05/05/2001 10:45

Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters in New Guinea

By Patrick Matbob
January 2001

Four Holy Spirit Missionary sisters (SSpS) were the first to arrive on mainland New Guinea on March 26, 1899. They were sisters Ursula Sensen, Fridolina Voekt (superior), Valeria Dietzen and Martha Sieferding all from Germany. All four were teachers and only one was over 35 years of age.
They came in response to a call for help from the first six Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) to the South Seas, who arrived on Tumleo Island three years previously. The SVD missionaries needed help to bring the Good News to the local women.
Wrote Sr Valeria Dietzen to Mother Maria Helena Stollenwerk; "On 26 March at 12 o'clock (1899), we arrived in Berlinhafen, the goal of our journey."
It was Palm Sunday.
"A crowd of children from neighbouring villages had gathered at the harbour, all very happy about our arrival. They were not afraid of us, they pressed around us and took us by the hand and so, accompanied by the little ones, we made our entry here in a manner that reminded us of the Lord's entry into Jerusalem . . ." (from the letter of Sr. Ursula Sensen of June 4, 1899.)
These new comers knew neither the culture nor the language of the people; they had to content themselves with slowly sowing the seeds of Christianity by their own example.
Soon the people's trust in the sisters grew and they began to call on the sisters for help. The young girls began helping the sisters in the garden, laundry, sewing room, house and kitchen, and picked up basic hygiene for a start. The main activity for the sisters was teaching, however, it was not easy since they had no teaching aid except a blackboard and a hand-made bulletin board.
Later Sr Valeria wrote: "I myself write the catechism, the reader, the writing and maths books for the girls and I try to adapt my teaching methods to the local conditions."
In response to the need for teaching aids, Sister Cherubina Frings arrived in Tumleo in 1905 with a simple, hand-operated printing press. She immediately set up the press and commenced printing catechetical materials in the vernacular, simple readers of all kinds, plus maths books in German, along with hymnals and prayer books. Hers was the first printing press to operate in New Guinea.

In 1902, the Sisters were ordered by Fr Superior General Janssen in Holland to set up their first new foundation away from Tumleo at Monumbo near Bogia in Madang. This was to be the first of many such stations the sisters were to pioneer in New Guinea.
For much of their schoolwork especially for catechumenates, the sisters had to constantly travel either to the villages on foot, horseback or sometimes by boat. These trips had their hazards with two sisters thrown off and dragged along by their horses and another sister drowning when a boat overturned.

Within eight years of their arrival, the SSpS had 23 sisters working on Tumleo and Ali island, at Monumbo and Bogia and later at Alexishafen, which in 1909 became the Central Station for both SVDs and SSpS. With the beginning of the First World War in 1913, the sisters experienced new problems. They were years of insecurity for all German nationals in New Guinea because at the treaty of Versailles in 1919, their mission field became a Trust Territory of Australia. Some problems were; no new German missionaries would be coming and what new common language to be used in schools since German was outlawed. If it was English, then where would English-speaking sisters come from?

The Sisters also took on a new apostolate. With the Australian takeover, all German nationals were deported however, they were not allowed to take their local wives and mix race children. The mission was asked to care for these orphans. So they were gradually gathered at Alexishafen and formed a boarding school. A dozen such children between the ages of two and twelve arrived from Manus. More came from Madang and Wewak.
The Sisters cared for them and educated them. The boys became apprentices to the Brothers in their workshop and many of their descendants grew up to be successful businessmen.

In 1959, the Sisters set up a station in Wewak and taught at the Catechist Training School. In 1922, the first American Sisters arrived in Alexishafen - the first also from an English-speaking country and first to be appointed since 1913!

In 1924, the sisters celebrated their silver jubilee with only pioneer sisters Ursula and Fridolina alive to celebrate. Sister Martha died in 1914 and Sister Valeria in 1917. With the new English language introduced in the territory, all new appointed sisters now had to take up language course in US before coming to New Guinea.
However, between 1929 and 1931 the missions and government agreed to adopt Tok Pisin as the medium of education. This simplified the entire education system considerably and enrollments increased rapidly.
Sister Matritia Haag was one of the key persons appointed as the mission's official translator by Bishop Wolf. Local leaders also began helping the sisters. Two well-known early teachers were Emma Makain and Scholastica Atingai.

In 1941, the Second World War began and the Government evacuated most of the expatriate women and children from New Guinea. The Sisters were given choice to go or stay. All but one opted to stay - but actually, no one left. They preferred to remain with the people. As a result more than half the sisters lost their lives.

The first lot of missionaries from East Sepik were among 62 prisoners executed on the Japanese Destroyer Akikaze on March 17, 1943 while en route from Kavieng to Rabaul. There was Bishop Loerks, six priests, 14 brothers, 18 SSpS sisters and three lay people.
Another five sisters were lucky to join other missionaries and walked from Sepik into the Highlands and were later evacuated to Port Moresby then to Australia.

On 6th February 1944, 37 SSpS sisters were amongst other missionaries to die on the Japanese ship Yorishime Maru when it was strafed by American warplanes while sailing from Madang to Wewak. Other Sisters and missionaries who survived were later rescued by American soldiers and evacuated to Australia.
After the war, the sisters returned to New Guinea arriving in Madang on 22nd September, 1946.

World War II had destroyed all mission stations on the coast and of 92 sisters in New Guinea, 54 died during the war. Of those 38 who survived and were evacuated to Australia, five remained there and one returned to the US. The rest returned to PNG.
With such heavy losses of personnel and destruction after the war other religious congregations were invited to come to New Guinea. Although the SSpS had lost more than 50 per cent of their sisters during the war, there were plenty of vocations for the foreign missions in Europe. However, Australia allowed only German nationals who had been in New Guinea to re enter but did not allow new comers until 1950 - 15 years later!
Sisters were only able to return to Alexishafen, Ali, Yakamul, Wewak, Marienberg, Mugil, Manam, and Bogia.

In 1952, the SSpS Sisters were instrumental in setting up the Rosary Sisters, a local congregation in Wewak and in 1954 set up the St Therese Sisters, another local congregation in Madang. The sisters also moved in to the Highlands starting at Minj in 1956, Par in 1957 then took over the government leprosarium at Yampu in 1958. In 1962, a convent was opened in Mt Hagen.

In 1961 Sister Jane Frances Millane represented the missions on the Syllabus Development Committee of the National Education Department and helped prepare the National Grade Six exams, and produced the Maths Laboratory. In 1968, the Sisters were involved with SVDs in starting the Catholic High School in Madang. The high school has since developed into the Divine Word University and SSpS sisters are still on the staff of the University.
In 1956/57 the Malala High School was started. The school developed until 1971 when the SSpS became involved. Sr Jane Frances was the first SSpS on the staff and today remains as the headmistress.

In 1978 in response to voices from within SSpS congregation in PNG and abroad, and also from a number of requests from PNG girls to enter the congregation, steps were taken with the formation of local Holy Spirit Sisters. On 15 January 1986, Sr Alma Kawaly of Sangriwan Village on the Sepik and Sr Agnes Terese Lisban of Tambanum pronounced their first vows and became the first two professed Papua New Guinean Holy Spirit Sisters. On 3rd July 1993, the two sisters pronounced their final vows. Then it was announced that Sr Agnes was to go to Ghana in Africa. The SSpS missionary commitment in PNG has made a full circle.

As of January 2001, there are 80 Holy Spirit Missionary sisters working in PNG. Fifty-nine are expatriates and 21 are national sisters. Out of the 21 national sisters, 7 are fully professed, and 14 have made their first vows

Information on SSpS was condensed from Sent By The Spirit, a publication celebrating 100 years of SSpS mission history in PNG published by Holy Spirit Sisters and printed by Wirui Press, P.O. Box 107, Wewak, ESP, Papua New Guinea.