In 2008, Columbans in Korea celebrated the 75th anniversary of their arrival in the country. The first group of ten Columbans arrived in the port of Busan on the last Sunday in October 1933, the feast of Christ the King. Nine of the ten were fresh out of the seminary, having been ordained the previous year, and their average age was just over 25.
Fr. Ray Scanlon was on mission in Korea since his ordination in 1968, and he returned to his native Australia in 2010.
However, their leader, Fr. Owen McPolin, had been ordained for twenty years and was a veteran of four years on mission in China. Eight of the ten priests were from Ireland, and they were joined by one from Australia and one from the United States. The Australian was Jerome Sweeney, and the American was Harold Henry who eventually became bishop of the area entrusted to the Columbans. One of the young Irishmen, Dan McMenamin, died of tuberculosis after just four years in Korea; he was only 29 years of age.
At the time of their arrival in 1933, Korea was a colony harshly governed by Japan and that brought restrictions to the missionary work of the Columbans and tension to their lives. When World War II broke out a few years later, many of the first group, along with other Columbans who had followed them to Korea, were interned and three of them were actually accused of spying and were jailed for most of the war years. Those men were Frs. Austin Sweeney, Paddy Dawson and T. D. Ryan.
It was not very long after WW II ended that the work of the Church in Korea was even more drastically interrupted by the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. At that time, seven Columbans died at the hands of North Korean soldiers or in captivity. Two others, Bishop Thomas Quinlan and Fr. Philip Crosbie, survived the horrendous death march. Of course, many Catholics were killed and many more moved south to escape the Communist regime in the north. Following the truce that brought an end to the hostilities much of the missionaries’ time was taken up with relief work to help the people who had lost everything.
A long period of Church growth and development followed. Many more Columbans traveled to Korea in the footsteps of the fi rst group. In fact, altogether a total of 257 Columban priests have worked in Korea. The largest number in the country at any one time was 153 during 1970-71. At one time in 1977, Columban missionaries were working in nine different dioceses in Korea. In all, Columbans were responsible for starting a total of 129 parishes.
Until the 1970s, parish ministry was essential for Columbans in Korea. The people were eager to hear the Good News, and the number of Korean priests available to staff the parishes was small. Fortunately, since those days, standards of living and levels of education have improved, and many young Korean men were able to answer the call to join the diocesan priesthood and take over the work of parish ministry. Today only one Columban can claim the title of parish priest and his parish is one of the smallest in the country.
As the need for parish priests lessened, many other needs came to the notice of Columbans. They started special apostolates and became chaplains to hospitals, university students and labor apostolates. Columbans worked with farmers, migrant workers, the urban poor, the physically and mentally disabled, gamblers and those suffering from alcoholism. They taught in universities, gave retreats and offered spiritual direction, developed home industries for women, set up counseling centers and engaged in various justice, peace and ecological endeavors. Many of these apostolates have also been taken up by Korean clergy and religious.
Much of the thrust of our work in more recent times has come under the heading of “helping the Korean Church to become more missionary.” Beginning in the mid 1980s we were permitted to take Korean candidates for membership in our Society. A total of fifteen Korean diocesan priests have become Columban associates and worked with us in the Philippines, Peru and Chile. Currently there are priest associates on mission in South America. Every year we hold month-long workshops for Korean Church personnel going overseas on mission. We also have a strong group of Korean benefactors who help our missionary work by their interest and their spiritual and material support.
Columban Korean lay missionaries have gone to work in Fiji, the Philippines, Myanmar, Chile, Japan, the United States and Ireland. The Columban lay missionary program in Korea is very active, both sending and receiving. Columban Sisters came to mission in Korea in 1955. They set up hospitals and clinics in four different dioceses where Columban priests were administering parishes and provided invaluable help to the people especially in times of poverty and poor medical services.
Like the Columban Fathers, the Sisters recently have branched out in their work to help the disabled, AIDS sufferers, victims of sex trafficking and factory workers. Today they have a number of professed Korean women in their ranks, most of whom are working in various overseas mission areas.
The work of Columbans in Korea continues to change, but the mission remains the same. We have been blessed to spread the Good News in Korea and to mentor and teach others to do the same elsewhere.
This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Columban Mission.