MicSem Publications

Historical Sketch of the Caroline-Marshall Mission of the New York Province

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

1986 Religion

The small band of Jesuits under Fr. Diego Sanvitores who arrived at Guam in 1668 to begin the evangelization of the Mariana Island were the earliest missionaries to Oceania. In the thirty turbulent years that followed, eleven Jesuits were killed before peace was re-established in this first Pacific colony and mission.

In the early part of the 1700s, two attempts were made by Jesuits to extend their work to the as yet unexplored islands of the Carolines. These unsuccessful attempts were abandoned after three more Jesuits were slain and another three went to their death in shipwrecks.

Augustinian Recollects followed Jesuits into the Marianas after the expulsion of the Society from Spanish realms in 1769, but another century passed before any further serious effort was made to bring the Faith to the Caroline and Marshall Islands. In 1686, the beginning of the first colonial rule in these islands, Spanish Capuchins opened the first lasting mission in the Carolines. Within a few years, the Sacred Heart fathers began work in the Marshalls. Shortly after the turn of the century, both fields were turned over to German Capuchins.

Spanish Jesuits returned in 1922, after the Japanese had seized Micronesia, to take over the apostolic work in the Carolines, Marshalls and Marianas. For over twenty years, under very difficult conditions, they staffed the mission. With the American conquest of the islands at the end of the World War II, however, the U.S. Government insisted that the mission be placed in the hands of American priests. On July 6, 1946, the Marianas were attached to the Vicariate of Guam and the Caroline and Marshall Islands constituted as a separate vicariate. The Caroline-Marshall mission was entrusted to American Jesuits and Fr. Vincent Kennally was appointed the Jesuit Superior and Apostolic Administrator. Frs. Fred Bailey and Thomas Feeney from the New England Province, Fr. Tom Donohue from Wisconsin Province, and Fr. Bill Rively from Maryland Province responded to the call for volunteers for this new field. From the New York Province, Frs. Ed McManus, Hugh Costigan, George McGowan and Harry Furay were also assigned to the mission.

The Caroline and Marshalls could not remain an open mission indefinitely, it was decided. After some initial reluctance, the New York Province agreed to accept the Caroline-Marshalls as its responsibility and the mission was handed over to the Province on March 12, 1948. At this same time, the Vicariate was transferred from the Apostolic Delegate of Japan to that of Washington.

The islands, scattered over an expanse of two million miles of water, had a population of only forty-five thousand. About one-third of the people were Catholics; most of the remainder were Protestants.

The reconstruction of the mission proceeded slowly in those early years, with American priests and the handful of Spanish Jesuits who survived the war working side by side. Parish residences, churches and convents had to be rebuilt, largely from salvaged materials and donated cement. Distances between islands were great and transportation was uncertain at best. A few inter-island vessels serviced the areas and occasional military planes flew from place to place. Gatherings of Jesuits for any purpose, social or pastoral, were all but impossible under the conditions of the day. Pastors, most of whom became builders of necessity, were lords over their own parishes. In September 1951, just a few months after Micronesia was placed under the civilian administration of the US Interior Department, Thomas Feeney was consecrated bishop in Boston and became the first American prelate of the mission. Fr. Vincent Kennally, until then the ecclesiastical administrator of the areas, was shortly afterwards assigned to the Philippines where he assumed the position of Superior of that mission. Several new priests arrived in the Caroline-Marshalls to begin language study and pastoral duties: Frs. John Fahey, Bill Walter, John McCarthy, Tom Lewis, John Nicholson and John Hoek. The first of the American Brothers—John Walter, Mike Murray and Paul Acer-also came during these years.

Apostolic horizons widened during these early years of expansion. Elementary schools were by then operating in most of the larger parishes. Fr. Rively returned from California in late 1951 in command of the forty-five foot schooner Romance soon to be renamed Star of the Sea and used for travel among the outlying islands in the Truk area. In September 1952, a formidable-looking cement fortress that had served as a Japanese communications center during the war was converted into a minor seminary and admitted its first candidates-twenty Trukese boys. A year later, the seminary was transformed into a full-fledged high school enrolling students from every district in the mission. Since then, Xavier High School has been one of the most visible apostolates of the mission; its four hundred alumni include some of the most distinguished political and religious leaders in Micronesia. The opening of the first Catholic high school in the islands brought another boon-Jesuit scholastics Andrew Connolly and Jack Curran, who began their regency at Xavier in 1953 were the first arrivals. They were followed by a steady stream of young Jesuits from the New York Province, almost all of whom returned after ordination for permanent assignment to the mission. In recent years, scholastics from Japan and Indonesia have also been assigned to the school for regency.

In 1957, Vincent Kennally was recalled from the Philippines to replace Bishop Feeney, who had died two years before, as the Vicar Apostolic of the Caroline-Marshalls. Fr. Ed McManus, the Jesuit Superior of the Mission, had acted as interim administrator. Fr. Bill Rively succeeded Fr. McManus as Mission Superior in 1959.

In June 1960, the mission was transferred to the newly-formed Buffalo Province and remained attached to it until the reintegration of the two provinces in I968. The ranks of mission operarii continued to swell as new recruits from the province arrived yearly. By the early 1960s, priests desiring a mid-career change of apostolate were being sought for short-term assignments as teachers and administrators. Frs. John Nash, Bob O'Connell and other Jesuits who came to the mission on a limited Commitment made a valuable contribution then and in later years.

Jesuit involvement in economic and social development was an important part of their pastoral work from the very beginning. Cooperatives and credit unions were begun on many of the islands to assist Micronesians, living largely at subsistence level, to build sturdier houses and begin small industries. But cash savings were clearly not the only need; intensive training in vocational skills was also called for. To answer this crying need, the Jesuit-run Ponape Agriculture and Trade School was opened in 1963 for young men from the entire Trust Territory. Under the directorship of Fr. Hugh Costigan and with Fr. Ed Soucie as principal, PATS has provided hundreds of boys with solid vocational training in agriculture, mechanics and construction.

In addition to PATS and Xavier, a third major Mission-wide undertaking was begun in 1968 when a minor seminary on Guam was opened for aspirants to the priesthood and religious life. Since 1948 a number of young men had been sent to the Philippines for training, but almost all dropped out after a few years. Of the five Micronesians who took vows as Jesuit Brothers, four later left the Society and the other died in 1970. Two graduates of Xavier entered the Jesuit novitiate at Plattsburgh, but neither remained to take vows. The ideal formula for handling potential vocations had obviously not yet been discovered. The only Micronesian priests at that time were Fr. Paulino Cantero, who had been educated in Spain and brought back to the mission in 1948, and Fr. Felix Yaoch, who was ordained at Buffalo in 1967. Both are Jesuits.

Perhaps twenty-five or thirty young men have gone to St. Ignatius House, the seminary on Guam, since its opening in 1968. Although the house has considerably softened culture shock for those considering vocations, the number who have actually gone on to the major seminary has been very small. Nonetheless, the overall vocation picture is promising. At present, there are two recently-ordained Micronesian diocesan priests, two Jesuit scholastics (one beginning theology and the other starting regency), two candidates for the diocesan priesthood in theology, and two young men at the minor seminary. In the 1970s, mission progress toward an indigenous clergy was spurred by the establishment of a diaconate program. A handful of older married men who had already demonstrated their leadership abilities and solid commitment to the church were trained for two or three years and ordained as deacons. Currently there are seven deacons in Ponape, eight in Truk and five in Yap, all of them receiving on-going pastoral training.

If any year can be cited as a watershed for the mission, it is probably 1968. It was in the summer of that year that the first general meeting of Jesuits in the Caroline-Marshall Mission was held. The week-long meeting in Truk resulted in consensus on a number of pastoral questions and acceptance-or at least non-resistance to-the conciliar documents of Vatican II. Even more importantly, it signaled the end of the era of the "independent pastor" and marked the beginning of the first serious attempt at mission-wide collaboration. Plans were laid for a vicariate planning congress, involving Jesuits, sisters and lay people, within the next few years.

The Vicariate Pastoral Planning Council (VPPC), as the congress was called, was held in Truk in two sessions: the first in 1971 and the second a year later. By this time, Martin Neylon had been made coadjutor Bishop of the Vicariate. Besides endorsing the new diaconate program and the general thrust towards indigenization (societal as well as religious), the VPPC created a number of new mission-wide programs. Perhaps the most significant of these was a research-pastoral institute known as the Micronesian Seminar. It was charged with overseeing the renewal of mission personnel, stimulating socio-theological reflection on contemporary issues, and providing resources that would enable the parishes to conduct their own community education programs. Catechetical, media and Human-development offices were also established at the Vicariate level. Fr. Bill McGarry, the Mission Superior for the past six years, has worked to maintain the new directions that were mapped out in the VPPC. Special mission priorities today are the training of Micronesians for leadership roles in the church and the "conscientization" of the general populace to enable them to cope with the problems that are brought by rapid social change and the imminent political decisions that they must face. In recent years, the mission has increasingly turned to Asia and other parts of Oceania for pastoral models and personnel assistance. While retaining its ties with the New York Province, the Caroline-Marshall Mission became a full-fledged member of the Asian Assistancy in 1975.

What are the prospects for the mission? As elsewhere in the Society, our men are aging and the manpower stream has slowed down to a trickle. More and more pastoral responsibility will have to be handed over to the Micronesian people, deacons and laity. Jesuits will increasingly serve in support roles, particularly through the training of indigenous leaders. As operating expenses of schools continue to skyrocket, much more of our educational apostolate will be non-formal in nature. In the future, even greater emphasis will be placed on community education, as much for pastoral reasons as surely financial. But whatever new forms their apostolic efforts may take, the Jesuits in the mission will continue to serve the needs of the Micronesian people in the years ahead, as they have for the last thirty.