Columbans Build a Parish Center in the Remote Fijian Bush
In 1973, just three short years after the British granted Fiji independence, Columban Fr. Ed Quinn arrived in Fiji where he would live and work for the next thirty-four years. A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Fr. Ed spent twelve years in Korea and five years in the U.S. doing vocation work and launching the Columban Fathers’ Korean apostolate in Chicago, Illinois, before his assignment to Fiji. After the difficulty he encountered learning the Korean language, a mere two months of Fijian language school provided the skills Fr. Ed needed to communicate.
With the ability to communicate established, Fr. Ed embraced his new island home. Comprised of 322 islands and 522 smaller islets, only 106 of Fiji’s islands are inhabited. While Fiji covers a total area of 75,000 square miles, roughly 10% is land mass. The island of Viti Levu is home to Suva, the capital city and nearly 75% of the population. The islands are lush, covered in thick tropical forests, and are quite mountainous.
Following short stints in an island parish and as the regional bursar for the Society, in 1975 Fr. Ed was appointed to a jungle parish on Vanua Levu. When he arrived by boat, the only means of transportation, Fr. Ed found the local church and the area boarding school on the coast. The school served 300 students with half of the students in grades one through six and the other half in grades seven through nine. The students came from eight remote villages further inland. Parents would visit their children at Christmas and Easter break; students would return to their villages for the summer break. The distances from the villages to the school were too great for more frequent visits.
The $20.00 per semester tuition covered the students’ educational materials, sleeping quarters and tea and sugar. The students were responsible for fishing, hunting or growing the rest of their food. Lay volunteers and assistants did prepare the food for the students. And, when parents would slaughter cows for funerals and weddings, they would often send part of the meat to the school. With the children in school for approximately ten years, the separation was hard on the families and the villages.
Soon, the Fijian government passed an ordinance that primary and secondary schools needed to be separate. The men of the village, a Fijian priest and a Columban, Fr. John Doyle, met for three days around the yaqona bowl. Yaqona is often regarded as the Fijian “national drink,” and turning down an offer to drink from the bowl is considered insulting. Yaqona is made from the root of a pepper tree, ground into a powder and mixed with water in the bowl. It produces a calming effect on the body, although it leaves the mind clear. For the yaqona ceremony, all guests sit on the floor in a circle. The yaqona is offered in a small bowl to each guest in turn.
Following their three days of discussion and fueled by the yaqona, the men decided to build the primary school in an inland location in another county and leave the secondary school at the parish center on the coast. In much less time than three days, and without benefit of the yaqona bowl, the women decided this was not a good idea. They decided that the two schools would be built in a location central to the eight villages in what happened to be the middle of the jungle. The students would board Sunday evening through Friday noon and then walk home to their villages for the weekend.
The students would spend less time separated from their families and their villages. Once it was decided, work began. The location for the new schools and parish center was in the middle of the jungle. Aside from its relative central location to the outlying eight villages, there was nothing except jungle at the site. In fact, the place was so remote and untouched by humans that there were no mosquitoes or rats, two pests that need humans and their detritus to survive.
The villagers cut down the jungle growth with machetes and planted cassava. The flour made from the roots of the cassava plant is called tapioca and is one of the largest sources of carbohydrates for human beings in the world. To pay for building materials, the the villagers harvested sugarcane. With the proceeds from the cane, they purchased $10,000 worth of lumber for the two dormitories, three classrooms and the dining and kitchen area. Mass was celebrated in one of the classrooms.
They later built a priest’s house, although the first priest’s house was what could charitably be called a shack with a gunny sack door. A convent, a church and teachers’ houses completed the construction project.
Fr. Ed spent eight years in the middle of the jungle at the parish center before moving into administration and formation work in the Fiji Region. In addition to his work in the jungle parish, Fr. Ed started the lay missionary program in Fiji and welcomed the first Columban lay missionaries from another country to Fiji. Today, the parish is still active and thriving, still educating students and still residing in the middle of the jungle.