Diocese of Mendi
The history of what is now the Diocese of Mendi begins in September 1954 when Fr. Alexis Michellod, MSC became the first Catholic priest to settle down in the Southern Highlands. Brother J. Delabarre, MSC, accompanied him.
It was in November of 1950 that the first permanent base was set up by the Government in what is now the Diocese of Mendi. There was no permanent contact from the outside world with the people of this area before that date. A patrol post had been established at Lake Kutubu on a temporary basis prior to World War II, but this lasted only a short time.
A patrol led by Jack Hides penetrated the Southern Highlands in 1935, and the report that there were many tribes with large populations seemed unacceptable to the authorities in Port Moresby. Later patrols verified the reports of Jack Hides.
Bishop A. Sorin, MSC, the Vicar Apostolic of Port Moresby, was genuinely concerned over the new "potential" mission filed in the Highlands. He explained the situation to the Sacred Congregation in Rome, with the forceful request that another missionary Order be contacted, since the Port Moresby Vicariate had neither the personnel nor the facilities to develop this mission area.
The Capuchins of the Pennsylvania Province in the United States accepted the mission in the highlands. Archbishop R. Carbondi, the Apostolic Delegate, played a vital role in getting the American Capuchinds to take over this new mission field.
The first Capuchin missionaries arrived in Port Moresby on November 8, 1955. This group included five priests and one Brother. The six missionaries were divided among the three stations of Mendi, Tari and Ialibu. Most of the area of the Southern Highlands was still restricted.
As is typical, the response of the people at first was generally not favourable. But schools were started everywhere, and the young boys were eager to learn. At the same toime these boys received a thorough instruction in the Catholic religion. Older people were proud of the fact that their children were learning a variety of things from the white missionaries. Because of their curiosity they gradually came to learn some of these things that their children had learnt in school.
After four years of daily instruction, some of the more promising boys were received into the Church through Baptism. The first (small) group was baptised in December 1959. From that date on the Catechumenates grew steadily throughout the Mission.
At this time the area that is now the Diocese of Mendi was administered by the Vicar Apostolic of Port Moresby. Because of the progress in the Southern Highlands, the Holy Father raised this area of the status of a Prefecture Apostolic (Nov 13, 1958), appointing Fr Firmin M. Schmidt, O.F.M Cap, Rector of Capuchin College, Washington DC, the first Prefect Apostolic. On July 6, 1965 the Prefecture was raised to a Vicariate Apostolic, and the Prefect became its first Vicar Apostolic. On Novevember 15, 1966 the Vicariate became a Diocese, with the Vicar Apostolic being named its first residential Bishop.
Growth of Catholicism
After the first group Baptisms in 1959, interest in the Catholic religion grew steadily. By 1965 there were well over fifteen thousand people in the Catechumenates, and the Catechumenates were growing. In 1966, there were over five thousand Baptisms in the Catholic Mission; again the same number in 1967; and also in 1968. Those who were Baptised were expected to live as Catholics for at least a year prior to their Baptism. By 1975, the number of converts settled down to about 2500 to 3500 per year. At the end of 1982, the Catholic population in the diocese of Mendi was 52993. By the end of 1983 the Catholic population was up to over 56000. The entire civic population of the Diocese of Mendi is 235 640. This includes the new area of Lake Kopiago that was added to the Diocese of Mendi in 1982.
Success in working with the people especially in the Catechumenates is to be attributed in the large part of the Catechists. In addition to the training of the Catechists by the priests themselves, with the help of Sisters, an Inter-Diocesan Catechists Training Centre was established at Erave in the Diocese of Mendi. The Catechists training centre can handle 72 trainees, together with their wives and families. A large number of the Catechists in the Diocese of Mendi have completed the three-year course in the Training Centre. At the present time we have well over two hundred trained Catechists, who work full time in their respective stations. Over half of these extra-ordinary ministers of the Eucharist, and conduct services on Sundays in the absence of a priest. Regular in-service is conducted by the priests and Sisters to give insurance that the Sunday services are of high quality.
In almost all stations there are Church Leaders. These leaders are generally recognised by all the people. They are expected to be examples for the people, and take the lead in group praying. Basic Christian Communities have been set up in most of the parishes, with varying degrees of success. Many of these leaders show their leadership in praying groups. In-service training is held regularly for the leaders.
Every parish and outstations has a church committee. These look after the material side mainly of the church. It is their responsibility to see that all parishioners spend a day every week to work for the church. If they fail to show up, they must give payment of ten or twenty toea. They also see to it that the people take an active part in paying for the building of a church. The people have to pay for their churches. They have to collect at least what is required before they start building. A soft loan is given by the Diocese to complete the church. This loan must be paid back within the same time it took to collect the first half. As a rule, they do not ask the Bishop to bless the church until all debts are paid. The Church committee members are elected by the Faithful themselves.
Association of Chairman of Church Committees
For each church committee there is a Chairman. The various chairmen have been formed into the Association of Chairmen of Churches Committees. They have meetings about three times a year to discuss the material needs of the Diocese. Funds were originally provided for them by the Diocese to grant loans for development programs in the Diocese. They will not grant a loan for more than K2 000 in any one area. And this amount must be paid back before a further loan is granted to that area.
Vocations to the Priesthood and Religious Life
Vocations to the Priesthood and Religious Life were explained to the school children in both the primary schools and high schools. In high schools vocation clubs were organised. There has been a healthy response. A good number of first seminarians did not persevere. But the first National priest was ordained in 1977, just twenty-two years after the arrival of the first Missionary. The second National priest was ordained in December of 1982, and the third was ordained in January 11, 1984. Four other Nationals are in their final years of preparation for the priesthood. Three of these are Capuchins and four novices.
There has also been a good response on the part of the National women to enter religious life. By the beginning of 1984 there professed Handmaids of Our Lord from the Diocese of Mendi.
Because of the conflict between the Coastals and the Highlanders, it was readily seen that there is a need for a National religious community based in the Higlands. The Diocese of Mendi has formed the Community of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, adjusted to the needs of the Highlands. By 1984, there were postulants. There is a big number of pre-postulants, and many other contacts.