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Bishop Michael Gower Coleman

Roman Catholic Bishop of Port Elizabeth[1] (1986- —)

“Feed my sheep”

Bishop Michael Coleman

Bishop Michael’s arms may be blazoned:

Arms: Per fess, the upper half per pale: 1. Azure, a harp or; 2. Azure, a pastoral staff or in bend sinister, surmounted of an open Bible proper; 3. Vert, four white sheep proper, 3 and 1, the lower sheep being larger than the rest. Between the first and second fields stands a padrão argent, its base in fess point, with part of the tablet and the Latin cross at the head protruding from the shield area.

Motto: Pasce oves meas.

About the arms:
A most unusual aspect of this device is the cross or padrão which stands out above the top line of the shield. While it it striking, its placement is not within the tradition of heraldry – as well as being somewhat impractical – and would most likely not have been accepted had the arms been granted or registered.

However, the arms of Roman Catholic clergy are no longer controlled from Rome – the congregation that formerly undertook the granting of episcopal and other ecclesiastical heraldry having been abolished under Pope John Paul I – and there is no obligation on South African bishops to register their arms with the Bureau of Heraldry in Pretoria.

The result is that bishops adopt arms under their own authority, and there is no control over the symbols they choose to adopt.

The arms as displayed are in fact the arms of a monsignor, since Bishop Michael devised the arms prior to his ordination as bishop and the illustration is taken from the order of service for his ordination.

This accounts for the absence from the achievement of the green bishop’s hat, the episcopal mitre and the pastoral staff (displayed behind the shield) that normally are shown in an episcopal achievement.

The Latin motto translates into English as Feed my sheep, recalling the instruction of the Risen Lord Jesus to Peter. (John 21:15-17)

The stole that is displayed around the shield and motto scroll repeats the motto in English, isiXhosa (Dlisa izumvu zam) and Afrikaans (Pas my skape op) – these being the three official languages of the Diocese of Port Elizabeth.

Bishop Michael informs me that the Xhosa translation was done with the assistance of a Xhosa-speaking academic, who provided the wording in an archaic and poetic style of isiXhosa. Following his ordination he visited the Peddie area (where many of the people are Mfengu) and was informed that in their dialect the word dlisa actually meant to feed with poison. This was an entirely unintentional slip, and gave rise to a nickname used of the bishop.

An official description of the arms appears on the back cover of the order of service, headed “SEAL AND MOTTO”. The emphases are mine, the capital letters in the original:

“When a priest is appointed Bishop it is the custom that he chooses a motto embodied in his diocesan Seal. Together they are expressive of how he wishes to highlight his ministry.

“Bishop Michael’s Seal is divided horizontally in two parts; the lower is green – symbolic of the land and growth, and the upper is blue – symbolic of the sky and peace. In the centre is a Diaz Cross – the first Catholic symbol planted in this part of Africa.

“The upper right-hand quarter of the shield has a golden harp representative of the joyful Faith of the Irish Community who contributed so much to the diocese, and a reminder of the Bishop’s own Faith origins.

“In the upper left-hand quarter is a golden bishop’s staff, recalling his role as Shepherd; also the open book of The Word of God underlining his prophetic office.

“In the green field are seven sheep on the move – representative of the pilgrim Church which is his flock. The motto of the Bishop is Christ’s injunction to Peter ‘FEED MY SHEEP’.

“It is reflected in the Seal in Latin and the three main languages of the diocese, on the red stole of priesthood which forms the surround for the whole seal. Red is the colour of courage and love.”

The number of sheep as illustrated is only four, yet the text makes mention of seven. It would seem that Bishop Michael chose seven as the number of perfection found so frequently in the Scriptures. However he was probably persuaded to reduce the number so that the sheep would be more readily identifiable. They are shown standing diagonally, yet facing the viewer. Their arrangement suggests sheep grazing in a meadow.

The harp shown is a typical Irish instrument. This quarter is in fact the arms of the Republic of Ireland, and appears as the third quarter in the arms of the British Sovereign. Various types of harp have appeared in the British royal arms since the first incorporation of Ireland into the sovereign’s achievement in 1801, but the type preferred in Éire is the harp of Brian Boru.[2]

The text refers to “a Diaz Cross”. This recalls the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias[3] who in 1488 rounded the Cape of Good Hope (without seeing it on his outward voyage, having been blown past it in a storm) and landed first at Mossel Bay (Angra de Vaqueros or Bay of the Herdsmen) and took water at Cape St Blaize, at what he called the Aguada de São Bras, on 3 February.

At the beginning of March he reached a point just east of Algoa Bay where he planted a padrão on a headland (which to him seemed to be an island) and referred to it as the padrão de São Gregorio. The headland is now known as Kwaaihoek.

The Portuguese explorers carried such padrões aboard their vessels with the purpose of planting them at prominent places along the coasts, to signify the Christian Faith and the authority of the King of Portugal, whose arms were carved on the tablet.

After this Dias sailed further east to a river which he named Rio de Infante (since a man called João Infante was the first ashore there) and is today called the Fish River. He was persuaded to turn back from this point.

Both Kwaaihoek and the Fish River lie within the Diocese of Port Elizabeth.

On his return voyage Dias named the southernmost point of the Cape Peninsula the Cabo de Bõa Esperança (Cape of Good Hope; see Cape Colony), but on his arrival in Portugal the credit for this name was given to his sovereign, João II, and it was recorded that Dias had called it Cabo Tormentoso (Cape of Storms).

The padrão was discovered in 1940 by Professor Eric Axelson, who recovered the pieces into which it had been broken and reassembled them. It is presumed that it had been smashed by 19th-century Boer farmers who saw the padrão as a symbol of Roman Catholicism, anathema to them with their Dutch Reformed tradition.

A replica of the padrão can today be seen at Kwaaihoek, and a further replica stands on Port Elizabeth’s Market Square.

About Bishop Michael:
Michael Gower Coleman was born on 19 April 1939 in Mafeking,[4] Cape Province, the eldest of seven children of Reg and Hope Coleman (who celebrated their golden wedding anniversary shortly before his episcopal ordination in 1986).

His family is largely of 1820 Settler stock and traces its origins to England, Wales and Scotland, as well as to Ireland – it was through his Irish great-grandmother that he received his Catholic Faith.

His only brother, Sidney, ran the family farm in the Albany district, but died in 1982, leaving a wife and children. Four of his sisters are married, and one, Sister Janine, is an Assumption Sister and celebrated her silver jubilee as a religious a week after Michael’s episcopal ordination.

Michael Coleman was educated at Laerskool Zeerust in the Transvaal (now in North West) and at Christian Brothers College in Kimberley, Cape (now Northern Cape). After working for a year in Zambia he entered St John Vianney Seminary in Pretoria as a student for the Diocese of Port Elizabeth at the invitation of Bishop Ernest Green.

In addition to his seven-year seminary course for the priesthood, he also attained a BA (Philosophy) degree through the University of South Africa. He was ordained priest on 30 June 1963 in his home parish of St Patrick’s, Grahamstown.

During his time as a priest he spent six years at the parish of St Francis Xavier, East London, and 10 years at Sacred Heart parish, King William’s Town, as well as shorter spells in Somerset East and Alice. He was sent to the United States in 1970 on the Mission Appeal Programme for a year, and again in 1976 for a year-long course on spiritual leadership and direction under the direction of the Jesuit Fathers. On his return he was involved in establishing the Marriage Encounter movement in South Africa, and particularly in the Port Elizabeth Diocese.

From 1981 to ’86 he was on the staff of the seminaries of Sts Peter and Paul in Hammanskraal, Transvaal (now in Gauteng), engaged in the orientation course for major seminarians.

It was announced in Rome on 5 April 1986 that he had been appointed by Pope John Paul II as the successor to Bishop John Murphy in Port Elizabeth.



[1] The Diocese of Port Elizabeth, originally established in Grahamstown in 1847 and translated to Port Elizabeth in 1939, encompasses the cities of Port Elizabeth and East London, and stretches as far north as Cradock. It is bounded by dioceses based in Oudtshoorn, De Aar, Queenstown and Umtata.

[2] Brian Boru (*941 †1014) was a pre-Norman High King of Ireland whose name is associated with a harp (actually made in the 14th century) preserved in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin.

A gold harp on blue has been the arms of Ireland since King Henry VIII again elevated it to the status of a kingdom. Previously, English kings had since early Plantagenet times been styled Lord of Ireland. Ireland had, before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, been an agglomeration of petty kingdoms acknowledging a High King.

For more on the arms of the English and British sovereigns, see this page.

[3] His name is often given in English as Bartholomew Diaz.

[4] Now known as Mafikeng, and capital of North West Province.


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  • Source of illustration: Order of service for Bishop Michael’s episcopal ordination.


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