The Year of Our Lord 2016 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Mendi in the Southern Highlands Province and Hela Province of Papua New Guinea. Besides the Capuchin friars, there are five other religious communities of men and seven religious communities of women working in the diocese. Local diocesan priests, one from Poland and one from Tanzania, together with more than 350 catechists, and many volunteers from the Southern Highlands, Hela Province and other parts of the country serve the mission of the Church in the Mendi Diocese. This reality far surpasses the dream that the Capuchins had when they said “yes” to the urgent request from the Church through the Minister General fifty years ago.
The announcement by the Minister Provincial of the Capuchins of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the USA, Fr. Victor Green in February 1955 that the Province had accepted the responsibility of a new mission territory in Papua New Guinea caught the friars by surprise. It was a joyful surprise that electrified the Province; a spirit of enthusiasm filled the minds and hearts of the friars. When Fr. Victor said that he was ready to take the names of volunteers, there was certainly no lack of them.
Five months later the Provincial appointed the first band of missionaries: Fr. Otmar Gallagher, superior, Fr. Henry Kusnerik, Fr. Stanley Miltenberger, Fr. Paul Farkas, Fr. Berard Tomassetti, and Br. Mark Bollinger. On August 28, 1955, the feast of St. Augustine, the six friars were given their mission crosses and formally commissioned to carry the Gospel to the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
It was an enormous undertaking, far more than the Provincial superiors realized at the time. It was in the spirit of faith and obedience that this mission was accepted. This same spirit shaped the life and actions of those who answered the call to serve. This spirit made the mission endeavor successful.
It was only in the 1950s that the Australian government began patrols into the Southern Highlands of Papua with the view of opening up the area to development. The French Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, under the leadership of Bishop Andre Sorin, MSC, had their headquarters on Yule Island off the southern coast of Papua. Thus the Southern Highland District was considered “their territory.” However, they had neither the personnel nor the resources to expand into that populous region.
Archbishop Romolo Carboni, Apostolic Delegate to Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands was aware of the needs of the vast island of Papua New Guinea and was zealous in seeking religious communities to go there. Fr. Pierre Guichet, the religious superior of the French Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, decided that their community would go and make initial contacts in the Southern Highlands in preparation for whatever religious community the Apostolic Delegate would find. He sent two outstanding men, Fr. Alex Michelod and Br. Jean Delabarre, on this most important undertaking.
Fr. Alex and Br. Jean flew into Mendi on September 9, 1954 and were warmly welcomed by the Australian government officers. On September 10, the first Mass was offered in the Southern Highlands. The government officers put them in contact with Kapipi, the son of the headman in the area east of the airstrip. The missionaries were accepted by the men of that tribe who offered to build a house for them.
Time was short since their superior had given them only a month to look around. So after spending some days with their new friends, they flew on to Tari. Again they experienced a sincere welcome from the Australian officers who provided them lodging and put them in touch with Homoko, a headman in the area. The missionaries were invited into a place known as Kupari. The people promised to build a house and plant a garden. An enduring contact was made. After spending more time in the area and satisfied with the way things were going, Br. Jean walked with some patrol offices to Lake Kutubu to get a plane back to Yule Island. Fr. Alex flew back to Mendi to see how things were going there. Before he could arrange transportation to Yule Island, he received a telegram through the government office telling him to stay in Mendi because help was on the way. So Fr. Alex sat down with the people and began to learn all he could about them and their language.
On the first of December, a chartered plane arrived in Mendi with a load of supplies, three teachers, and Fr. Guichet who wanted to check on the situation. Also on board was Fr. Anastase Paoletti, the superior of the small band of Capuchins in Australia. Archbishop Carboni had contacted him about the possibility of the Capuchins accepting this mission. Fr. Anastase wrote to the Minister General about the request and then went to have a look at the mission for himself. While in Port Moresby Fr. Anastase met some of the bishops and religious superiors of other Catholic missions. He was told that the endeavor would be very difficult and would require a lot of financing. Bishop Noser, SVD of Madang strongly advised him to try to get American Capuchins for the mission. When Fr. Anastase returned to Sydney, he made his report to the Minister General.
On January 24, 1955 the General Definitory wrote to Fr. Victor Green in Pittsburgh asking the Pennsylvania Province to take the mission. Two weeks later Fr. Victor replied, “Yes, we will accept the mission.”
While negotiations were going on between Rome and Pittsburgh, the work of the fledging mission was moving forward. Fr. Alphonse Rinn, MSC and three more teachers flew in from Yule Island on January 26, 1955. Help had indeed arrived. Fr. Alex took the three teachers and returned to Tari to see how things were going. He was pleased to see that the people of Kupari had carried out all they had promised.
In August Fr. Louis Van Campenhoudt, MSC arrived in Mendi. This enabled Fr. Rinn, who had been there for seven months, to visit Ialibu, a large basin farther east, to investigate the possibility of opening a mission post. Everything was favorable. Shortly after that, Brothers Felix and Paul, members of the Oblates of St. Joseph, a local community founded years earlier by the late Archbishop Alain de Boismenu, arrived from Yule Island. Fr. Rinn sent them to Ialibu to start building a station. With three small mission stations established, the groundwork was prepared for the Capuchins.
On November 23, 1955 Fr. Otmar arrived in Tari, and four other friars followed shortly after. Fr. Paul who had been in Samarai because of emergency surgery, arrived on December 22. The Capuchin community was finally intact. The solemn celebration of the feast of the birth of Jesus in 1955 also celebrated the birth of the Capuchin Mission in Papua New Guinea.
As 1956 began, the friars dispersed to begin their apostolate among the people of Papua.
Fr. Henry went to Ialibu to work with Fr. Rinn. Fr. Stanley and Fr. Berard flew to Mendi where Fr. Louis Van Campenhoudt was working. Tari would be the mission headquarters, so Fr. Otmar remained there with Fr. Paul and Br. Mark. Fr. Alex Michelod, the representative of Bishop Sorin, also moved to Mendi.
As government patrols increased, larger areas were derestricted. From the three main stations the missionaries were able to reach out and establish more outstations. This pattern continued over the years until the entire Southern Highlands was open.
In May Bishop Sorin visited the highlands and had a meeting with all the personnel. It was then decided to move the mission headquarters to Mendi since that was the location of the district government offices. Thus Fr. Otmar moved to Mendi, and Fr. Berard went to Tari. Fr. Alex had returned to Yule Island, so the Bishop appointed Fr. Otmar as his delegate in the highlands. It was also decided that Fr. Paul should return to Pittsburgh for medical treatment.
In July 1956, three more friars were assigned to the mission: Br.Claude Mattingly, Fr. Gregory Smith, and Fr. Gary Stakem. Fr. Paul, having received the proper medical care, happily made his second trip to Papua with them. With the arrival of these friars in early December, Fr. Rinn and Fr. Van Campenhoudt returned to Yule Island. The work of the mission in the Southern Highlands was now the total responsibility of the Capuchins.
NEW JURISDI CTION
On November 13, 1958, newly elected Pope John XXIII excised the Southern Highlands and part of the Gulf District from the Vicariate of Yule Island and established the Prefecture Apostolic of Mendi. In April 1959 Fr. Firmin Schmidt, OFMCap, a lector of theology and a member of the Provincial Council, was named the Prefect Apostolic and given the title Monsignor. He arrived in Mendi in October 1959 with another new missionary from the Province, Fr. David Dressman.
Even though the friars were few in number, Fr. Otmar was making plans for expanding the outreach of the mission. With the arrival of Fr. August Rebel in 1958 and Fr. Senan Glass in April 1959, two important decisions were made: first, Fr. Stanley moved to the Kagua area southeast of Mendi to open a new station and second, Fr. Gregory was sent to Rabaul on New Britain Island to take a headmaster’s course. Upon his return a new station would be opened in Erave where a central school for boys would be established.
In Ialibu, as more areas were derestricted, outstations were opened in all directions. This became possible as catechists from the Chimbu area were made available. Chimbu, on the New Guinea side of the island, had been evangelized initially in the 1930s and then extensively after World War II. These catechists became the backbone of the expansion in the Ialibu area, and some also served in Kagua and Erave.
In the western part of the mission, Fr. Berard was making more and more contacts with the villages in the Tari basin. At the request of the government, he put to use his talents as a civil engineer and supervised the construction of a bridge over the Tagari River. This enabled the government to expand its operations to the west and at the same time open new fields for Fr. Berard. He made many contacts with the people, and in due course places like Pureni, Koroba, and Komo became main stations.
After five years of slow growth, there was an explosion of activity during the next twelve years. During that period, thirty-one friars arrived from the home province and two from Great Britain. Seven Australian diocesan priests volunteered for the mission. Six religious communities of women arrived to join in the spreading of the Gospel, and scores of enthusiastic lay missionaries heard of the Mendi mission and came to help. It was an exciting time, filled with hope.
With the arrival of more personnel, the experienced friars were able to answer requests from other villages to establish stations. During this time main stations were opened in Pureni, Pangia, Nipa, Det, Koroba, Komo, and Margarima. There was a lot of mobility in this very productive period of the mission.
In 1965 Mendi was elevated to the status of a Vicariate Apostolic, and Monsignor Firmin Schmidt was named the Bishop. On his way back from the Second Vatican Council, Bishop Firmin was ordained in Pittsburgh by Bishop John Wright on December 15, 1965.
When he returned to the mission in 1966, Fr. Thomas More Janeck, Minister Provincial, came with him to visit the friars. While it was evident to the Provincial that much had been accomplished in ten years, he saw that the needs were still very great and more missionaries were required.
From the beginning the friars realized that the presence and ministry of religious sisters were necessary for the genuine development of the work of the Church in the Southern Highlands. The prayers and efforts of the Capuchin superiors bore fruit with the arrival of the first group of religious women, the Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg, Indiana. Four sisters, under the leadership of Sr. Noreen McLaughlin, arrived in October 1960. In subsequent years more sisters from this community arrived and worked mainly in Mendi, Tari, and Kagua.
Earlier in the century, Archbishop Alain de Boismenu had founded a religious community of women in his diocese. In 1966 three members of this native order came to work with the people in Pureni. Sr. Solange Dendillo was the superior. Later some of these sisters worked in Nipa, Erave, and Det.
In 1969 the mission was blessed with the arrival of two more religious communities. From Baldegg, Switzerland came the Franciscan Sisters of Divine Providence. Mother Sixta Popp, who had been Minister General of their large community, came as the local superior. Besides bringing teachers, this community brought a new dimension to the mission work. Sr. Gaudentia Meier and Sr. Kiliana Fries were highly skilled health professionals. Br. Claude and Fr. Ben Madden built a clinic for them in Det that proved to be very popular with the people, especially the women.
Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions was the other community that arrived in 1969. Their ministry was teaching in schools and training catechists. Sr. Marie Lawlor of Ireland was in the first group, and she is still there.
In 1972 the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary arrived led by Sr. Mechtilde Wynhoven. These sisters served in Koroba and Lake Kopiago and were involved in literacy programs and women’s clubs. Two of them, Sr. Mechtilde and Sr. Annunciata McElligot, were nurses and worked in the Koroba Health Center.
The final group that came during this period of rapid expansion was the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary (Marists). They were led by Sr. Joyce Ann Edelmann and worked primarily in the school and the catechist center at Erave.
All of these Sisters’ communities and those who came later have performed invaluable service in establishing and nurturing the young Church in the Southern Highlands. By their ministry of teaching, medical expertise, hard work, and good example, they enabled both children and adults to become better people and more zealous members of the
Church. The sisters helped open for them the marvelous wonders of the kingdom of God.
The 1960s witnessed a greater involvement of the laity in all aspects of the life of the Church. Nowhere was this more evident than in the number of men and women, mostly in their early twenties, who volunteered to do mission work. The diocese of Mendi was richly blessed by this outpouring of zeal for the Church.
Some volunteers were sponsored by organizations like PALMS in Sydney, Australia and Lay Missionary Helpers in Los Angeles, California. Many came independently, but always with the recommendation of their bishop or pastor. Others were influenced by Religious Sisters communities. Twenty-five volunteers followed the Sisters from Baldegg in coming to the Mendi diocese. The largest group, eighty-eight strong, came from Australia. Twenty-eight came from the United States, New Zealand supplied ten, Ireland three, England three, Canada three, Liechtenstein two, and one each from Scotland, Germany, France, Trinidad and Malaysia.
They came as teachers, nurses, carpenters, mechanics, farmers, and pilots – all ready to serve in any capacity. In time, more and more local people were trained in these professions. As this effort progressed, the local government became reluctant to issue permits to outsiders; it wanted these positions to be filled by their own people.
One cannot exaggerate the impact that these young men and women had on the work of the mission. They brought a sense of dedication and hard work, as well as the zeal and joy of youth that touched the friars, the sisters, and the people of the Southern Highlands. All were enriched by the presence of these spirit-filled volunteers who gave three or more years of their young lives in the service of the Church and to Papua New Guinea. The work of the mission could not have advanced without them.
CATECHIST TRAINING CENTER
Indispensable to evangelization was the work of the catechists. Since the Church was new to the Southern Highlands, the majority of the catechists in the early years were recruited from other areas where the Church had already been established. The catechists were key to the spreading of the Gospel. These men lived at the outstations and instructed the people on a daily basis. The mission, however, couldn’t remain dependent on outside sources; local catechists had to be trained.
In 1969 a Catechist Training Center was opened in Erave. It was a two-year program under the direction of Fr. Dunstan who had gone to Manila to be trained for this work. Catechists from all over the diocese were sent to Erave. If they were married, their wives and children accompanied them.
As time passed, the Erave training center was closed as alternate forms of training catechists were tried. There is now a new catechist’s training center in Mendi with
fifty-two candidates in two alternating streams. There is also a large pastoral center in Mendi; many parishes have their own pastoral centers.
In the early 1960s the bishops of Papua New Guinea founded a major seminary at Kap near Madang. After a few years of operation, the bishops decided that a better location would be at Bomana, just outside Port Moresby. The government was establishing a university in the capital city, and it would be advantageous to have the major seminary close by. Moreover, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart were building their own major seminary in Bomana, so it was proposed to seek a joint program.
With the moving of the major seminary to Bomana, the buildings at Kap would be used to house a new minor seminary in 1967. Much to the surprise of the Capuchins, they were asked to staff the proposed seminary. There was great reluctance on the part of the Province, but Rome insisted, so this new and unexpected ministry fell to the lot of the Capuchins. The Province assigned Fr. Christian Fey, Fr. Armand Yeaglin, and Fr. Angelus Shaughnessy to the seminary and asked the mission to help out as well. Bishop Firmin Schmidt and the Religious Superior, Fr. Gary Stakem, agreed to release Fr. Henry Kusnerik and Fr. Brian Newman for work in the seminary. The diocese also permitted John O’Brien, a lay missionary teacher, to join the staff. Thus St. Fidelis Seminary came into existence.
THE MISSION OFFICE
The guidance of Divine Providence, the prayers of countless people, and the determined work of the friars, diocesan priests, religious sisters, and lay missionaries enabled the Capuchin Mission of Mendi to grow and thrive. However, without the financial support of the Mission Office in Pittsburgh, the work would not have been possible.
Fr. Cecil Nally founded the mission office in the 1920s. When the Province accepted the invitation to go to Puerto Rico in 1930, he was ready to help. With his organizational genius, he was able to bring together many dedicated benefactors who believed in the work of the missions and gave their whole-hearted support. The work of the mission office grew apace, and the work of the friars in Puerto Rico received sufficient support.
In 1953 Fr. Don Nally, a younger brother of Fr. Cecil and a veteran missionary in Puerto Rico, was asked to join the staff of the mission office. This enabled the work of the office to grow at a providential time; sixteen months after Fr. Don joined the staff, the Province accepted the mission in Papua New Guinea. This placed a huge burden on the mission office, but it was up to the challenge. Through an increasing number of generous benefactors, the financial demands of a primitive mission halfway around the world were met. The prayers and sacrifices of these generous people made it all happen.
While the development of an economy is primarily a matter for the private sector, the government plays a pivotal role. The Church also takes part in this, particularly in undeveloped areas. The Bishop and the friars cooperated with the government’s agricultural department by bringing in cattle, sheep, water buffalo, turkeys, chickens, ducks and stud pigs to improve the original native pigs. They also assisted the people in finding ways of planting cash crops, opening stores, and taking advantage of the available timber for commercial saw milling. The diocese even started a tea plantation.
While these and other development projects were not totally successful, all was not lost. These were learning experiences and are serving today as building blocks for the future.
IMPLANTING THE CHURCH
The Catholic Church is firmly established in the Southern Highlands, but it also needs to be a local Church. From the beginning catechists, teachers, and pastoral workers were trained to give the people the sense that this was their Church, not simply the Church of the missionaries. For the Church to stand on its own, local priests and religious are indispensable. Such vocations, however, take time to develop.
On December 15, 1977 Fr. Simon Apea of Ialibu was the first diocesan priest ordained by Bishop Firmin. He is now semi-retired. Two other local diocesan priests are very busy in the apostolate, Fr. George Makaja and Fr. Robert Gigmai. Many young men have gone to the seminary, but the perseverance rate has not been high. There is, however, solid reason for confidence in the future. At the present time there are fifteen men in the major seminary and six in the minor seminary studying for the Mendi Diocese.
Bishop Firmin Schmidt decided to found a community of religious women in 1976, and the Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg agreed to provide the necessary formation. Sr. Annata Holohan was asked to be the director of this community which was given the name Franciscan Sisters of Mary. The Lord has blessed this work. At the present time, there are twenty-five members in final vows working in several parishes in the diocese.
ESTABLISHING THE ORDER
In the 1970s some seminarians and young men in the villages began expressing interest in the Capuchin way of life. A few were accepted as postulants and began to live with the friars. A novitiate was opened in 1977.
Presently there are eighteen native-born friars in permanent vows, fifteen in temporary vows, six novices and four postulants. There is one priest in active ministry, Fr. Nicholas Yambu. These young friars are involved in many ministries: pastoral, youth, teaching, building, retreats, and Secular Franciscans. There have been setbacks. Some friars have departed after final vows and ordination, allured by politics and other attractions. Yet, the friars keep moving forward with trust in the Lord.
BISHOP FIRMIN’S JUBILEE
In December 1990 Bishop Firmin Schmidt marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of his ordination as a bishop at a joyous celebration in the beautiful new cathedral. Bishops from all over the country and the Papal Delegate from Port Moresby came to take part in the festivities. Thousands of people from every part of the diocese walked to Mendi to thank Bishop Firmin and to show their appreciation for his love, care, and devotion to them.
Three years later, at the age of 75, according to Church law, Bishop Firmin submitted his letter of resignation as Ordinary of the Mendi Diocese. In 1995 it was accepted.
The Church in the Southern Highlands grew from infancy to maturity during the thirty-six years of Bishop Firmin’s leadership. From a dozen friars in 1959, personnel grew to hundreds – including priests, sisters, brothers, lay missionaries, catechists, and people from the villages serving the Church in myriad ways. From a handful of Catholics, the number grew to nearly a hundred thousand. Bishop Firmin also served the entire Church in Papua New Guinea through his work in the Bishops’ Conference. His leadership was greatly respected by the other bishops and the government officials as well.
BISHOP STEPHEN REICHERT
On May 7, 1995 Most Reverend Stephen Reichert, OFMCap was ordained by Bishop Firmin to be the second bishop of Mendi. The choice was welcomed by the friars, the other missionaries, and the people of the diocese. The new bishop had been ordained to the priesthood in 1969 and arrived in the Southern Highlands in 1970 where he began his ministry with Fr. Ben Madden in Det. His many responsibilities over the years included that of Superior Regular of the Capuchins from 1983 to 1989.
The day after Bishop Stephen was ordained, Bishop Firmin Schmidt offered a Mass of Thanksgiving. All the people who had gathered for the ordination stayed on to say their final farewells and once again express their gratitude to Bishop Firmin as he headed back to the United States to live with the Capuchins in Ellis County, Kansas where he was born and raised. Bishop Firmin died in Hays, Kansas on August 4, 2005.
One of the major tasks of the new bishop was to find more priests and religious for the diocese. Some of the friars and sisters who had served in the mission for a long time were returning home because of age, health problems, and other reasons.
Missionaries of the Holy Family came from Poland in 1996. Bishop Stephen asked them to take over the Ialibu area with its three flourishing parishes. Other members of this community are working in the Mendi district.
When the Capuchins withdrew from the Kagua area, Bishop Stephen was able to get some diocesan priests from Poland to minister in that area. There are four of them now; two more are expected. They will also look after Erave.
Heralds of the Good News have come from India and are working in Det, Pomberel, and Irawi/Komo. A priest from the Congregation of St. Theresa, also from India, is pastor in Koroba. Also, the Korean Foreign Mission Society has a priest in Margarima and another in Lake Kopiago. Finally, the Capuchins have contracted with the friars of the Kerala Province in India to send friars on a regular basis.
Bishop Stephen has also been able to secure the help of several religious communities of women. These are the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart from Rabaul, the Daughters of Mary Immaculate also from Rabaul, the Missionary Sisters of Charity, the Franciscan Clarist Community, and the Korean Foreign Missionary Sisters.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
It is said that what is past is prologue. If that is true, then the history of the past fifty years in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea augurs well for the future. The growth of the Catholic Church is always a gift from God. In bestowing this gift, the Lord depended upon the zeal and leadership of the ministers provincial, bishops, and local superiors. Growth was furthered by the dedication and hard work of all the friars, diocesan priests, other religious communities of priests, communities of sisters, lay missionaries, and many people far from the mission field who supported the work by their prayers and offerings. The Mission Office in Pittsburgh, formerly under the direction of Fr. Cecil Nally and Fr. Don Nally, then Fr. Francis Fugini and now Fr. John Pfannenstiel relieved the missionaries of financial worries, so that they could concentrate on bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of Papua New Guinea.
The Bird of Paradise is the most famous of the many beautiful birds inhabiting Papua New Guinea. It is depicted on the nation’s flag. Yet, the country isn’t quite paradise. Many problems beset this land, some part of the growing pains of a new nation, others self-inflicted wounds caused by corruption, greed, and violence. But these can be overcome. The seed of victory is the Word of God.
Great things have been accomplished in Papua New Guinea. Greater challenges lie ahead. In spite of all the problems in this young nation, the missionaries are not discouraged. The future is in the hands of our loving and merciful God. He is the source of all confidence.
(Note: The foregoing was written in 2005 by Father Gary Stakem, OFM Cap., for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Capuchin Mission to PNG. It has been slightly edited. It gives a picture of the diocese at that time. Naturally, many things have changed since 2005. The next Chapter of this history is being written now. It begins with Bishop Stephen Reichert, OFM Cap., finishing his ministry in the Diocese of Mendi and being called by the Holy Father to assume the ministry of Archbishop in the Archdiocese of Madang, PNG. And the naming by the Holy Father of Bishop Donald Francis Lippert, OFM Cap., to continue the pioneering ministry of his two distinguished predecessors.)