Christ the King Parish, B, Fiji Islands
On February 20, 2016, the strongest tropical storm to hit the South Pacific region converged on the nation of Fiji. With winds reaching 185 mph, tropical cyclone Winston was recorded as a category 5 storm. The destructive winds, storm surges, and heavy rain had a devastating effect throughout the small island nation. Fiji's government estimated up to 350,000 people had been badly affected with 42 confirmed dead in the aftermath. The nation licked its wounds, buried its dead, and grieved the loss of lives, homes, agriculture, livestock, and livelihoods. There was indeed a time for everything, and for Fijians everywhere, February 2016 was undoubtedly a time of mourning.
The Priest and the People
Four hours to the west of Fiji's capital of Suva sits the small but lively town of Ba. The area is known for its relentlessly dry heat and sugarcane farms with many families making their living off agricultural pursuits. Work is physically demanding here, yet the people make do with what they have and survive on communal workmanship. It was to one of these villages, Koroqaqa (koro-ngah-ngah), that I made my way to with Fr. Nilton Iman one hot afternoon in November. Originally from Peru, he has been serving as Parish Priest in Ba since 2015. Father Nilton is heavily involved with the work of the church and spiritual lives of his parishioners. Speaking of his experience on the night Winston hit his parish, Fr. Nilton shared the following:
"Hearing on the radio that the cyclone was coming to Fiji, I didn't believe that it was going to be strong. Although when I looked around, people were preparing themselves for the storm. It was my first time to experience a cyclone, which turned out to be the worst in Fiji's history. It was very scary because the wind started out slowly but within a short time the sheer force of its power was on full display. The sound of the wind was almost like the roaring of waves and after 6:30 that night they finally smashed through the windows of my house and flooded the rooms with heavy rain. I prayed before going downstairs to check on the parishioners who had sought shelter in the parish hall. The winds died down after 7:30 that night, but the damage was done."
After the cyclone, Fr. Nilton worked tirelessly throughout the night and into Sunday morning. At 6 am he began to visit parishioners, and although the extent of the damage was not as terrible as other affected parts of the country, there was still plenty of loss. Fr. Nilton shared a particular moment that moved him to tears:
"I listened to so many experiences and stories that day, but the one that I will never forget is a lady who joyfully exclaimed, 'Father Nilton! It is a miracle that I am alive today!' I was shocked that in the face of so much loss and grief, this lady was thanking God for having made it through such a terrifying night."
Koroqaqa Village: A Church in Ruins
On the next Monday, Fr. Nilton drove to St. Gabriel community where he did his monthly Mass and visitations. The community was situated half an hour's drive away in the village of Koroqaqa, a quiet farming community with a number of Catholic families. Upon arrival it was obvious that the people had been hit hard. Many homes were damaged, and the St. Gabriel church lay flattened to the ground with what was left of its interior exposed to the elements. Corrugated pieces of iron were strewn around the property and collapsed walls of wood lay on the wet ground. The people of Koroqaqa were shaken, but after everyone was accounted for their attention immediately turned to the church wreckage.
Fr. Nilton and the members of St. Gabriel community decided to build a temporary tin shed for the Holy Mass to be celebrated in until a new church was constructed. A few wooden furnishings were used as the altar and pulpit while mats would be laid across the ground for parishioners to sit on during the Mass. Two years later the St. Gabriel community still worships just a few feet away from the church construction site and wait for the day when it will be completed.
The Village Catechist: A Strengthening of Faith
Village catechist Mr. Apenisa Momolevu shared a little about the St. Gabriel community's experience after Winston:
"I was working up in the hills at my farm when Cyclone Winston hit. The next day I went down to check on my village and saw that so much was damaged, I was very sad. St. Gabriel church had fallen and I thought, how will we have Mass now that there is no building? Even though we were badly affected we had to find strength to get back up and get on with our lives. There were plenty of problems getting to the village because of the damage and debris, but our faith made a way for us to make it to Mass each Sunday. I believe that because of the category 5 storm my faith has been strengthened.
Fr. Nilton visited us many times after the cyclone and brought donations from the Archdiocese of Suva to help us purchase some materials. Our community also did a lot of fundraising to help rebuild our church because it was very important for us to have a special place for our liturgical worship. Even though the construction of the church has been slow, the members of our Community and I are so happy to see that the church is finally being built. We do feel challenged at times that we're still having our Mass under the shed, but we have to remember that Jesus said, 'For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.' (Matthew 18:20) So God is with us, whether in a church building or a shed, He is here with us."
Fr. Nilton expressed his awe at the resilience of the St. Gabriel community saying, "I saw the brokenness and pain they went through in the aftermath, yet their faith not only remained but became stronger."
Two Years On: Prayer and Hope for Assistance
As days turned into weeks, weeks into many months, and then into two years, parishioners have rebuilt their lives. Along with the help of the Columban Mission Society of Fiji, the community has continued with the slow rebuilding of their beloved church. Tropical Cyclone Winston may have visited for only a few hours in 2016, but its affects still have the St. Gabriel community celebrating the Eucharist beneath a tin shed.
By intercession of Saint Columban, it is the prayer of Fr. Nilton and the St. Gabriel community that some assistance will come their way so they can complete the rebuilding of their beloved Church and move forward with God's grace and blessing.
Originally from Peru, Fr. Nilton Iman is a Columban priest associate currently living and working in Fiji. Columban Fr. Frank Hoare lives and works in Fiji.