From 1990 to about 2015, I generally served in the priest-less islands of Kadavu at Christmas, Easter and August 15. Kadavu is a set of islands about eight hours out of Suva, Fiji, by boat. Then my prayers were answered, and they got their own priests.
Just before Christmas 2022 the parish priest of Kadavu arrived on my doorstep with a request. “Can you come and help. We are short a priest in Nasalia for Christmas.” Now Nasalia was where I had mainly worked in Kadavu, and I was delighted with the chance to walk down memory lane. I didn’t even mind the eight-hour boat ride and slept right through the night along the other hundred people sleeping (and with some fairly loud snoring!) on the floor all around me.
Christmas was very wet that year in Kadavu but nothing could take from my joy at being back — and from the people’s enthusiasm as they lustily sang us through our Christmas liturgies. It was marvelous to catch up with people I had known for so long. Nasalia is an amazing Catholic settlement. Over one hundred years ago a certain Elizabeth Johns married a Daniel Lockington who had freehold land in Nasalia. She insisted on bringing up their children as Catholics. Today there is a thriving village of well over one hundred Catholics there not to mention some Catholic families in nearby villages. The two main families there are Lockingtons and Seetos. Old Seeto was a Chinese merchant who settled and married in Kadavu and his family eventually ended up in Nasalia. Many became Catholic. His grandson, the late Siga Seeto (whom I buried), built the present chapel of St. Peter Chanel. Before I left, I was able to bless the beautiful tomb the family has erected in memory of Siga and his beloved wife, Bulou Siteri.
On Christmas morning I had the joy of baptizing Joseph Seeto. This was a very moving moment for me as he was held by his father, another Siga Seeto, whom I had baptized right there thirty years earlier! Due to my age, I suppose, they sat me on a low table to preside over the Christmas banquet that we all shared later. Thirty years ago, I sat on the ground with everyone else, but the bones get creaky with age. My week there sped past quickly. The senior catechist, Anare Delaivuna, first anniversary had just passed, and I was able to travel to his nearby village, Ravitaki, and have Mass with his family there. There are two other catechists now, although the older one, Francis Lockington, is in his eighties and no longer very mobile. The younger one, Paul Verebasaga helped me with everything. When I first came, his late father, Pio Verebasaga was my mentor. My first stop is always at his grave which is on the way to Nasalia.
We spent New Years Eve in adoration for peace and concluded with midnight Mass, surely the first in the world for 2023. After this the “Lalis,” the Fijian bells (hollowed tree trunks), were sounded and people sang and enjoyed the start of the New Year. I was sad to leave but delighted with the chance to catch up, see how people had grown in the faith and how the young people had grown beyond my recognition. The mystery of Christ’s birth is taking place in Nasalia.
Columban Fr. Donal McIlraith lives and works in Fiji.