The Martyrs of Papua New Guinea
New Guinea Martyrs' Day, Sunday 4 September, 2011
Sr Josephine Margaret CHN
The Lord be with you.
Today we thank God for the Martyrs of Papua New Guinea — for their witness, their faithfulness, and their incredible bravery and self-sacrifice in the loving service of others, and we thank God for the fruit of their lives evident in the living church and Christian people of P.N.G. today.
I am not an expert in anything about Papua New Guinea, but I am glad to share some personal memories and observations of my time there as a lay missionary teacher, 1961-1968, and, after I entered the Community of the Holy Name, from brief visits later, mainly to the Sisters of the Community of the Visitation at Hetune, near Popondetta. C.H.N. fostered this Community and we maintain a strong relationship with them.
How did I get to P.N.G. in the beginning? I grew up in a family very involved in the parish of St Peter's, Murrumbeena, a strong A.B.M. parish. I can remember learning to pray for missionaries from my earliest days. I knew about Copland King and Albert Maclaren, and the New Guinea Martyrs. For 10 years I went to school at St Peter's Girls' School, a small parish school where we were well-educated in all the basic subjects, including a thorough grounding in Christianity in the Anglican tradition.
The eruption of Mt Lamington In 1951 was a major event for us at Murrumbeena, as Margaret (Peggy) de Bibra, who had been headmistress of St Peter's School, perished in the eruption. She had begun the Martyrs Memorial School at Agenehambo just a few years earlier. I remember clearly Bishop David Hand preaching later in our church about St Margaret of Sangara. I had already decided that I would follow in her footsteps and be a missionary teacher, but I hadn't told anyone. My parish priest was very supportive, as were my parents. After university studies I spent 6 months at the House of the Epiphany in Sydney doing a missionary orientation course, and then I set sail in the Bulolo for P.N.G.
I have shared all this because I recognize the importance of hearing the story. We are all called along our own personal pathways, but wherever the salvation history of God's people is told there will be something relevant and appropriate for each of us to take to heart. This church of St Peter at Eastern Hill has for many years provided the venue and occasions for us to share in the story of the church in Papua New Guinea, and to go on our way reinspired, enthused and challenged, to play our part in the coming of God's kingdom, wherever we find ourselves.
After landing at Samarai and Dogura,I found myself on a little boat going along the N coast of Papua to Oro Bay, and then in a battered war-time jeep travelling inland to Agenehambo primary school, at the mission station almost opposite the Martyrs School. Mt Lamington loomed in the background. It all seemed right to me! After a year I moved to nearby Sasembata Station, and finally to Eiwo across the great Kumusi river which is the main geographical divide between Popondetta and Kokoda. It was on the far bank that a huge refugee camp and hospital were established after Mt Lamington's eruption.
At Eiwo I joined Fr John Sharpe and his wife Jean, a nurse, as the first expatriates to be stationed there permanently. There was a small bush hospital and new classrooms were being built, and the large church which became the centre of our mission life. I began a grade 6 class, and tried to visit the other classes each day to help with English. Grade 6 exams were very important as the students with the best results had the chance to be selected for secondary education at Martyrs or Holy Name schools, or to gain entry to Popondetta Government High School, and the brighter children were keen to succeed.
The next 3 and a half years were probably the happiest years of my life. They were the "glory years" which I still look back at, nostalgically, from time to time through my rose tinted glasses, though I assess them more realistically now I hope.
There was never any thought of security risks, but things have changed. Abuse of alcohol, increasing use of violence to 'solve' problems, and the breakdown of respect for the old systems of law and order, have all brought terrific changes. I was amazed when I commented on the many crippled young men I saw in Popondetta using walking sticks or crutches, and was told that many of them had been shot by the police when apprehended in some criminal activity! That said, ordinary common sense and care remain the best protection for most people, at most times, just as they are here.
John Sharpe was a fine priest, a good communicator, a person of vision and a kind and reliable friend. Under his leadership Eiwo became a self-supporting parish, the first in the Diocese, an amazing feat really, but I had seen the hours and hours of discussion and planning with the staff and the Church councillors that made it possible. It was disappointing to learn that soon after John left it all began to crumble away.
Financial management remains a most difficult aspect of P.N.G. life. In the traditional culture different values were, and still are emphasized- using what is available now, sharing with family and people of the same language group and taking care of them, and exchanging things rather than selling. We have to stand aside with all our clever ideas and suggestions, as the people continue learning by hard experience to plan and be responsible for their own future, in their own way, in a very different kind of world. It is sad though and disturbing that in this resource-rich country we hear about so much corruption, mismanagement, short-sightedness, and poverty. It will be very interesting to see how the new Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, manages his role.
Recently Srs Avrill and Valmai and I visited the Sisters of the Visitation. The special occasion was the de-consecration of the chapel there, designed and built by Br Clement S.S.F. in the 60's. It is a very imposing structure, but time and white ants have taken their toll, and it is now physically unsafe. We celebrated the Feast of the Visitation in great style, with former Archbishop James Ayong present as well as about 2000 other people on the day, and Archbishop Joe Kapapa joining us one day in the following week. Special shelters had been erected to house the hundreds of visitors who stayed for days in the convent grounds, and to hold the piles of food which were brought as gifts. Shouting, blowing of conch shells, beating of drums, and tooting of vehicle horns accompanied each new group of visitors who struggled down the muddy, rutted track from the main road on the days before the festival.
The festal Eucharist began with a procession of dancers and drummers, and drums or guitars accompanied all the enthusiastic singing during the service. The Sisters dramatized the story of the Visitation after the Gospel reading, and then a hush fell as a WOMAN stood to give the homily. This was Mother Vongai, the wife of the principal of Newton Theological College, a highly educated lady from Zimbabwe, who is an ordained Anglican priest. Within the church in P.N.G. she is not allowed to exercise any priestly ministry, but she is involved in various ways with the training and affirming of women. Her husband, Father Nicholas, has encouraged the wives of ordination students to share in some theological training, so that when they go out to parishes with their husbands they will be able to assist with more than house-keeping and sewing skills, and will have more understanding of Christian ministry.
After the Mass the service of Deconsecration took place. There were tears from many as the altar was stripped and the Reserved Sacrament removed from the beautiful Pyx hanging over the altar. So many people, over the years, have found refuge, healing, peace, and nourishment for their journeys at Hetune, centred on the Chapel! Visitors gathered around the Sisters afterwards to put this into words, but the huge crowd in attendance over the week was real testimony to its influence. People had come from Kokoda, Gona, Eroro, Tufi and beyond. Then the feasting, dancing, action songs, speech-making and presentations began. The Sisters now need to build a new chapel, and people contributed generously to this.
There was a strong, happy contingent of former C.V.L. Sisters staying at the Convent, helping in many different ways. These women uphold the Community by faithful support and love. Their training and life in the Community, especially in prayer, Bible Study, in service, hospitality and the knowledge and experience of God's love and power, have prepared them to play leading roles in their families, villages and parishes. Most also received training in H.I.V. education. Traditional Religious Life as a life-time commitment does not sit easily within P.N.G. culture but the gifts and training of the former Sisters are obviously used by God and to his glory.
Rita Simeni, another former Sister. was one of the speakers at the festival, and spoke strongly on the role of women. We actually felt that the whole day presented a vibrant and powerful picture of women alive and at work in the Church.
A few days later Srs Avrill and Valmai returned to Australia, but I was able to stay another 2 weeks. First I visited Eiwo, where, in an informal kind of way, a reunion had been arranged with some of my past students and friends. A former student, now an executive in the Oil Palm Industry in Popondetta, drove me up the Kokoda road. He is a very experienced driver which was just as well as we had to cross many creeks and rivers on the way. Most of the bridges and roads were washed away by Cyclone Guba a few years ago, but, although millions of dollars has been provided in aid, there was little evidence of major works — not much sign of major works, just shocking roads and rivers to be forded. I was driving along a major road, though you wouldn't think so! What I did see all along the road were vast swathes of Oil Palm blocks, replacing the natural tropical forest, and promising a future of depleted soil which may not be of any use for years when the Oil Palm becomes unproductive.
When we arrived at Eiwo a group of dancers welcomed us, and I was shown to a 2-roomed bush material rest house right on the bank of the beautiful Eiwo river. A former C.V.L. Sister had offered to look after any meals I needed, but usually meals were arranged with groups of old friends, pupils and parishioners. I spoke to all the schoolchildren and teachers, and visited the Aid post. There was lots of talking and sharing. The Sunday Mass was a real celebration, and after the service people gathered outside for speeches etc. Mothers, fathers, grandparents approached me, and many thanked me for teaching them English and thus opening many doors for them in their lives.
As I walked around and talked with people, at Eiwo and everywhere else, I confess that I was surprised that so many people, even out in the more remote areas, have mobile phones. One of the biggest companies involved in this is Digicell, and some people in a nearby village had given Digicell permission to erect a tower on their land. As part of their P.R., Digicell decided that they provide and build a big double classroom at Eiwo. I saw this work in progress. Five experienced builders from Port Moresby were assembling the aluminium frame for the pre-fabricated building. They were accommodated and fed by the village people and expected to complete the building in 6 weeks. It was a far cry from the days when my father had built a semi-permanent double classroom at Eiwo, funded by St Peter's Murrumbeena — a great achievement in those days
Soon it was time to return to Hetune again and then fly to Lae the "pot-hole" capital of P.N.G. to be with the C.V.L. Sisters who co-ordinate the Children's Crisis Centre, called Haus Clare. This is an ecumenical project of the Lae City Mission, and with Anglicare which has an office nearby. Haus Clare is named for the wife of a retired mining engineer who wished to put something back into the country which had given him so much. He bought a double-storeyed motel and donated it for a crisis centre for children. The upstairs rooms are rented out to single women — students or working women who value the security there, and this provides some income. The rest of the large building is home for about 16 young boys and girls. The Sisters live in a new building, above a large playroom-meeting area. There is no outside playground except an earth and gravel area, but the children nevertheless seem very happy playing there. It was lovely to hear the sounds of laughter and fun, especially when I learned about the background of some of the children.
Some are referred by the police, or picked up off the streets by welfare workers. On the streets they have to find food and shelter, and so are extremely vulnerable to all kinds of abuse. There is the constant danger of HIV AIDS, and sometimes their parents have died from it or become unable to care for the children because of it. Drugs are readily available too. Some children have been neglected or abused at home, and run away or been taken away. Some have never been to school, and spend a few months just staying at the home while they adjust to a more normal kind of life-style and have some lessons in basic literacy and numeracy before they are sent to school. It is a very secure place, with 24 hr security guards on duty. All very different to life at Eiwo in the 60's! Then we never heard of children being abandoned and having no-one willing and able to care for them. Haus Clare is obviously a Christian establishment, and each evening before tea there is a gathering for prayer and praise for the children which is led by different staff members. The children certainly know how to intercede for others!
Many people offer as volunteers at Haus Clare, helping with sewing, playing with the children, helping them with homework. Members of the Australian Army, and service people from visiting U.S. navy and army ships have supported the home with wonderful gifts in huge quantities — school supplies, clothing, bedding, toys, and kitchen utensils. Medical staff from these groups have conducted extensive medical checks on the children, treating, diagnosing and referring to hospitals etc in Lae if necessary. Local clinics care for the children without charge.
Lae City Mission also run a training Centre for 200 older boys and young men who otherwise would be wandering around unemployed and unemployable. When they have settled and proved reliable, local firms and people are interested in employing them. There is also a Haus Mari providing emergency accommodation and care for women and children in domestic violence situations. This reflects the unpleasant face of much life in P.N.G. towns today, but the support from the people around, including wealthy expatriates, reflects another common face.
I went to the local church on Sunday. It was Pentecost, and I felt very much at home in the worship. Afterwards we had morning tea, and the opportunity to talk to some of the parishioners about life in the town. I met some of the Sunday School children, whom the novices help to teach. The two novices stayed on to play in an ecumenical netball competition in the afternoon. It was all very like a local parish here.
After this short three week visit I had much food for thought about the life of the ordinary church members whom I had met in different places, the seed of the martyrs growing and bearing fruit. They have entered into a great tradition and now they are writing their own chapters in the book of salvation history, bearing witness to God's love, and forgiveness, and compassion. So, with them and with all God's faithful people, past and present, known and unknown we continue our journeys. It is all part of the story; and the story is God's love for us and our love for God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Living God, your Church grew through the zeal, courage and unflinching witness of your servants martyred in Papua New Guinea: give to us and all your people such steadfast faith in your purposes that we may serve faithfully wherever You have stationed us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.