Fr. Joe Bison - 50 Golden Years
In the days and months leading up to the celebration of my 50th anniversary of Ordination in February, 2013, the words and melody of an old song kept coming back to my memory. It was from a movie called Student Prince that was popular around 1950. The movie was about the son of a king leaving home for the first time and going to university. The song was “Golden Days”. The first line was: In the Springtime of a Happy Youth. That kept reminding me of the beautiful up bringing I had as a small boy growing up in a strong Catholic family in Boston, USA. My mother, Sarah, was very devout. Eventually after all of us had left home she went and became a Catechist so that she could teach RE to Catholic children in government schools. For decades she was a daily communicant. Dad, who completed his Grade 12 in 1928 was not content with doing maintenance work so he went nights to a Technical College for three years, learning to become an electrician. He was a very hard worker and a good provider. I was ten years old when World War II ended so have vivid memories of my country being taken over by the War Department and becoming a huge machine of war and destruction. Boston, being on the east coast of the USA was vulnerable in the early years of the war to submarines shelling the coastal cities, so we had strict blackouts. No light could be seen from the sea.
The second line in that song “Golden Days” was: Days of Innocence and Truth. That kept reminding me of my seminary days. In 1948 an SVD missionary came to visit our school and give a Vocation talk. He had been in New Guinea before the war and was on the Dorish Maru during that terrible massacre. His name was Bill Hagan. Something tugged at my heart strings and so I sent in the application papers to enter the SVD Minor Seminary at Miramar not far from Boston. Twenty two young fellows my age showed up to begin the long journey to priesthood the first week of September, 1949. Eventually only two of the twenty two made it to Ordination. In many ways those Miramar days were days of Innocence because we were boxed away like in a monastery and we were learning the Truth of our faith and religious life. We had nine classes each week of just Latin to prepare of for a life of Latin further down the track. We also studied Greek and German and all the Liberal Arts subjects. William Ross had spent two or three years teaching at Miramar after he was ordained in 1922 before coming to New Guinea. Many New Guinea missionaries came through to tell us about their experiences. At our graduation in June, 1953, Archbishop Noser from Madang was the main officiant.
That following September,1953, we started our Novitiate at Conesus in Up-state New York. We met up with the guys who had graduated from the Girard and Bordentown seminaries. We were 23 the first year of Novitiate. We took our first vows to become Religious in the SVD after two years on September 8, 1955.
The next two years were years of pure academic joy. We joined up with those who completed their Novitiate in Techny so we now numbered 33. We had professors who were deeply imbued with their subjects and wanted to share the joy. “Pop” Shendil, with his stooped figure, was a giant of the classics. He helped us delve deeply into the Greek and Latin classics and poetry. Charlie Schoderbek, opened up the world of College Science and Chemistry. The lab was under the church. One of our experiments went wrong and we filled the church with deadly chlorine gas and we couldn’t have our noon day prayers! Many of us look back on those two years as being the years most full of fun, innocence and truth. The secrets of the French language were unlocked for us and after a few months we were reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Not one guy left the class during these fascinating two years. And for all that we received an AA (Associate of Arts) Degree from the University of New York.
Next stop Techny. We drove across country in our “Banana Wagon”, an old yellow school bus. Now it was now September, 1957. The two years of Philosophy were taught entirely in Latin. We were the 50th Philosophy class of Fr. Esser, our quite old professor. Those of us who knew Latin well got good marks! Those two difficult years went quickly. We were rewarded with a (BA) Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Illinois. Then our class was split up. It was now September, 1959. Two guys went for Theology to Brazil; two went to Rome for higher studies; and two went to Germany. Those originally from the Southern Province went back to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to do their Theology. We got four from Europe and two from South America who joined our class. Now we were 24.
Being very practical I often got involved in building things and had rather free access to Brother Henry’s Mechanic Shop. I built a motorized snow plow to clean the ice hockey rink. A couple of us build a 15 foot speed boat for use at our summer camp at Lake Gogebic. It had a 6-cylinder engine so was ideal for water skiing.
The Techny community had 450 men. Ninety SVD Brothers, 150 major seminarians, 60 priests, Clerical Novices, Brother Novices, and Brother Candidates. We had the most majestic of services in the big chapel.
The four years of Theology were coming to a quick end. In December, 1962, the Provincial called the now 22 of us to his office to give us our appointments. We went all over the world. Four of us were assigned to New Guinea: Ernie Ferlej and Dick Stegman to Simbu; Joe Bugner and myself to Mt. Hagen. Ordination came soon after that on the eventful day, February 2, 1963. As we processed down the aisle of the big Techny Chapel, I kept thinking: Now it was my turn. The big seminary choir, with organ and trumpets, sang us to the altar where Bishop O’Brien from Chicago put his white-gloved hands on our heads. Finally, after 14 years, I was to be a priest. The next day we celebrated our First Holy Mass with our families and friends.
On the very same day, Feb. 2, 1963, five other fellows were ordained priests for the Archdiocese of Boston from my home parish. My First Solemn Mass and the reception after it were a blur of joy, especially for my happy parents. Then back to the seminary to complete the school year.
I remember shedding a tear as I gave away my great “CCM” ice skates. I had been a keen player of ice hockey all my seminary years. My mother had bought the skates for me when I was in Novitiate. There was no use for them in New Guinea, so I sadly said goodbye to them and to many things I could not take along to my new missionary career in a distant tropical country.
August, 1963, came quickly and our class arrived in Washington, DC, to begin our new academic life at the Catholic University of America. We we all expected to get a Mastes Degree. My Student Advisor saw that I had all the Undergraduate Credits in Education, so he advised me to take the Master’s Degree program in Education. I have used well the knowledge I learned once I got to PNG, since I have been involved big time in Education all my years. November 22, 1963, our President John Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. We were all stung with grief. In July, 1964, I was awarded my Master’s Degree in Education so was now ready for my departure to New Guinea. It was now September, 1964. The family had a grand farewell party for me at our local parish hall. Fr. William Ross SVD just happened to be in Boston at that time. He showed up unannounced with his slides and projector and entertained the large group for two hours. Now my family and friends knew where I was going.
Not long after I arrived in Alexishafen. Heinie Hoff flew me from Madang to Par. Jerry Bus was waiting for me with his motorcycle to bring me to Sari. I was to be there for a month for him to introduce me to the mysteries of Melanesian Tok Pisin. There was no road connection yet between Wabag and Hagen, so Jerry put me on a plane for the brief trip to Hagen. (See photo of Hagen town in 1964.) Joe Knoebel met me at the airstrip. Bishop Bernarding was away attending the Second Vatican Council. Joe quickly handed me over to Arnie Steffen who was at that time in charge of Kuruk Parish. I was there with him for a couple of months learning the ropes. Then he went on his well-earned home leave to the USA. He had not been home in seven years. I was at Kuruk for the better part of a year. The work was hard, with lots of walking to outstations, staying overnight in grass huts and trying to keep things going until, as George Bernarding often said, “more troops arrived”.
My second year of missionary work was at Kiripia. Anton Roeseler was ready for his first home leave to Germany and Nemi, so I was here for eleven and a half months. When “Tony”, as everyone called him, returned in late 1966 Bishop Bernarding sent me to Mun to take Jim McDermott’s place. It was to be my home for the next 22 years. Jerry Bus, by now working full time in the Movement for a Better World, came with two sisters to help us begin the New Image of the Parish (NIP) Programme. It transformed the parish. He adopted us as a pilot parish and returned for a week every year for five consecutive years. We went through the whole NIP programme over a period of nine years up to the “Redeeming Event”. It was a great time for me and, like the Cure’ of Ars or Damien of Molokai, I could easily have spent the rest of my life there at Mun parish. However, there was trouble between the priest and catechists at Kiripia, so Bishop Meier asked if I would go back to Kiripia. I was sad to leave Mun, but the Lord kept telling me “the best is yet to come”. And also what can you achieve that you haven’t able to achieve in 22 years? So I left Mun with a thankful heart and arrived at Kiripia in June, 1988.
The catechists here at that time were all “big men” and considered themselves on the same level as the parish priest. Rather than continue the friction with them I immediately began the NIP programme and introduced various ministries. Gradually peace returned to the parish. Firstly, we gave the Christian Community Retreat dozens of time. It contains the spirituality and theology of Communion. Secondly, we gave the NIP Course Retreat also dozens of times to all communities. It deals with setting up new structures of the parish according to the mind of the Second Vatican Council. In the meantime the archdiocese adopted a diocese-wide version of this NIP programme so we were well prepared.
All these years I have been actively engaged in Education in the schools in the parishes I’ve been in. Kiripia Primary and its three Elementary Schools have 1600 students. Getting together with teachers, being involved in the Boards of Management, showing a keen interest in the affairs of the schools, all has paid off. In recent years almost 100% of our Grade 8 kids have gone on to Secondary School. Most schools manage to get only 50% of their kids into Secondary.
The parish sponsored a three day celebration for my 50th Anniversary of Ordination, February 5 – 7th. The theme was “I have no hands but yours.” The aim was to get the young people of the parish to think about coming forward to take the place of us missionaries. Twenty five fellow priests and many other visitors, three from Germany, came to celebrate this rare event with me. They brought along a large 50 year anniversary candle. There were three exceptional liturgies, numerous singsing groups with lots of bilas. Lots of food for everyone too. It was a truly magnificent celebration.
Now one last challenge is left for me. In 2011 our Archbishop Douglas Young SVD decided to build a third Catholic Secondary School. After months of surveying possible sites, Kiripia was finally chosen as the site for the new school. As Vicar for Education in the archdiocese I am entrusted with the task of carrying the project forward. We plan for a 1000 students of which 900 will be boarders. We hope to have our first intake of 250 Grade 9 students in 2015, with 250 more coming each succeeding year until 2018. The planning is complete and I will be making my presentation to the Provincial Education Board at their next meeting as well as the Provincial Executive Council. Governor Paias Wingti is a big supporter of our new school so we have hope that the whole project will go forward successfully.
My 50 years of priesthood and 49 years of work as a missionary here in PNG have truly been Golden Years.