59. Religious harmony, Part 2 – The debt owed to Rev. Percy Chatterton LMS

Paul Quinlivan’s Snapshots

Those who were in Port Moresby fifty years ago would remember the wonderful celebrations of the coronation. Villages along the Papua coast had prepared for a whole year – some hiring outside help – and, starting with the arrival of three long-boats, each rowed by fifty men in neck-to-ankle uniforms, the first boat all in red, the second all in white and the third, to complete the national colours, all in blue, they put on a truly memorable show. Less well remembered are the efforts of a small community of French Carmelite nuns on Yule Island to create a work of art and, on an entirely different plane, those of Reverend Percy Chatterton of the London Missionary Society to prevent a bloody outbreak of inter-tribal war. Before explaining these last two I must explain three other things. The first is that to celebrate Mass, Catholic priests wear robes (‘vestments’) which are often highly ornamented – so much so that many which were created for special occasions have, over the centuries, become priceless museum pieces. And the Carmelite nuns of Yule Island embroidered special vestments for this occasion. The second concerns this word ‘Carmelite’. Since 1452 – earlier for men – it has signified an ‘enclosed order’ of nuns who isolate themselves from the things of the world to devote themselves to prayer and to doing such work as will provide food. It is not all work and prayer however; they insist on having ‘recreation time’ each day and this includes the use of a library of non-religious books. Unfortunately – as was the case in this instance – the books are often out-of-date.
The third thing I must explain is that, whereas the bishops of Samarai (who were all Australians) often stayed in Port Moresby, the bishops of Yule Island (who were all Frenchmen) never caused a ripple there. This explains why, when it was announced that Bishop Sorin would lead the Moresby celebrations on behalf of the Catholic community, many Moresbyites (including non-Catholics) were outraged. Their antics meant (in addition to the results we shall see in a later Snapshot), that instead of the Special Vestments being noticed only by those attending Mass, they became a cause celebre. That was unfortunate because they were not only special, they were spectacular because, instead of restricting themselves to European decorations, as everyone had done for centuries, the nuns had decided to add a few Mekeo emblems because (‘luckily’, they thought) they had an ancient scholarly book in their convent library which had authentic sketches of such emblems. I put the word ‘luckily’ in inverted commas because the motifs they added were not Mekeo at all; they were actually the cultural inheritance of the Percy Chatterton’s LMS adherents – Congregationalists, believers in ‘the priesthood of all believers’. People who, by definition, are against men being specially elevated as priests – especially when they desecrate their sacred emblems!

The book the nuns had was a report, from the 1880s, of a scientific survey of the western coastline of British New Guinea and the drawings they had copied were clearly marked ‘Mekeo’. Unfortunately however – as Percy himself makes clear at pages 38 and 39 of his Papua, Day That I Have Loved (Pacific Publications 1974) – there had been population changes in that area between 1870 and 1890 and the area where the Delena Mission now is had, by 1900, become occupied by the much more widespread Motu people. This means that inter-tribal warfare could break out over a vast area so Native Affairs advised the Administrator that preventative action must be taken before word of the desecration spread. And, to cut a long story short, I was ordered to go to Delena and ask Percy to use his influence to restore harmony. I don’t know why I was chosen but I cursed because, although I had never met Percy, my colleagues hated and feared him. To them he was an ogre who wrote to the Minister – or to Buckingham Palace – if anyone had a complaint and such letters always brought a harsh letter from the Minister.

I spoke to Bishop Sorin and he said that, although he had known that the nuns were working on something special, they had not given the vestments to him until he was about to leave for Moresby and he had not inspected them. And he arranged for me to be given the book which the nuns had relied on so, with great trepidation, I boarded the Government Trawler for Delena. Imagine my surprise when, after looking at the book the nuns had provided, Percy was all sweetness and light! Possibly it was because, marking the relevant page of sketches, the nuns had placed a dignified letter expressing their mortification that pain had been caused by what had been done with the intention of giving pleasure to all lovers of Papua. Nobody loved Papua as much as did Percy! Whatever the cause, Percy said he would explain everything to his people and he was sure that they would understand. It appeared his word must have spread quickly because strife was averted. Although he did not cease his letters to the minister I am happy to say that, from that day on, Percy and I became firm friends. Indeed, when Percy had difficulties with Administration officials at a Missions Conference (as he did at two meetings when the Education Department wanted village Sunday Schools included as ‘registered schools’ so that they could control the qualifications of teachers) he moved a motion to appoint me Legal Adviser to the Missions Conference and I had to attend!


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