September 2, 2005

Oldenburg Franciscans recall early work in Papua New Guinea

By Mary Ann Wyand

OLDENBURG—Ten thousand people came to say goodbye when Franciscan Sisters Mel Hoffmann, Lorraine Geis and Ruthann Boyle retired from nearly four decades of missionary work in Papua New Guinea in June 2001 and came home to live at their motherhouse in Oldenburg.

As the sisters recalled their missionary experiences during an interview at the motherhouse shortly after their return, they wiped away tears of joy brought on by their memories of helping bring the Catholic faith and education to isolated and illiterate people who had never seen white men or women until a half century ago.

“The first missionaries who brought Jesus and the Catholic faith to Papua New Guinea in 1955 were Capuchin priests,” Sister Ruthann said. “The Capuchins were the first white men, and we were the first white women they saw. The people didn’t even know there were other kinds of people on the other side of the mountains. They thought they were the only people in the world.”

During World War II, the people saw airplanes and thought they were birds, she said. “They had no idea there was a war going on down along the coast. They had no idea until we came and educated them about their history and told them about the war.”

An appreciation plaque presented to Sister Mel during their goodbye party at Tari High School in the Southern Highlands of the Melanesian island country was signed by the Honorable Alfred Kaiabe Abu Awira, a minister of Parliament in Papua New Guinea.

“To Sister Mel Hoffmann, founding mother of Tari High School, for your 38 years of service to the people of Hela, Southern Highlands Province and Papua New Guinea in the area of integral human and spiritual development through education,” it read. “I present this Appreciation Plaque as a token of translation of our heartfelt appreciation for your untiring efforts and dedication in your duty to God and mankind.

“As an extension of the Great Commission to Abraham to be a blessing to all people groups on the face of the earth and fulfilled through the coming death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,” it read. “On behalf of the Office of the Open Member for Komo Magarima and people, National Parliament House Papua New Guinea on the occasion of the farewell ceremony held on the 6th and 7th of June 2001 at Tari High School during which Sir Michael Thomas Somare … Founding Prime Minister and father of Papua New Guinea was the guest speaker. Until we meet again, Thank you and retire in Peace. Lest we forget.”

Sisters Mel, Lorraine and Ruthann said they are especially proud of one of their high school students, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1996 by the bishop there.

They said their inspiration to live the challenging life of missionary sisters on a rugged island was reinforced by Psalm 37: “Trust in the Lord and do good that you may dwell in the land and live secure. Find your delight in the Lord who will give you your heart’s desire” (Ps 37:3-4).

From 1960 until 2001, the sisters educated thousands of children, transforming the school campus from a few grass huts to about 100 wooden buildings.

“Tari High School now has 500 boarding students,” Sister Mel said. As the principal, she considered all the students to be members of a very large family who helped grow their food in the gardens and assisted with a variety of daily chores.

“It was like a family,” Sister Lorraine said. “For the past 40 years, we had the students as boarders. That was how the mission started, and that was our way of keeping them because if they had gone home every night we never would have gotten them back to school on time. They knew nothing about time.”

Most of the students don’t know their birth dates, she said, so the sisters would try to guess when they were born.

“We would teach the classes, and since we lived with them we had children with us all the time,” Sister Lorraine said. “We were caring for 500 children, helping them with their religious education and their cleanliness, taking care of their dormitories and preparing food in the mess hall every day.”

In recent years, members of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary were invited to assist the Oldenburg Franciscans with the school ministry.

Sister Mel also helped establish hydroelectric power from the Tebi River near the school campus as well as maintain a cattle project to provide meat for the school community.

“When we first got there, there was nothing,” she said. “It was just bush. The students also help with the landscaping. They’re good workers, hard workers.”

It rains every day there, Sister Mel said, so there is never a problem collecting clean drinking water.

“I was the principal, a part-time teacher and the butcher,” she said. “It was very fulfilling work for 40 years. But the Lord works in strange ways. If somebody had told me that as a sister I would be doing all that I did there, I wouldn’t have believed them. I never dreamed that I was going to run a school and set up a hydro scheme and cattle project, but one thing led to another and this is what came out of it.

“When I look back over the past 40 years and think about all the people whose lives we touched and all the things the children who came out of the bush learned to do, it is just a fabulous thing,” Sister Mel said. “It was very fulfilling to watch them learn.”

The sisters said they thank God for everything they were able to do as missionary sisters in Papua New Guinea.

“I’m very grateful for having had the missionary vocation,” Sister Lorraine said, wiping away tears. “I will always remember the simplicity of the people. They were just so nice to be with.” †

Local site Links: