September 2, 2005

Oldenburg Franciscans help Church
in Papua New Guinea grow

Editor’s note: Two stories on the Oldenburg Franciscans’ ministry in Papua New Guinea are part of an occasional series called “Stewards Abroad” that looks at the missionary efforts of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis throughout the world.

By Sean Gallagher

The hills of the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea are a world away from the hills of southeastern Indiana. But for 45 years, the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg have gone as missionaries to the Melanesian island country to proclaim the Gospel and help a young Church grow.

Four sisters were initially sent in 1960. One of those four, Sister Martine Mayborg, remains there to this day.

Communicating by e-mail, she commented on the longevity of her ministry.

“For me, this endeavor and ministry has been a real blessing and I can literally say I grew up in Papua New Guinea, coming here at the age of 24 and [I am] now 69,” Sister Martine said.

The particular ministries in which she has been involved over that time reflect on the one hand the broad needs of the Church there and, on the other hand, the growing ability of the local faithful over the years to take on more ministries themselves.

At first, Sister Martine and the other sisters were involved in elementary education. As local Catholics were able to take that over, the Franciscans moved on to secondary education. They eventually taught in a teacher’s college, instructing locals in the art and science of education. Later, they were able to move out of that and on to various pastoral ministries.

Sister Jean Marie Cleveland, congregational minister for the Sisters of the Third Order St. Francis of Oldenburg, recently commented on this trend.

“Through the years, as I see it, I believe that the sisters have taught us a lot about doing a job, and when it is finished you can leave it to qualified lay people to do and then you back out,” she said.

At its highpoint, the religious community had 15 sisters ministering in Papua New Guinea. Two sisters serve there today.

This mission ministry of the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg has had an impact both in Papua New Guinea and here at home as well.

Franciscan Sister Ann Vonder Meulen was in the fifth-grade when her teacher, Franciscan Sister Mary Claver Ehren, was chosen to be one of the first missionaries. As the years went on, she and her classmates followed the accomplishments of Sister Mary Claver and were inspired by her.

“She would come back and meet with us and show us, at that time, slides of the country and talk about it,” Sister Ann said. ‘So there was a real early attraction to going there.”

Her connection with Sister Mary Claver was one of the factors that led her to discern her own Franciscan vocation, entering the community in 1967.

But although Sister Ann had a desire to follow in the footsteps of Sister Mary Claver, that would not happen until more than 20 years later.

She ministered in Papua New Guinea from 1988 until 2000. The service she was called to do was evidence of the maturing nature of the local Church there.

Sister Ann was the novice mistress for a new Franciscan women’s religious community, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, based in Papua New Guinea.

When it emerged in the mid-1970s, there was some discussion about the possibility that this new community might simply become a province of the Oldenburg Franciscans.

But a consensus soon developed among both the local sisters and the missionary sisters from Indiana that the new community needed to be independent, in large part due to the great disparity in culture between the two communities.

This decision was a part of the challenging work of inculturating the faith into a culture where it has not been present in the past, a process where, on the one hand, good things in a culture are embraced and made part of the Church, but on the other where the Gospel seeks to change those aspects of a culture that need reform.

Sister Ann said that one way that the local sisters tried to embody Franciscan poverty within their own culture was to refuse to own any pigs since that farm animal is seen as a sign of wealth in Papua New Guinea.

At a deeply human level, the attempt by the local sisters to live out the Gospel more and more has been manifested in the desire among all the members of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary to live in peace and acceptance.

This might seem a natural desire in an American context, but there are dozens of rival tribal groups in Papua New Guinea and some of the members of the new religious community came from tribal groups that were traditionally antagonistic to each other.

In a trip she took with Sister Barbara Leonhard, Sister Ann recently returned to Papua New Guinea and noticed positive developments in the relationships among the local sisters since the time when she had left five years earlier.

“I thought there was a much greater community spirit,” she said. “Going back this time, I saw a lot more interaction across [tribal] lines. There’s much more of a cohesive spirit in the group, much more community consciousness.”

In addition to allowing the Gospel to heal tribal divisions that can go back for generations, the Oldenburg Franciscans also helped the local Church in Papua New Guinea respond to new challenges facing the faithful and society at large.

AIDS is a significant scourge on the society of the island nation. The Oldenburg Franciscans helped to begin a ministry to victims of the disease, a ministry now carried on by the Franciscan Sisters of Mary.

So many of the ministries that the Oldenburg Franciscans began in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea have flourished over the past 45 years, and with them the Church as a whole there has grown.

But as the ministries have blossomed and the faithful increased both in number and in their own human development, many of the roles that the Oldenburg Franciscans need to take on have been carried out by local Catholics.

Sister Barbara, who during her recent visit helped lead a retreat for the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, reflected on the great strides made by the faithful in Papua New Guinea.

“When our sisters first taught there, to even have imagined the day when the people they taught would be teachers and nurses and catechists would have felt like light years away,” she said. “And it really seems amazing to me that it’s only been 45 years, which is a relatively short time.”

Sister Martine has been a constant witness to this growth over that time. And while she admits that it can be difficult at times to move on to a different ministry when local Catholics can take it over, she knows that this was the original purpose for her coming to Papua New Guinea so long ago.

“To be a missionary or a community working in a mission land, it is our job to work ourselves out of jobs,” she said. “That is what we Oldenburg Franciscans have done in the past and will continue to do until we move on.” †

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