Old Boy - Archbishop Sir Virgil Copas

Archbishop Sir Virgil Copas
MSC, DD, KBE

~ Old Boy of St Mary’s ~

Virgil Patrick Copas was born in Toowoomba on the 19th March 1915, one of six children of the late Mr and Mrs Cornelius Copas, who were very active members of the local church.

Educated by the Sisters of Mercy, he graduated to St Mary’s College, where he received the major part of his education. After leaving the college he took a position at the post office in Clifton. His decision to enter the Sacred Heart Order led to his returning to studies at Downlands College in preparation for entering the Sacred Heart Training College at Douglas Park, NSW, in 1934. He was professed in 1937 and moved to the Sacred Heart monastery, Croydon, Victoria to complete his studies, before being ordained to the priesthood in July 1944 by Archbishop Mannix DD of Melbourne.

An outstanding sportsman he excelled in all disciplines of sport. He was particularly outstanding in athletics, cricket and football. As a cricketer he was deemed to have possible national potential.

He spent a year at Sydney University studying anthropology and tropical medicines in preparation for his missionary work. Under the remarkable Bishop Scharmach he worked at the mission at Vunapope from 1946 to 1951. As chaplain to the Australian Forces in Papua-New Guinea from 1945 to 1948 he showed remarkable ability to relate personally to the members of the forces. He not only looked after their spiritual needs and buried the dead but he wrote to dependants of dead servicemen, conveying information and consolation. His remarkable ability to relate to people was one of his enduring charms.

He worked from 1952 to 1954 under Bishop Doyle MSC at the mission at Samarai. He was superior of the Sacred Heart missionaries in the Northern Territory from 1953 to 1960, where he also acted as Naval Reserve Chaplain. During this time he was also the chaplain to the leprosarium conducted by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. He had a high estimation of the Aboriginals who received the faith: he found them loyal and zealous Christians. During this time he gave regular religious broadcasts on the ABC on Sundays.

Virgil Copas was appointed Bishop of Port Moresby by Pope John XXIII in December 1959: Archbishop Sir James Duhig DD consecrated him Vicar Apostolic of Port Moresby on 27 April 1960, and he became Archbishop in 1965 with the creation of Port Moresby as a diocese. For sixteen years he held the position with honour and distinction. An indigenous Bishop, Louis Vangeke MSC, who was consecrated in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, by His Holiness, Pope Paul VI, on the 3rd December 1970, as Virgil Copas’s auxiliary. Virgil Copas resigned in 1976 in favour of the first national Archbishop Herman To Paivu, who had been his auxiliary, along with Bishop Vangeke.

Virgil Copas then took up his appointment as Bishop of Kerema, which embraced coastal and highland areas. He received full membership of the tribal groups under his care and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth 11 in 1981, on the petition of the Papua-New Guinea Government, for his thirty years of service to the people of the country.

Archbishop Copas saw his priorities during his years in PNG as pastoral care, the extension of the educational and medical facilities, especially in remote areas, and the sponsoring of development projects in agriculture, trade and business. His knighthood cited his work in furthering the indigenization  of the Church, his work in Church unity and among the under privileged of the Kerema prison camp, where he was chaplain for 15 years.

He believed that Christianity had contributed greatly to the national life of the country. The Constitution states that there are two foundations on which the nation must be built – worthy customs and the principles of Christianity.

Retirement brought Virgil Copas to the Gold Coast, where he helped in administering the Church in the Coolangatta and Tugun areas. From 1988 Archbishop Copas gave annually $1000 for the assistance of students at St Mary’s College who had need of it. This was so typical of his generosity: he was a person who delighted in sharing people’s generosity to himself.

Meeting Virgil Copas was an inspiration because he allowed the spirit of Christ to penetrate his spirit. His quiet smile and reassuring attitude were unforgettable. He had the remarkable capacity to reach out to people at all levels of society with a humility that indicated that he was fully aware of the source of his own wonderful life.

References: The Chronicle, Tuesday October 5 1993,  The Chronicle, Saturday October 9 1993

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