MY DECADES OF MISSION - Fr. Arnold Steffen, SVD
Except for the personal ‘profile’ just below, I quickly pass over the earlier years of family and formation and begin the story with my appointment to Papua New Guinea. Thanks to the Arabs and Romans for a useful decimal numbering system and the 365 day-twelve-month calendar! Both these tools help to keep order when recording human events and life!
Profile: Fr. Arnold Steffen, SVD
Name: Arnold Roger Steffen
Birth date: 18th September, 1929
Place of Birth: Dunkerton, Iowa, U.S.A.
Family: girls 2, boys 8; 7th born
Came to know SVD: in 1932, nearby Epworth opened as a Divine Word Minor Seminary. PP Fr. P.J. Naebers (ex-Steyl student) encouraged several prospective vocations before me (1943); by 1960 six sons of the tiny parish had been ordained and become SVD missionaries (Ghana 2; PNG 2; Indonesia 1; Philippines 1); -- it seems word just got around families in this small Iowa country parish!
Entered SVD: 1943, September, Epworth
High School Graduation: 1947, June, East Troy
Novitiate: 8 September, 1947, Techny
Ordination: 9 June, 1957 Techny
Arrival in PNG: November, 1957; introduced by Fr Regional Bernarding and Fr. Ross, Mt. Hagen
Ministries/Postings: Feb. 1958 Rebiamul; 1961 Mun pp; 1964 Kuruk pp; 1967 Kumdi pp; 1971 Mabulga pp; 1971 Alexishafen (secretary to the Regional); 1973 Bomana (seminary rector); 1976 Alexishafen Regional Superior; 1978 WHP, Regional Superior; 1982 Bougainville, Monoitu pp; 1987 Bomana, seminary spiritual director; 1989 Madang, CAS/MBW fulltime; 1997 Rebiamul, CAS/MBW director; 2009 retirement, SVD Central House Madang.
Memorable experiences: Several pioneering patrols to the west in the 60’s, Maramuni, Porgera/Paiela, Lake Kapiago; differences & similarities in welcome and events!
What makes me sad: many persons I’ve baptised and entered into registers who never progressed to other Sacraments.
SVD/MBW: Two nurturing and flexible families which equipped and enabled me to promote Vatican 2 Church Renewal/Evangelisation.
The months from June to November of 1957 passed swiftly, spent with family and home parish community celebrations; a little pastoral supply work; packing and other travel preparations. Actual departure heading westward from Techny was by road in a jeep destined likewise for New Guinea, together with Fr Bill Liebert, already close classmate of 14 years. There was a brief overnight each, in Iowa with my family and Kansas with his, as we rapidly headed to California by a southern route. The jeep was safely deposited with the California shipper for forwarding.
The prop planes of the day needed several days and fuelling stops, making the way to the south and west across the Pacific to Sydney. The interlude in Epping was short as we continued to Brisbane for a brief fortnight there with recently separated priest classmates, Connor, Cremasco and Horsfall. Then northward was the direction, with Port Moresby then Lae, with the whole PROMISED LAND in our sights! Overnighting in Lae with the Passionists, we were informed by Fr Gregory that Wewak’s Fr Jilek was in port loading drums of fuel onto the Marova. We were duly welcomed aboard for the overnight passage to Madang, our immediate destination. It was an early November, 1957 morning when Fr Saiko collected us from the Madang wharf for the drive to Alexishafen. There Bishop Noser and the Society of the Divine Word had established their mission headquarters. Regional Superior Fr George Bernarding had only recently completed building the new Regional House at Alexishafen and he welcomed Fr Liebert and me to add our bit by varnishing the floors. But the preoccupation of our early days was to learn Tok Pisin the recent but already well developed neo-Melanesian vernacular! Mainly it was by ‘on-the-job trying it out’ on the indigenous employees with whom we were working alongside; also a little guided book study.
A new Rest House in Mount Hagen was another major building project in the planning. So Fr Regional Bernarding soon had the two new missionaries boarding a DC3 freighter airplane headed for Hagen, laden with cement bags, corrugated roofing iron and sundry other construction needs. John English was a mixed race tradesman who was to lead the job and was moving into Rebiamul about the same time with his family from Banz. Fr William Ross was the resident Divine Word Missionary in Mount Hagen who had pioneered there in 1934 on an epic overland trek from Alexishafen. We were delighted to live with and be enriched by him during the weeks on the new building. But these were only introductory phases in our main task of becoming missionaries, and the short weeks passed quickly!
The innocent politics of jockeying for the assignment we most coveted past, one morning at breakfast Fr Regional asked us to come to his room individually to receive our assignments. Fr Liebert learned he was going to the Wewak Vicariate (Bp Arkfeld), and I that I was assigned to the Alexishafen Vicariate (Bp Noser).
After meeting again with Bp Noser in Alexishafen, I soon flew back to Mount Hagen for my ‘apprenticeship’ under Fr Ross! The unbending rule of Bp Noser for all those assigned to the Highlands was: six months exclusively dedicated to learning the local vernacular. Peter Kewa was the competent tutor Fr Ross assigned to me. The trails leading to and from Rebiamul in every direction became our ‘fair weather haunts’ for these months. I welcomed the opportunity given and tried to approach the task seriously applying the linguistic principles of my recent seminary courses.
Though no Superior ‘told me to do or not to do so’, the practical policy that slowly emerged for me was: favouring the use of Tok Pisin. I would include some use of the local indigenous vernacular in greetings and personal interviews, and the occasional phrase in prepared sermons, but following Fr Ross’ ‘silent lead’, I tended toward Tok Pisin. In retrospect, I find this somewhat surprising, ‘language buff’ as I had fancied myself from seminary days! But by then the daily and Sunday congregation at Rebiamul was quite mixed with the worshippers at different stages in their process of ‘picking up’ Tok Pisin, and a good number also who were non-MELPA speakers. Was it actually a sound missiological decision, or surrendering to an inherent ‘lazy streak’? The two missionary pioneer ‘giants’ of the Highlands were actually at ‘peaceful odds’ in their policies on the matter. Fr Schaefer was staunch for the use of the local vernacular. This ‘non scandalous holy rivalry’ became our heritage, providential, in hindsight, and enabling the strengths of both ways to develop. Geographical distances and plentiful work opportunity contributed to keep things usually civil. Since history must be the judge of this matter, we might wonder is it still too early for a verdict – or indeed is a verdict even called for?
The small single-engine Cessna aircraft served as the versatile ‘work horse’ of the mission both for supplies’ delivery and longer personnel travel. Population demographics were not the only criterion for choosing the site of new mission stations – a suitable piece of land available near the new station for an airstrip was also important. The mission flying service centred in Madang catered to the far reaches of the Alexishafen Vicariate; a parallel one in Wewak also operated for the similar needs there. It would be some 30 years before the country’s road systems and commercial air services were sufficiently developed to close the missions’ air services.
Daily my ‘hands on’ experience was progressing. From accompanying Fr Ross on a number of nearby sick calls, and leading some of the week day and Sunday Mass celebrations, confessions, parish registers entries, to the planning of a full bush patrol of about 3 weeks of all the outstations to the north and east of Rebiamul. Fr Ross seemed to feel no need to accompany me on this extensive bush patrol, and some later ones as well, other than to advise me on details, and have a couple trusted helpers go along.
Things were going along like this for me and already in 1959 talk of overall change and expansion was in the air. New Apostolic Vicariates were to be established in the Highlands for Mount Hagen including Enga and Goroka including Simbu. Rumour and talk soon became reality, and not very surprisingly Fr Schilling became Vicar Apostolic of Goroka and Fr Bernarding of Mount Hagen. As a rule, ordinary missionaries on site would remain where they were. The Superiors and territorial titles were what were changed. Bp Bernarding’s track record suited the development and expansion needs of the Mount Hagen situation! The vast Rebiamul parish, extended from the Waghi to the Sepik and Ramu, tending roughly northward in a broad flaring corridor. The population was heaviest closer to Hagen but remained significant overall, only becoming increasingly sparse and scattered to the extreme north. Naturally Fr Ross’ initial expansion efforts had been mainly centred on the nearer area with some twenty catechists on scattered outstations as far north as the Jimi River.
Bp Bernarding was named Bishop in 1959, and with Episcopal Consecration and celebrations duly over in USA, was back on the job in Mount Hagen. Establishing the structures, buildings and all else needed for a new Vicariate Apostolic was a gradual process, but characteristically began immediately. Fr Ross’ role and mine continued little changed but with added duties. Soon Fr Ed Misik was also frequently to be seen around Rebiamul. While continuing as PP at Banz he now had the added job of Vicar General of the New Vicariate.
Bp Bernarding soon asked me to search out suitable possible new sites as the main station of the new parish to be broken off from Rebiamul. Then in 1961 the choice fell on Mun on the existing road to Simbu and the east, because of the strategic importance of road access and of consolidating the population toward Banz. Fr Ross’ experience and advice guided this decision. The ‘expansion era’ was on! By 1964 Mission education also was being ratcheted up, and Mun was seen as a good site for an ‘area level’ primary boarding school. MA-equipped-new missionary Fr Jim McDermott was appointed to Mun, and his area of pastoral responsibility was suitably reduced, leaving him adequate time for school work. I was asked to move on to already established Kuruk parish, 30 odd kilometres to the southwest. Fr Tony Krol, incumbent there, then moved to the similarly expanding Wabag area across the Hagen Range further west in the vicariate. In Kuruk I retained pastoral responsibility for the bulk of the ‘original corridor to the north’. But the expansion was only just begun! In 1967 I was again asked to find a site for another ‘break off’ parish. Choice fell on a waving kunai block of land along the Baiyer River road not far from Rugli, just over the small ridge that was the Waghi-Sepik Divide. (Eventually the station was named Kumdi after the large clan group populating adjacent areas in all directions.)
The Toledo, Ohio-based Notre Dame Sisters, already a short while in New Guinea, were chafing in Banz where they were temporarily helping at the high school in Fatima. The promise of having their very own girls’ high school kept beckoning. Something must have ‘clicked’ in Bp Bernarding’s managerial mind, and he decided to show the Sisters the Kumdi property. Though their Provincial visiting from the USA wondered if the place were not ‘somewhat remote’, the Sisters with more experience in New Guinea distances were taken by the possibilities and pushed for it. For the next several years then with divided allegiance, alongside master builder Br Paul Broekman I helped the Sisters to start up. Acquiring and delivering building materials occupied me eating deeply into time I knew I ought to be devoting to pastoral work. My conscience was somewhat appeased when with several basic essential buildings already standing, Fr Stanislaus Sniezek, CSMA was appointed to the school as chaplain and music instructor. His only pastoral responsibility was to the high school community, and the people of the immediate surrounds who came there for worship.
So now another move was possible for me! The distance was not to be far, only 5-6 kilometres further north to Mabulga, on the roadside at the bottom of the river gorge toward Baiyer River Station. The year was 1971. Another simple little parish station was being established!
I had often gone past a small unused trade store near Rugli on my motorbike. The building was of permanent materials and appeared in sound condition. If moved to Mabulga and upgraded a little it could serve as a quick temporary early residence. Within months it was moved and in use. Just adjacent to Mabulga Mission the government had a recently established primary school already running. The new parish appreciatively supported the school! A petrol pump was installed at Mabulga mission to fill a local need and to help meet ends
But this highly satisfying, physically active style of missionary life was not to go on for me much longer. The community of Divine Word Missionaries too had been expanding in numbers and activities, and its internal administrative needs were becoming an unbearable burden on Regional Superior Fr Jerry Bus working alone. A typist, office lady would not be an adequate solution. Really, only a member of the Society could be the kind of secretary needed because of the inside knowledge required.
So already in 1972, I made the move from the Highlands down to the SVD Regional headquarters in Alexishafen. For several years I had already been serving on the Society’s Regional Council, which included attending all Council meetings and gave me much wider internal knowledge. As it turned out, I was not devastated by the change and in a short time the coastal climate too no longer was a problem. Rather to my surprise, I really was prepared to go where, and do as told! Formation and past experience in religious life were proving more effective than dreamed possible!
From here on, the tempo picks up even more! Only a fleeting year spent as regional secretary and I was appointed to go to Holy Spirit Regional Seminary in Port Moresby. The SVD, because of a special mandate from Propaganda and the Bishops’ Conference, was tasked to see to the seminary’s adequate staffing. However competent qualified teachers were also becoming available from other participating Congregations and their involvement was highly desirable. To facilitate this some structural adjustment was needed. I was asked to be part of the adjustments. My 15 years of grass roots rural parish pastoral experience was cited as qualification when it was pointed out I lacked any advanced academic training for this. President was the title given to this position of Seminary Rector, because the small cluster of the colleges of the Religious Congregations participating each had its own Rector. Since many of the features of the adjustment were already being gradually implemented informally over the previous years, my arrival and role were not experienced as trauma. The capable and dedicated staff ensured this, and so our regular round of meetings operated smoothly. A three year term passed quickly leaving many pleasant memories.
Each triennium the SVD regularly holds a nationwide round of voting in its process of selecting superiors for the next period. And this time it turned out that I was elected Regional Superior. I chose to accept the results, and not declare myself unavailable. This decision left me open as fair target to the criticism such as came privately but civilly, from the Franciscan friar who replaced me as Seminary President. He questioned the SVD’s order of priorities in permitting this to happen after but a single term as president. My excuses were ready: the new system was proving to be working smoothly; my lack of specific academic qualifications for seminary; the members had spoken and SVD size and service in the church of PNG, was a voice not to be ignored.
So the transfer happened and it was back to Alexishafen for me, this time as regional secretary no longer, but regional superior! Fr Jerry Bus had just completed a record nine years as regional superior and welcomed his own return back to the ranks. One of my first official acts as superior was his appointment!
When superior himself, Fr Bus had been asked by the Bishops’ Conference to take exploratory initiatives in the area of Church Renewal, a matter of burning interest and timely importance for the Church in these early days following Vatican II. He was especially aware of what was happening in Europe due both to his origin (The Netherlands) and personal interest. His efforts brought him in contact with the Movement for a Better World. A group known by the same name had been founded by Italian Jesuit Fr Lombardi and was spreading the message of ‘communitarian Church Renewal’ vigourously across Christian Europe especially, but in other countries of the world having many Catholics as well. Fr Bus’ efforts led to a number of Bishops wishing to take a deeper look at what he reported, and in turn triggered an overseas team coming to present a ‘getting acquainted’ retreat regionally in several places nationwide. This resulted in a good number of dioceses expressing interest in the permanent establishment and introduction of the pastoral activity of Better World in PNG. And so when asked to, Fr Bus was excited about moving full time into this timely apostolate!
Alexishafen vicariate, by now already the Archdiocese of Madang (1971), had shifted its headquarters to the town of Madang into a large cluster of new buildings. Abp Noser gave a flat in one of them to Fr Bus as his living quarters and office for Better World. Under this influential patronage Fr Bus together with the team that gradually formed around him began extending the Better World message of Church Renewal across a waiting and receptive Papua New Guinea. Not discounting the importance of the personal study and interest of many other church people in parish and seminary work, if I’m not mistaken Fr Bus’ renewal work was the earliest and most extensive to date. I personally appreciated and shared his interest to the extent that I promised him that I would join him in it after my time as Superior.
My years in office at Alexishafen took on a familiar, but never boring pattern. Regular meetings with the Society’s regional consultors; appointments and transfers among the members; annual meetings with Bishops’ and Religious Superiors’ groups; the routine office correspondence involved in all these contacts; visiting confreres personally and as groups with the local travel involved. The everyday life in community at Alexishafen which was comprised of SVD Brothers running workshops and plantations, and two different convents of religious Sisters’ was enriching and pleasant. So was spent my first 3-year term, slipping easily into the second.
Papua New Guinea was astir with change as the achieving of full independence in 1975 exemplified. On the ground physical development too was impressive. Roads were beginning to connect places previously accessible only on foot or by air. New primary and high schools mushroomed and tertiary education expanded. Expatriate faces in the workforce grew fewer as young nationals stepped into positions. The country’s centre of gravity was moving. Thus in its wisdom the Provincial Council in 1978 reached the decision to shift the Society’s national headquarters to the Central Highlands choosing Mount Hagen. In its move some file documents were dampened when the Provincial in Suzuki unwisely attempted fording a swollen stream on the new Madang-Highlands road.
The first temporary sojourn in the Highlands was at Minj. A recently vacant lay missionaries’ residence was offered by Fr Labor and served for some months. Holy Trinity Teachers’ College became the next stepping stone – a temporarily vacant residence for a staff family would be available for a short term and saved the tedious regular trip to Hagen from Minj for mail and shopping. At HTTC I was joined by Br James Wilkins, new SVD Regional Secretary. By June 1979 he had located and purchased in residential Newtown (Mount Hagen) a house formerly owned by Kubor Construction. This served as Provincial Headquarters until 2008 when another Provincial Council in its wisdom decided on completing the circle and returning to Madang. Weighty among the reasons felt for doing so was the security of the land tenure. The title to the property in Madang was judged to be less at risk than the lot in Newtown.
Now I turn back to my personal story. After completing my second term as Regional/Provincial Superior in January 1981, I filled in as parish priest of St. Anselm’s, Banz for several months prior to ‘getting out from underfoot for a while’ by going to Bougainville. The sea journey (accompanying my large heavy mission trunk) took six days via Lae, and New Britain, landing at Tubiana – Buka Passage on Novenber 11th. I believe Fr Kurian and Br Paul Omba arrived over about the same time I did, but travelled by plane. And, if my memory serves me correctly, Bp Singkai personally welcomed the three of us and then accompanied us from Tubiana to Haisi, Monoitu and Sovele in the new white twin cab utility he had purchased for us. After some days of the Bishop graciously introducing us to our new area, we would then have brought him back to his Tubiana base.
Our assignment was the very southwest corner of the island of Bougainville taking in the parishes of Monoitu, Haisi and Sovele and Chaplain responsibility for the hospital at Moratona. We agreed that Br Paul Omba and I would look after Monoitu and Fr Kurian Arimattam Haisi and Sovele, which also included Moratona hospital. We operated in relative independence, cooperating as neighbours normally do.
The existing roads connecting Monoitu and Haisi and beyond became familiar and frequently used by us. Br Paul and I settled into Monoitu and Fr Kurian into smaller Haisi, taking over responsibility for Sovele as well, which was nearer the Panguna mine on the way back. The daily ‘mission sked’ enabled us to communicate as to where the shared white utility was needed. Br Paul was a ‘red skin’ among the jet black Bougainvilleans. Station manager might best describe his main responsibilities, and he was a congenial confrere to live with. Parish duties and the outstations of Monoitu were my main task and soon the need for a second vehicle was pressing. Fortunately sufficient funds were available and a lighter 4-wheel- drive utility was also purchased. At parishioners’ request a monthly routine of bringing the Sacraments to a scattered 15-20 of the elderly ‘housebound’ was developed, keeping the pastor in touch and busy as well as ‘fit’ with all the bushwalking and teaching him the lay of the parish at the same time.
Bougainville was ‘Marist territory’ from the founding of the Church there, and we the ‘outsider’ SVDs could have been seen as encroachers, but we never experienced any such sense of rivalry only the warmest fraternal welcome. We often visited their men and stations, regularly staying at their Kieta headquarters when we went to town.
As the months and years moved on I was keeping in mind my undertaking with Fr Bus to join him eventually in Church Renewal work with Movement for a Better World. During 1986 Bp Schmidt of the Bishops’ Conference’s Seminary Senate approached me to return to Bomana Seminary, this time in the role of Spiritual Director for the diocesan seminarians. So it was back to Bomana shortly before Christmas ’86. Spiritual direction of course was already happening at Bomana, but the formal office of Spiritual Director and liaison among all the Colleges had not yet been set up. My return evoked for me past memories of congenial staff cooperation and willing student response, and in fact that experience was repeated! The 3-year-stint was adequate for setting things up and going back again to the idea of Church Renewal work with Better World.
In Madang Fr Bus was established in a satisfactory 3-room flat at the Archdiocesan Headquarters. I moved into its second bedroom and was given a desk in the large common office room. We took our meals in the Headquarters’ community dining room.
Then we began thinking this way: mightn’t it be more effective if Fr Bus and I lived separately at places that had more recently taken up interest in the Renewal? So in line with this thinking Fr Bus moved to Kerowagi in the Simbu where Fr Klemens Voss welcomed him, and I to Bogia with Fr Carmine Giacomuzzi as parish priest. Fr Bus remained Director of MBW till 1997 when I replaced him in that role.
THE TWO THOUSANDS
In the Goroka meeting with our bishops, it was a watershed for MBW when the New Image of the Parish programme began giving way in preference to the New Image of the Diocese programme. This meant greater and more wholesale commitment to the Renewal on the part of a large number of a Diocese’s parishes. Though the Parish Priest still remained ‘king’ it was beginning to grow a little ‘shakier’, with the Christian Community gaining in prominence. This coincided with the move of the National Office to Rebiamul Mount Hagen at Archbishop Meier’s invitation, and the starting to develop the MBW centre there. In the beginning I had a room at the Michaelite’s house and Br Peter van de Wiel at the SVD Formation house, and Sr Joan MacGinley with the Mercy Sisters at Holy Trinity Teachers College. With our red Nissan van, each morning Br Peter would first pick up Sr Joan at HTTC, coming to work together with me in the small corner room of Rebiamul’s bulk store. In this period we all took our midday meals at the Rebiamul dining room. I would have my morning and evening meals there as well, while Br Peter and Sr Joan respectively had their other meals at SVD Formation and HTTC. Identifying donors and gathering funds took a while and the actual beginning of erecting the present National Centre started only in 2000.
The Men’s’ Side upper building was finished first, making possible a larger Office in the front room, and sleeping accommodation for Br Peter and me. Sr Joan still had to go to HTTC. When the Women’s Side upper building was complete for habitation Sr Joan moved in and daily ‘running around’ lessened and we began working and eating together in our own premises. Movement for a Better World was approvingly regarded by many European funding agencies, making things quite easy and free of delay. Also the fairly simple ‘kit house’ structures were well within the local contractor’s competence and he was happy to be having the work.
The site too had distinct advantages. Being just across the road from the Archdiocese’s main office, many services of this office were available to us without our unnecessarily duplicating them. We gladly made use especially of fax machine and press for printing runs of greater size. We had adequate facilities for smaller jobs and found the arrangement very suitable. We were now set up to run smaller training courses and meetings independently in our own facilities, thanks largely to our partner NGO’s in Europe.
As this decade started waning, changes began suggesting themselves. In May 2007 Fr Roger Purcell replaced me as National Director, assuring me I was welcome to stay on, and Sr Bernadette, SND joined us in January 2008 making the National Team full time members four strong. Because of my long time there and close association with Mt. Hagen, my late September, 2009 move to Madang and retirement in the new SVD Central House surprised many. In reality my two main motives were, being ‘too well known’ by undesirable ‘favour seekers’ in Mt. Hagen, and cold feet syndrome, bothering me for a while already; nor was Madang unfamiliar territory to me! Hopefully the warmer coastal climate would remedy the cold feet! And so ends the first decade of the Two Thousands.
THE TWO THOUSAND TENS
Sr Joan MacGinley’s move to retirement in Australia came January 6, 2010, bringing to a close her many years of educational and pastoral service in PNG. So the National team was down to two again. The long years he worked in the Bereina Diocese from the start of the Renewal Project there made Fr Purcell better prepared to be the National Director than I had ever been, and Sr Bernadette being a Notre Dame Sister gave hope that fellow Sisters of hers might be possible future candidates as well, so a promising new era for Better World and Church Renewal seemed to be starting.
My life of retirement in the newly completed SVD Province’s Central House in Madang was pleasant and undemanding. I was invited, at my own pace, to unpack the many cartons of archive material still waiting to be on the shelves of the large Archive Room. Though Fr Cantwell had made a good start in Hagen, the bulk of the material was still disorganized and random in order. This became clearer and clearer to me as the unpacking progressed, and my conviction grew that I was not the one for this major job. A younger trained professional Archivist was needed, and ideally it is obvious, that person would be a member of the Society of the Divine Word.
A serious health problem began asserting itself in my retirement – I was suffering from high blood pressure, making me a candidate for a stroke. My Madang doctor wasted no time dealing with this and after several visits had stabilised my condition with appropriate medication. And so my retirement goes along, a little less carefree. For the present I now conclude this narration, and depending on the course of my life, the future may or may not provide opportunity for further adding to it.