French Catholic missionaries first arrived in Fiji in 1844 at Lakeba, Lau. Missions were established in 1851 at Ba and Rewa on the island of Viti Levu, and at Solevu on Vanua Levu. Missionaries had to be withdrawn due to ill health, and in 1855, efforts were abandoned except for the mission at Levuka. At this point, the legendary Père Bréhéret built a boat and began sailing from island to island to preach the Gospel. Very slowly, the mission began to make progress. In 1860, the first Catholic school was built. In 1863, Fiji was made a Prefecture, with 6,000 converts.
In the early 20th century, there were 30 Marist Fathers, spread over 250 islands, tending eighteen central stations and 273 villages; eleven Marist Brothers, in charge of a school at Suva, a seminary and college at Cawaci and an English school for native Fijians at Rewa; 24 European and 31 native SMSM (Marist Missionary Sisters) Sisters conducting the majority of schools for girls; eight sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, ten Marist Sisters, in charge of a school and orphanage at Levuka and a school at Ba. A mission for lepers was conducted on Makogai Island by a Marist father and two SMSM Sisters.
Challenges abounded in the province of Ba, ranging from the persecution and imprisonment of Catholics en masse on the river-locked island of Delailagi, the Spanish measles outbreak in 1916, the great flood of 1931, difficulties in the outreach to the large Hindu and Muslim populations, the pervasive tension between the British colonialists and often outspoken French priests, and finally to the fire that gutted the small parish church of St. Peter Chanel in 1995.
Apart from small interludes, Columbans have administered the parish since their arrival in Fiji in 1952 (along with the nearby Xavier College), and the then parish priest Fr. Tom Daly immediately undertook a fundraising campaign to build a new Church for the rapidly expanding Catholic population. This came to fruition on the Feast of Christ the King, November 17, 2021, when a new Church of that name was consecrated by Archbishop Petero Mataca.
Twenty years later, parishioners gathered to celebrate this anniversary, along with the Sacrament of Confirmation of 34 candidates from five villages and four town areas. Twice delayed due to COVID restrictions, the young people with their facilitators bravely carried on their two year preparation course online and offline, and it was truly a joy to welcome Archbishop Peter Loy Chong who was last here in 2019.
Fine weather welcomed all who came on this Feast of Christ the King, November 21, 2021. COVID compliance teams, ushers, readers, ministers, choir members, and of course the candidates were all here one hour early. In his homily the Archbishop praised the young people who remained faithful to the two year Confirmation preparations, despite two lockdowns and an economic slump. He compared Confirmation to the cultural initiation rituals well known to indigenous people, in which particularly boys are expected to endure pain and isolation. COVID has been such an experience.
We hope that as restrictions ease, these “new soldiers of Christ” will find creative ways to spread His love and light at home, in their villages and wherever and to whomever God sends them as adult believers.
May Christ the King reign and may His kingdom, all people and all creation know its saving power.
Columban Fr. Patrick Colgan lives and works in Fiji.