbinding, and he smoked a pipe.

Celebrated in the Church as 'a great missionary statesman [of] prophetic vision', on 10 July 1970 Coaldrake became the first Australian-born priest to be elected archbishop of Brisbane. Before he could be consecrated, he suffered an intragastric haemorrhage and died of myocardial infarction on 22 July in Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney. His funeral was held at Christ Church St Laurence and he was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery; his wife, son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Handfield, Friends and Brothers (Melb, 1980)
  • ABM Review, 60, no 4, Aug-Sept 1970
  • Peacemaker, Aug-Sept 1970
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 11 July 1970
  • Australian, 23 July 1970
  • Canberra Times, 23 July 1970
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 July 1970
  • P. Wilson, A Question of Conscience: Pacifism in Victoria 1938-1945 (Ph.D. thesis, La Trobe University, 1984)
  • Australian Board of Missions Archives (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Australian Student Christian Movement Archives (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Laurie O'Brien, 'Coaldrake, Frank William (1912–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/coaldrake-frank-william-9771/text17267, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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