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65 Years in the Windswept Islands

Columban Fr. Charles Duster (center) at the Fiji Solevu Catholic mission

Mission in Fiji

By Fr. Donal McIlraith

My most vivid memory of 30 years in Fiji is that of drifting at sea in a storm. It was January 2003, and Cyclone Ami had done great damage in the north. I was taking food to the island of Rabi. Fr. Taaremon Matauea is now a Columban in Taiwan, but then he was a seminarian and had sent me a distress call. He and his brother-in-law, Catechist Tampa, came to collect me and the food. Ten minutes out to sea, the engine fell off, and we drifted all that night and all the next day, finally finding land on Taveuni Island. The scripture verse, "The Lord will bless your going and coming" from Psalm 121 had jumped out of evening prayer at me the day before I left and this – together with the Rosary – sustained me in the face of what I thought might end in death.

You might say that Mao Tse Tung helped found the Fiji mission! When China was closed to the Columbans in the early 1950s, the Columban authorities needed other missions for our newly ordained priests. Fiji had been looked after largely by the French Marists. Vocations were fewer after the war, and Bishop Victor Foley, S.M., of Fiji invited the Columbans to help. On February 22, 1952, eleven Irish Columbans, led by the intrepid Fr. Denis Fitzpatrick, arrived in Suva to join the two from Australia-New Zealand who had also just arrived. The Columban centenary coincides with our 65th anniversary in Fiji. Two of the original founding Columbans survive, retired in Ireland, Frs. Seamus O'Conor and James Gavigan. One of the Fiji region founders, Fr. Arthur Tierney, is buried in Suva. The last of the founders to die were Australian Fr. Charlie O. Mahony and three time Fiji Director and founder of St. Thomas High School, Lautoka, Fr. Martin Dobey.

Fiji Solevu Catholic mission
Columban lay missionaries with Columban Fr. Tomas King

The bedrock of our mission here right now is our parishes. This is one of the main areas where we try to put the great commission into practice, "Going therefore make disciples…." (Mt 28:18-20) Labasa is a city on the Northern Island and grew around the sugar mill. Sugar and tourism are our major industries in Fiji. The parish was founded in the 1960s by Columban Fr. Richard O'Sullivan and is still staffed by Columbans. Today Columban Fr. Paul Tierney is pastor of this busy town. He is assisted by Fr. J.J. Ryan and lay missionary Monaliza Esteban of the Philippines. Between them, and with their local team, they minister to a large area. This parish was the last Fiji stop for Ceder Rapids, Iowa, native, Columban Fr. Charles Duster whose career in Fiji included being Vicar General to Archbishop Mataca for several years. The next parish is where Minneapolis born Columban Fr. Ed Quinn built the Vundibasoga School, a legendary feat in rough terrain that is still spoken of around the kava bowl.

Ba is a mill town on the main island and is pastored by two Columban associate priests, Fr. Nilton Iman of Peru as pastor and Fr. John Lee of Korea who are assisted by Irish Columban Fr. Kieran Maloney. Philippine lay missionary Liezl Ladaran works with them. Some 18 out stations keep them constantly busy, and Liezl helps them with their youth and women's programs.

Cyclone Kina did terrible damage to all of Fiji in 1993. All the main bridges were down. I will never forget hiring a boat to cross the Ba river to visit Columban Fr. John McEvoy. He was a picture of misery in his damaged presbytery but didn't have time to think of himself as he stretched out to help his needy parishioners. I myself was caught in two floods when pastor of Ba.

The most severe cyclone of our history was Winston which hit us in February 2016. Ba was badly hit. Frs. Nilton and John were in the presbytery, and the windows were blown in. Terrified, they somehow made their way to the basement where they spent the night with other parishioners. A lot of damage was done to the three schools of the parish and to the church of St. Columban in Votua village. Gratefully we received assistance from Columban supporters and were able to repair the church, the schools and also offer aid to the damaged traditional catholic village of Navala. Six hundred schools were damaged by Winston throughout Fiji, and so far only about 100 have been repaired. More than 10,000 people are still living under canvas roofs. We have run short of materials for rebuilding.

Our third parish is in the main city, Suva, and is now pastored by Fr. John McEvoy with the help of Marjorie Engcoy. One of the great photos of Raiwaqa is that of Columban Fr. Dermot Hurley, then its pastor, showing Queen Elizabeth of England around the new housing estate there. He was chair of the Fiji Housing Authority at the time. His publications in his almost 50 years as a pastor amounted to a quarter of a million pamphlets, hymn books, prayer books. Suva, the capital, is also where we have our formation houses for seminarians and lay missionaries. Our central house is also in Suva. Here we publish our local missionary magazine Kaulotu which picks up stories by Fijian and Pacifican missionaries and generally attempts to promote Fiji as a mission sending country. Columban Fr. David Arms heads the translation team for the Archdiocese and they have just produced the Altar Missal in Fijian.

Once the Columbans ran up to eighteen of the Archdiocese's thirty-four parishes. One of our main goals was to help develop local vocations, and today most of Fiji's parishes are staffed by Fijian priests. I am happy to have taught Sacred Scripture to almost all of them from Archbishop Chong down during their seminary years at the Fiji Seminary which is today a seminary of 160 students from all over the Pacific.

Fiji Solevu Catholic mission

Winds of change blow in the Church. Fiji was once staffed by missionaries. It is now a mission sending country, and the Columban task today it to help Fiji become ever more missionary. In 2016 Fiji had 65 missionaries overseas, not bad from a diocese of 80,000 people. This included Marist priests, Sisters and brothers, MSC missionaries and others, but the single biggest number of overseas Fijians were Columbans!

Calling others to be missionary witnesses to Jesus means that we also run vocation and formation programs for seminarians and lay missionaries. Currently we have about twelve seminarians. Ten of our Pacifican local priests and seminarians work overseas in places as far apart as Taiwan, Pakistan, and Peru. Those who join us become lifetime missionaries overseas in other Columban missions. We have had a lay mission sending program for 25 years now, and we have sent about 50 lay missionaries on mission. Serafina Ranadi was our senior lay missionary. She died three years ago when serving in Los Angeles, California. She is buried there —not far from Bob Hope!

Fiji figures a lot in the news because of climate change. In November 2017, Fiji lead the COP 23, the United Nations conference on Climate Change held in Bonn. The rising seas are already affecting us. Our Justice and Peace Office led by former lay missionary, Visenia Navelenikoro, is promoting study and action of Pope Francis' Laudato Si' right now to help us appreciate and act on these vital issues. Visenia facilitated a visit to Fiji by Columban eco-theologian, Fr. Sean McDonagh in 2016.

"As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Jesus' command still rings strong in the Pacific and in Fiji. The Fiji region today has about 30 people. Half of these work in Fiji. They staff parishes, teach, do translation work, or intercultural and inter-religious work. Our formation and vocation programs are run by Fijians, Fr. Iowane Gukibau, the first Fijian to join the Columbans and Fr. Willie Lee. Both are temporarily back in Fiji to help keep the home fires burning. In a few years we hope they will be replaced by others enabling them to return to their missions. The other half, people like Tongan Fr. Felisiano Fatu, Rector of Formation in Manila, bring the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God to the world, in our missions or in our formation programs.

Columban Fr. Donal McIlraith lives and works in Fiji.