January 7, 2011

Religious Vocations Supplement

The power of sharing the Gospel: Franciscans serve as missionaries in Papua New Guinea for 50 years

New Guinea women dressed in grass skirts and tribal head-dresses present a pig to Sister Barbara Piller, second from right, and Sister Maureen Mahon, right, during their visit to Mendi in October to mark the Oldenburg Franciscans’ five decades of missionary service in Papua New Guinea. (Photo courtesy of Sisters of St. Francis)

New Guinea women dressed in grass skirts and tribal head-dresses present a pig to Sister Barbara Piller, second from right, and Sister Maureen Mahon, right, during their visit to Mendi in October to mark the Oldenburg Franciscans’ five decades of missionary service in Papua New Guinea. (Photo courtesy of Sisters of St. Francis)

By Mary Ann Wyand

OLDENBURG—As five Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis visited in the parlor at their historic motherhouse on Dec. 9, their thoughts were far from southeastern Indiana.

Their conversation centered on the Oldenburg Franciscans’ five decades of educational and pastoral ministries in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, a remote and mountainous South Pacific island nation, from 1960 to 2010.

Now retired, the former missionary sisters enjoyed sharing fond memories about how they and 21 other Oldenburg Franciscans helped the Capuchin Franciscan priests and brothers bring the Catholic faith to the indigenous people.

After their arrival in Papua New Guinea 50 years ago, the Oldenburg Franciscans founded primary and secondary schools in Mendi, Tari and Kagua to educate illiterate women and children as well as a convent for the religious formation of the native Franciscan Sisters of Mary.

They also taught the people about hygiene, basic health care and equality.

Sister Kate Holohan, one of the four founding sisters, served in Papua New Guinea from 1960 to 1982.

Two of her sisters from Streator, Ill., were also Oldenburg Franciscans and missionary sisters. Sister Cecilia Holohan ministered in Papua New Guinea from 1969 until 1985, and Sister Doris Holohan began her missionary service in 1965 and is still serving there 45 years later.

“We went as teachers,” Sister Kate recalled. “I began teaching and had experience as a practical nurse so I did a lot of nursing. Then I got involved with the educational system. … My role was to visit our schools, and keep them in line with the government regulations and rules. After that, I was asked by the bishop to start the native community of sisters.”

Her years as a missionary sister “were like a dream come true,” she said. “The people were so welcoming. The Capuchin Franciscans had been there for five years. The trust and the confidence they had acquired with the people were automatically turned over to us.

“As missionaries, we went as guests to the country and were well received,” Sister Kate said. “The call [to missionary work] kept increasing and empowering my own gifts. … To share the Good News of Jesus was so powerful there. I had opportunities to be a part of the birthing of a nation, the birthing of the local Church, the birthing of an education system and the birthing of a community of native sisters there.”

Sister Noreen McLaughlin, a native of St. Mary Parish in New Albany, also was a founding missionary sister in Mendi.

She served in primary and secondary education as well as health care ministries from 1960 until 1989.

“We were useful and needed in so many different ways,” Sister Noreen said. “We were brought over mainly to help get the women into the schools because up to that time there had hardly been any opportunities for them. … In 1969, I was asked to teach at the first high school in our province. I helped with whatever was needed. … I had the privilege of being in charge of the health care of the students.”

Even as the sisters began ministries, she said, “we were always very much aware that we went there to work ourselves out of our positions and to help the people learn how to help themselves.”

She also served in religious education and later in religious vocations.

“We had grade school and high school girls as boarders for years,” Sister Noreen said. “We enjoyed their culture. We were very pleased as the Church was formed and the people became active ministers. We were happy when students were baptized and received first Communion. Seeing the faith of the people was humbling. You could see the Lord working there. It was a great delight.”

Sister Lorraine Geis, who grew up in St. Gabriel Parish in Connersville, served in Papua New Guinea from 1961 to 2001.

“I loved teaching,” she said. “I left Mendi and went to Tari. That was the beginning of the school there with the sisters. The Capuchin priests started it. I was teaching the first grade and my students were ages 6 to 26. … It was a different language than in Mendi. They were very fast at catching on to English.”

Sister Lorraine taught at the grade school in Tari for seven years then went to Kagua high school to teach mathematics and agriculture for three years.

“They didn’t know English and we didn’t know their language,” she said. “But they learned and we learned. … The women would crawl on their hands and knees into church in their grass skirts because they couldn’t be above the men so we began to have the girls come in the classroom before the boys.

“We were with the boarders day and night,” Sister Lorraine said. “They were our family and lived with us. When I got to the high school in Kagua, our students came from more than 200 miles away. We had seven languages, but they had learned English in grade school. They were very interested in learning about the world.”

Sister Ruthann Boyle, who grew up in Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove, served in Papua New Guinea from 1963 until 2001.

“When the sisters went there, they were the first white women that the people in the Southern Highlands had ever seen,” Sister Ruthann said. “Life was so different. I enjoyed walking to the villages with the children, … and learning their customs. … At the beginning, the girls were not allowed in the classrooms, but we said that we wouldn’t accept the boys unless we could accept the girls. We also taught their mothers to read and write.”

Sister Ruth Greiwe, who grew up in St. Mary Parish in Greensburg, served in Papua New Guinea from 1974 to 1994.

“I taught at the high school,” Sister Ruth said. “It has been a tremendous blessing to go to a foreign country and meet people from different cultures.

“History was unfolding right before our eyes,” she said. “In 1984, Pope John Paul II came to Papua New Guinea for the first time. He came up to the Southern Highlands, and that was a tremendous occasion. I will be eternally grateful for the fact that we were a part of this ministry. Once you go to a foreign mission, especially to one as primitive and startling as the one we went to, you will never be the same. You will look at everything differently.” †

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