Columban History in Taiwan

February 15, 2010

Taiwan is a densely populated country of nearly 23 million people living in an area the size of Maryland and Delaware combined. Of the three quarters of a million Christians, about 300,000 are Catholics.

Columban lay missionary Tabitha Bark offers a song and a smile to migrant workers at the Columban-run Hope Workers’ Center in Taiwan.

The first group of Columban missionaries went to Taiwan in 1978. In the highly industrialized dioceses of Hsinchu and Taipei, Columban missionaries minister in parishes that include small, struggling Christian communities made up of people from different tribal and Chinese groups. Columbans try to foster acceptance and cooperation among these racial groups and to strengthen these communities.

Two of the parishes operate day-care centers for mentally handicapped children, most of whom are from non-Christian families. The children receive a level of personal care, training and education that is uncommon in Taiwan. Efforts are underway to join with other centers throughout the island in the hope of raising the standard of care for such children.

Columbans also work among the Atayals, a tribal people who eke out a living in the mountains of Miaoli County. This area is a government-established reservation. All but the resident Aborigines are required to obtain a pass to enter. The aboriginal people in Taiwan suffer from poverty in sharp contrast to the majority of the population, and they are in danger of losing their culture and natural resources.

A disabled child is comforted by Columban Father Patrick O’Beirne in Taiwan in 2001.

Concern for the most marginalized segments of Taiwan society inspires other Columban apostolates. Ministries have been undertaken to prisoners and to the homeless. Twelve-Step spirituality groups have been established for alcoholics and their families.

Workers in Taiwan are often poorly treated by their employers in ways that deny their basic rights and human dignity. This is especially true for foreign workers. Recent years have seen an enormous influx of foreign contract workers, both legal and illegal.

Most of these workers are Thai or Filipinos, although some come from Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and mainland China. Columbans founded two centers in Hsinchu to promote the spiritual and social well-being of workers: New Life Workers’ Center in Taoyuan in 1984 and the Hope Workers’ Center in Chungli in 1987.

Columban Father Peter O'Neill took part in a protest against the abuse of migrant workers in Taiwan.

The New Life Workers’ Center is well-respected among indigenous workers and labor unions. The Hope Workers’ Center emphasizes service to migrant workers and women’s issues. Both centers encourage indigenous and foreign workers to set aside attitudes of competition and animosity so as to present a united front for the betterment of all workers.

Other services provided by the centers include legal support and action, care for the environment, information exchange, faith-sharing and companionship.

These centers are now run by trained local lay people. Columbans continue their involvement with the centers in a variety of support, coordination, liturgical and networking roles.