A Good Beginning – Dec PNG KUNDU 2023
In 1955, Most Rev. Leo Arkfield, SVD, DD, visited the Reverend Mother Damian Duncombe rsm at All Hallows’ Convent in Ann Street, Brisbane. Born in the United States and in charge of the Vicariate of Wewak, Rev. Leo was in Brisbane to honour the Golden Jubilee of His Grace, Archbishop Duhig.
During this visit, Rev. Leo asked for a Mission of the Sisters of Mercy which was subsequently decided in a council meeting of the Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation in March 1956. At the Bishop’s invitation, Reverend Mother Damian rsm and Mother M St Brigid rsm travelled to view the Kunjingini Mission run by Father Blasig, which was located two days’ travel or 25 flying minutes from the nearest Convent in Wewak (Holy Spirit).
‘It seems too good to be true’, wrote the Bishop, ‘may the Lord be praised for sending the All Hallows’ Sisters to Wewak.’ (Page 311, Sr M Xaverius, Beyond Our Dreams)
On returning home, Reverend Mother Damian told the Sisters about Kunjingini and its surrounding villages, the people, and the climate noting ‘there was strangeness and loneliness to be faced. Who would go?’ (page 311). The positive response from Australian and Irish Sisters was astonishing as mailbag after mailbag was received with requests to join the mission.
The Sisters chosen for the Mission prepared by learning Pidgin and learning how to drive both a jeep and autobikes (now referred to as motorbikes or motorcycles). His Grace, Archbishop Duhig, in support of the first Mission to PNG from the Queensland Diocese, authorised a successful appeal within the Archdiocese to assist in the launch of the venture. Both financial and other gifts, including a jeep, musical instruments and materials were then gathered.
The first Sisters were to depart for Papua New Guinea on 27 January 1957. In attendance at the ceremony to confer the Mission Crosses in St Stephen’s Cathedral was a full congregation, the Apostolic Delegate, Most Rev. Romolo Carboni, and His Grace, Archbishop James Duhig.
‘In accepting the Bishop’s invitation, the Mother General and Her Council (reflecting the mind of the Sisters of Mercy) chose Kunjingini, the Mission that, viewed humanly, could only be considered as the least attractive and the most difficult. It is precisely in such challenging atmosphere that the Sisters will work …’ (Page 312)
The Sisters chosen for the Mission were from both Queensland and Irish birth, and had nursing training, (e.g. splinting bones, wound stitching and injections) and teacher training. There was one fully-trained and experienced nurse with war service in New Guinea (Sister M Isobel) and one fully-qualified and Mater-experienced pharmacist (SM Margarita). The full list of Sisters consisted of:
Mother M. Francis Regis Everingham, Sisters M. Marietta Reidy, Margarita Shannon, Cephas Philben, Carthage Fennessy, Isobel Condon, and Philip Cervetto. (Page 313)
The Sisters first travelled to Wewak where they were welcomed and stayed with the Sisters of the Holy
Spirit until the Bishop was ready to fly them to their Kunjingini base. The Sisters arrived at the Mission and found a house constructed out of local materials by Father Blasig, a church, and a school of approximately 370 pupils. The house was also used as a teacher-training centre for indigenous students with Sister M Margarita qualified to train the teachers.
The Sisters’ focus on teaching, health and hygiene saw them travelling to villages by jeep, bike, motorcycle, canoe, horseback and foot. The Bishop, in conjunction with the Government, saw the ante-natal and post-natal clinic works in Kunjingini recognised as a Mother-care centre under Sister M Isobel. The Mission was also involved in nutritional education and introduced dairy in the form of a cow gifted by the Sisters’ relatives.
Mother General Damian with the Bishop subsequently visited the Kunjingini Mission to see the Sisters and to visit other areas, including Torembi. The Mother General and her Council, under the recommendation of Bishop Arkfeld, later sent out an invitation to the Federated Congregations of Sisters of Mercy to supply volunteers on a term of five years. Four congregations (Rockhampton, Townsville, Herberton and Grafton) responded and All Hallows’ became responsible for the Mission. Mother Joseph Xavier Byrne received the Mission Cross on 26 January 1958 and was accompanied to Torembi by SM Annunziata McNamara (T’ville), Sister M Felix Wildie (Rockhampton), Sister M Vincent Kelly (Grafton), and SM Gertrude Russell (Herberton). The parish at Torembi covered 2,000/3,000 square miles and was isolated and inaccessible, except by air transport. On the way to Torembi, the Sisters visited Sister M Carthage at Kunjingini Mission who helped them to settle in.
Due to its isolation, Torembi Mission experienced difficulty in getting supplies of food, shelter, clothing and fresh milk. They were sent supplies by the Kunjingini Mission:
Mother Joseph Xavier said: ‘Father told us a few days ago that he would not be able to buy food for the boarders if he did not have newspapers, so you can be sure that every sheet of paper you keep means coconut and fruit for our charges.’ (Page 321)
Due to lack of milk and fresh food, Sister M Vincent returned to Australia after two years in poor health. Sister M Annunziata had earlier returned to Townsville due to ill health. These two Sisters were replaced by Sister M Chrysostom Hooper, and Sister M William Myers, both of the All Hallows’ community.
A couple of weeks prior to Easter in 1961, Archbishop de Furstenberg, Apostolic Delegate and his secretary accompanied the Bishop to Torembi Mission where the Apostolic Blessing was bestowed on the church. Ongoing support from Australian Catholics for the Sisters of Mercy Missions at Kunjingini and Torembi further assisted in raising support in Europe and saw funding coming from Germany to run the Maternity Clinics and to buy petrol.
The works of Mercy in Papua New Guinea continue today through the work of the local Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea Sisters. Their endeavours, along with the collaboration of local women and men, are supported by Mercy Works Ltd and Catherine McAuley Services Limited with the Sisters of Mercy, Brisbane being a financial sponsor for community projects across the country. For further information on the continuing mission of Sisters in the tradition of Mercy, please refer to: https://institute.mercy.org.au/
Editor’s Note: the author’s quotations are from the book, Beyond our Dreams, written by Sister Mary Xaverius O’Donoghue published in 1961 by Jacaranda Press. The sisters at these missions have recently donated their collection of artefacts to PNGAA.