History of evangelization in Papua New Guinea

European explorers had chaplains and missionaries in their ships during their explorations across the Pacific from 1520-1800. The missionaries baptized some local people during their short stay on islands but without much follow up.

Then in 1844 Pope Gregory XVI erected the Vicariate Apostolic of Melanesia and Micronesia and gave the responsibility for evangelization to the Marist congregation. On Dec. 1, 1845, Bishop Jean Baptiste Epalle, seven priests and seven brothers arrived in San Cristobel in the South Solomons to begin the evangelization of Melanesia.

They landed after two weeks in Santa Isabel to establish their mission station. The local people were not very happy about their visitors. The locals beat up the team and Bishop Epalle died three days late due to wounds.

Bishop Jean Georges Collomb took Bishop Epalle’s place and started the mission with his new team on Sept. 15, 1847 in Woodlark Island and in Rooke (Umboi) Island. But many of them died of malaria so the Marists were forced to withdraw the mission endeavor.

Another group, the Foreign Missionaries of Milan (PIME), reestablished the mission on Oct. 8, 1852 in Woodlark Island. They also encountered sickness and resistance from local people.

Father Giovanni Mazzuconi was killed by the local people in August 1855 and the Catholic Vicariate of Melanesia remained without missionaries until 1880.

In 1880, a French diocesan priest, Father Rene Marie Lannuzel arrived in New Ireland as a chaplain to French communities. In July 1881 he baptized 176 children at Matunakuna, near Rabaul.

Three Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC), under the leadership of Father Andre Navarra, started a mission in Matupit Island, near Rabaul, East New Britain on Sept. 29, 1882.

On July 4, 1885 MSCs under the leadership of Father Henry Verius started the mission in Yule Island, near present Bereina, Central Province.

The Divine Word Missionaries (SVDs) under the leadership of Father Eberhard Limbrock arrived in Alexishafen, Madang on Aug. 13, 1896.

Missionaries of the Society of Mary (SM) resumed their interrupted mission in Melanesia in 1897 in the British Solomons Protectorate, which today is the Solomon Islands.

In the following years they established themselves in Kieta, North Solomons. By 1901, the Catholic Church in Papua New Guinea had established four centers for its missionary activity: 1. Vunapope (near Rabaul) 2. Yule Island (near Bereina); 3. Alexishafen (near Madang) and Kieta (in Bougainville).

Missionaries on Yule Island. European mission priests headed by Father Alain de Boismenu (second from right, seated) and Yule Island children and adults during Father Boismenu’s episcopal jubilee in 1892. (Photo public domain)

The mission work by the missionaries, with the help of catechists, went well. They were the first to go into the interior of present-day Papua New Guinea which was full of difficult terrain. In time the missionaries established churches, roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure. They learnt the languages and the customary life of the people. They taught the people the Christian faith and baptized them. They trained catechists and teachers.

While most communities welcomed the missionaries and the work of evangelization, some communities showed opposition. On Aug. 13, 1904 at St. Paul Mission, in the Baining Mountains of New Britain, 10 missionaries were killed — priests, brothers and sisters — along with seven Christians. They became known as the ‘Baining Martyrs.’

Mission Work was seriously affected by World War I and in 1920 Australia was granted control of German New Guinea, but German missionaries were able to remain and continue their missionary activity.

In the Vicariate of Rabaul, so named in 1922, expansion of mission work on New Britain beyond Gazelle Peninsula began in 1924 under the new Bishop Vesters. Catechists have been very active well before the World War I. Mission work also progressed well in New Ireland and Manus Islands.

Alexishafen Catholic Mission on the north coast of Papua New Guinea was completely destroyed during World War II. (Photo public domain)

In Papua, the mission among the mountain tribes spread steadily and many new districts were established. Several missionaries lived in communities and visited sub-stations. Missionaries were also expanding their mission work in the coastal areas of Samarai and Sideia.

Australian missionaries of the Sacred Heart were evangelizing at the invitation of Bishop de Boismenu. The young women’s congregation of the Handmaids of our Lord, started in 1918, grew rapidly under the charismatic leadership of Mother Marie Therese Noblet.

Louis Vangeke, born at Veifa’a (Mekeo) in 1904, did his seminary studies in Madagascar and was ordained a priest in 1937.

The year 1935 saw the arrival of the five Carmelite sisters from the Convent of Autun, France.

The events of World War I and the change of sovereignty over the North Solomon Islands from Germany to Australia posed an unexpected challenge for Marist missionaries. Until then, they had been the only Christian mission in this area. But with the Australians in control a Methodist Mission appeared in 1916 and a Seventh Day Adventist mission was established in 1924. Both of them started their mission in what were considered Catholic areas.

The apostolic prefect, Maurice Boch SM, disregarding the Marist rule that they should not be deployed singly, broke up the communities and thus doubled the number of stations in Buka and Bougainville. Every station was subdivided into sectors headed by catechists.

The number of Catechists increased to 356 in 1935. When World War II broke out most of the German missionaries had to leave or were interned, but they left behind a remarkably strong Catholic community which proved able to survive the war years.

This was adapted by Father Victor Roche SVD, secretary for New Evangelization, from an article by Dr. Reiner Jaspers MSC, for Church Alive a publication of the Catholic Bishops Conference Papua New Guinea & Solomon Islands.

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