01/01/2001 10:52

Fr. Eberhard Limbrock, leader of the first SVD mission in New Guinea

By Patrick Matbob

January 2001

Fr Eberhard Limbrock was born in Ahlen in Westphalia in Germany in 1859. He studied the Blacksmith's trade for three years then decided to become a priest. As a deacon he was sent to China in 1883 and became the director of the seminary in South Shantung and taught philosophy and theology. In Europe, in the meantime, the German Government was seeking the cooperation of the Catholic and Lutheran Churches in developing its colonies. In response, Fr Arnold Janssen who founded the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD), opened a mission in Togo, Africa, in 1892. In 1895 the Propaganda Fide (the Vatican Department of World Mission) asked Fr Janssen to accept Kaiser Wilhelmsland (today's Momase and Highlands) as a Prefecture Apostolic. Fr Janssen proposed that Fr Limbrock be the leader for the New Guinea Mission. Fr Janssen said: "When the question came up of assigning someone to head the mission in New Guinea, the thought kept coming back to me; Fr Limbrock would be good for the job. For he is both devout and practically minded, and both of these qualities are very necessary. And he will interest himself in with those things which will be necessary for the support of the mission there." Fr Joseph Freinademetz, Limbrock's superior considered him exceptionally "friendly in disposition, prudent in conduct and speech, an able administrator, genuinely religious, at home in the scriptures, and every inch a priest." When Fr Limbrock received the request from Janssen, he first consulted Freinademetz and then cabled from China: "Am prepared for anything." Providence was to take him very much at this word. Arnold Janssen appointed two more priests, Franz Vormann and Joseph Erdweg, and three brothers; Canisius Hautkappe, who was a mechanic; Eustochius Tigges, carpenter and cabinetmaker; and Theodulph Schmidt, a cook and tailor. Preparations began in earnest. The carpenters in Steyl built a large wooden house suitable for the tropics, pulled it apart, and packed it in shipping crates. Furniture, tools, household supplies and clothing were crated. A whole mountain of cargo weighing more than 50 tonnes was ready for shipment. But no final approval arrived from Rome. For once the ever-cautious Vatican had moved too quickly and the various agreements with the German government and others concerned parties had not been settled. It was to be nine months before Pope Leo XIII approved the separation of the Prefecture Apostolic of Kaiser Wilhelmsland from the Vicariate Apostolic of New Pommerania (today's New Britain and New Ireland). A Prefecture Apostolic is a mission territory under the control of a priest while a Vicariate Apostolic is a mission territory controlled by a bishop. The Pope appointed Eberhard Limbrock first Prefect Apostolic of the new mission and Arnold Janssen appointed him the superior of the SVDs. The whole of German New Guinea (Momase, Highlands and the New Guinea Islands) had been under the jurisdiction of Bishop Couppe and his Sacred Heart Missionaries (MSC) but limitations of personal meant that no Catholic evangelisation had even taken place on the New Guinea mainland, although the Lutherans had worked in Morobe and the Madang district since 1886. Now there was another delay. The German New Guinea Company had administered German New Guinea but the German Government was considering taking up control itself. The director of the company asked Fr Janssen to wait until the issue was settled. Janssen lost patient and went straight to Berlin to see the parties personally. Within a few days the problem was resolved and Fr Arnold cabled Steyl to send the five missionaries on their way. Fr Limbrock had left China and was waiting for his young confreres at Singapore.

Mission to New Guinea

On 13th August, 1896, the six pioneers landed at Friedrich Wilhelmshafen, the present-day Madang. There was no comfort in Madang. Initially Fr Janssen was assured by Adolph von Hansemann, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the New Guinea Company in Berlin that his missionaries would acquire 10 to 15 hectares of land at Friedrich Wilhelmshafen. Fr Janssen wanted Fr Limbrock to found his first station in Madang, second in Astrolabe area and third station three or four hours from the second one. At this stage Fr Janssen said he could give up the first mission station in Madang for a coconut plantation. However, when Fr Limbrock arrived he had to deal with Kurt von Hagen (after whom Mt Hagen is named) since he became commissary four days after the missionaries arrived. Von Hagen agreed to sell the land but insisted that the missionaries should not open a mission. He said Limbrock could use it to store supplies. Von Hagen said he was making the request on behalf of the Rhenish Mission Society; a Lutheran group which had began mission work in the vicinity nine years before. In that time seven European men and three women of the mission died. The Rhenish group feared after all these sacrifices they might now be pushed out of the Astrolabe Bay area completely by the Catholic Mission. A former New Guinea company worker and businessman, Ludwig Kaernbach, from Berlin invited Fr Limbrock to go to Berlinhafen near Aitape, 275 nautical miles up the coast from Madang and found his mission on Tumleo island not far from Seleo island where Ludwig lived. After sending one of his priests to examine the area, Fr Limbrock decided to accept the invitation. It took six weeks to move men and cargo to Tumleo. The New Guinea mission was born in 1896. Fr Limbrock and his missionaries faced a formidable task in settling in a new world; establishing relationships with people, learning the language. They also began moving out to the Aitape coast, to the islands off Wewak and to Monumbo near Bogia. Their living conditions were adequate; the pre-fabricated house brought from Steyl, simple chapel, thatched workshops. A German shipping line delivered supplies and mail on a fairly frequent basis but in those days before refrigeration and electricity, there were no luxuries. Transport for missionary journeys was in a skiff with a sail, and almost impossible when the seas were rough. Limbrock wrote joking to Arnold Janssen that there was no possibility of sinning against the vow of poverty. Perhaps the biggest difficulty was getting the people to understand why they had come. Government officers had a clear purpose, as did the planters and store keepers, but who were these missionaries? What did they want? Joseph Edwerg started a school on Tumleo, and almost every day had to go around the island to collect his pupils who much preferred fishing and swimming and roaming through the bush. A day of rejoicing came, the first baptism. Not of a well-schooled catechumen but of an infant at death's door. It was to be some years before the first school children had enough knowledge of Jesus and the Gospel and were ready for baptism. There was little hope of converting adults - pagan ways were still firmly entrenched. Fr Limbrock was in no hurry. When asked by Fr Janssen in 1902 how many Christians he had made, Fr Limbrock replied; "Of course only a few." He said he was not interested "in shoving anyone into the pool of Bethsaida," something that would have been easy enough "through some small gifts" and a bit of moral pressure. "When the hour of grace comes," he said, "then the good God through his gracious blessings will take care of the statistics, and the more so because we have worked, cared and prayed for his honor and the salvation of souls."


As his mission slowly grew, Fr Limbrock opened new stations. The first was "Queen of the Angels" in 1897 at Walman, today's Lemieng. Within months of arriving at Tumleo, the pioneer missionaries realised that without the help of sisters they could be able to make little progress in bringing the Good News to the local women. Fr Limbrock requested for help and Fr Janssen quickly responded by sending Holy Spirit Sisters who arrived in March 26, 1899. On November 5, 1899 a third station was founded on the mainland at Monumbo, near Bogia in Madang. Since arriving in New Guinea, Fr Limbrock had been trying to purchase land for plantations so that the mission could become self-supporting. However, all his attempts were blocked by the authorities of the New Guinea company thus he complained in a letter to a German Government official on February 5, 1900; "What is suppose to happen if a depression comes in Europe or if a war breaks out?" On August 3, 1900, Governor von Bennigsen at Herbertshoehe (Kokopo) authorised Limbrock to purchase 500 hectares of land along the Northcoast of New Guinea between Ulingan and Potsdamhafen. Fr Limbrock chose Bogia. In 1901 a fourth mission station was opened on Ali Island near Tumleo, and a 5th at Bogia near Monumbo. The Central School at Tumleo on March 9, 1901 had two priests and two nuns teaching 27 hours of class a week to boys and 30 hours per week to girls. Classes in needlework account for the three extra hours per week for girls. In the same year, Fr Limbrock proposed that the mission be raised to a vicariate apostolic and submitted his resignation to make room for the appointment of a Bishop. But Janssen considered the proposal premature. All of Limbrock's first five mission stations were established in five different language areas which posed a problem in which language to be adopted for teaching and communication. He decided eventually to make German the universal language after considering a native language, English, Pidgin English, Malayian language introduced by the Dutch in East Indies, or also Volapuek, a kind of Esperanto invented in Germany in about 1879. Although Malayian would be easier to learn, he believed it would be an avenue for Mohamedism to enter German New Guinea. In one of his letters, Fr Limbrock wrote; "The children here are not at all as dull and stupid as many might have you believe. They only need to be intellectually stimulated and trained . . . many of our pupils here could compete very well with the average European pupils." The Holy Spirit Missionary sisters open a second station at Monumbo. In 1903 Brother Edward Irlenbusch began cutting down the virgin forest at St Anna's near Aitape on July 27 for a large plantation. He died from blackwater fever two years later. Fr Limbrock had plans to found inland missions however, two incidents caused him to postpone his plans. In July 1904, natives in Madang vicinity planned to kill all the whites but the ringleaders were discovered on time. In the neighbouring Vicariate Apostolic of Neu Pommern (later New Britain) five nuns, three brothers (one a Trappist) and two priests were slain on August 13 at an inland mission post.

Alexishafen mission

In October 1904, Fr Limbrock discovered that the North German Lloyd Steamer would cease service through Tumleo because the route was uneconomical. Only Kokopo and Madang will be serviced. Fr Limbrock telegrammed Fr Janssen and hurried off to see the Governor Hahl at Kokopo. At Madang he learned in confidence that the protestant missions had not gained a foothold at Riwo Island and that the area on the mainland was available for purchase. Governor Hahl approved in a letter dated November 5, 1904, for him to acquire 10 hectares of Riwo island for settlement. He also forwarded a request from Limbrock to the Colonial Department for 500 or 1000 hectares. Limbrock immediately surveyed the land around Riwo, and north of Madang. He discovered Alexishafen, 15km north of Madang. He was highly impressed with its three small rivers and four fresh water ponds. The local people on Sek Island indicated that they would be interest in a settlement of Europeans. Fr Limbrock purchased land at Alexishafen, celebrated the first mass there on May 23, set up a sawmill and made it the headquarters for his mission. On September 8, 1906, Fr Limbrock submitted his first progress report on plantations for Fr Janssen stating that there were 284 hectares planted with 28,650 coconut palms and 67 hectares with 28,550 rubber trees. The mission also had 100 herds of cattle and 20 horses. With his foresight and Westphalian farming background, Fr Limbrock had taken lead with plantation work among the Christian missions in Kaiser Wilhelmsland. Fr Limbrock's mission did not only concentrate on preaching the Good News. All the missionaries were skilled such as Fr Joseph Reiber who was a geologist. On August 5, 1907, he led a 30-day geological expedition to the interior of Aitape where he died from fever on September 5. But his notes, sketches, and carefully wrapped and catalogued rock and fossil samples made it possible three years later to publish the first systematic and comprehensive study of the geological structure of Kaiser Wilhelmsland. In 1908, Fr Constantijn van den Hemel, a chartered surveyor, made the first official map of the coastline and adjacent islands from Aitape to Nightingale bay east of Wewak. The German admiralty adopted it and during World War II the US Forces in New Guinea also used it. On January 30, 1909, the Central School was transferred from Tumleo to Alexishafen and the catechist school followed soon after. Alexishafen now became the central station to supply most of the needs of all the SVD stations. A sawmill, and workshops, residences, a clinic and chapel were built at Alexishafen. Steel tracks were laid for trolleys pulled by water buffaloes and the first wharf went into service. A practice, which began at Tumleo, soon became widespread: workmen, apprentices and plantation laborers and their families were continually catechised. When their contact expired and they returned to their homes, they became the vanguard of the mission's outreach in those new areas. To provide adequate transport for all the stations as far away as Aitape, Fr Limbrock had a steamship, Gabriel, built in Hong Kong in 1909. He had to take out a substantial loan to pay for it, but its 12 cabins and large cargo stowage meant that missionaries could travel comfortably and safely, and adequate supplies could be delivered regularly. New stations were soon established: Mugil 1909, Danip in 1910, Madang in 1914. World War 1 prevented further expansions and even necessitated scaling back some activities. A prime goal of Limbrock's was making the mission as self-supporting as possible. This was why he established workshops and plantations and why he successfully experimented with raising lowland or swamp rice. Fr Limbrock sent Fr van den Hemel to Indonesia to learn rice culture there, Frs Joseph Loerks and Theodor Averberg to Louisiana in the USA, and other priests and brothers to North Queensland. During the two priests stay in US they also studied cotton growing. The First World War cut off funding for further expansion of the rice plantation at Danip. The transfer of Fr van den Hemel to Timor and the sickness and death of some of the workers brought the rice project to a temporary halt. Unfortunately, this became permanent. On a small scale but more successfully, the Holy Spirit Sisters at Alexishafen and elsewhere introduced European vegetables like cabbage, beans, onions and tomatoes. Soon no more vegetables were imported for the missions. Education also passed to the sisters too and they raised the standards so high that by 1913 the government was collaborating with them on the syllabus for a second school system. But the war ended those plans too. In 1911, Central Stations have increased to 18, and seven of these also had Holy Spirit Missionary sisters. In 1913 the first Sepik River mission was founded at Marienberg (English Mary-Mount) on June 29. Catholics now numbered 4,200 and the mission personnel included 27 priests, 24 brothers and 44 sisters. At Limbrock's request, Rome divided the mission in 1913 and entrusted the western portion (Malol to Vanimo) to the Picpus Fathers (the community of Fr Damien, the leper priest). However, the war prevented the first Picpus missionaries from arriving and their area (which had only two stations of Malol and Sissano) remained under SVD care.

Limbrock resigns as Prefect Apostolic

In September 1914, the Governor of German New Guinea surrendered to Australian troops and, in the same month, Fr Limbrock's resignation as the Prefect Apostolic was accepted. Two years earlier he had resigned as the regional superior of the SVDs. Fr Andrias Puff became the Administrator of both missions until the arrival of Bishop Wolf in 1923. Half a dozen times, Fr Limbrock had submitted his resignation to Fr Janssen but it had never been accepted. Fr Janssen had died earlier on January 5, 1909. On 12 February 1907, after having been in New Guinea for ten and half years, Fr Limbrock wrote to Fr Janssen that all was missing was a printing press and a Brother printer. "If we have this taken care of, then, it seems to me the mission is ready to exist and develop by itself. And so my job is finished. I then can leave this world's stage and disappear, never to be seen again - which is certainly no loss - and find for myself a quieter and more agreeable place than was allotted to me here." After resigning, Fr Limbrock spent sometime in Alexishafen as a liaison officer with the new Australian administration, and then moved to Boikin as the parish priest there. He remained in Boikin until 1931 when he left for Europe for medical care. However, while en route he died in Sydney on May 31. At his death there were 20,000 baptised Christians and 5,000 catechumans in the mission he had founded. German Governor Dr Albert Hahl in his 1926 study of German New Guinea wrote that Fr Limbrock could be called one of the 'apostles' of the people of New Guinea.