WHAT AN EXTRAORDINARY BODY of men were the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) in Papua New Guinea – Americans, Germans, Dutch and others.
Fr Mike Clerkin was one of them. He came to Wewak before World War II and was interned by the Japanese during the war years – staying on after. Wherever he was posted, he was liked and respected.
He told me that when he arrived in Wewak around 1938 he gained a reputation as being a great drinker who was exceptional in his ability to hold his liquor – quite unjustified according to him.
It came about, he said, when early in his time in Wewak he was asked to a party. He was sitting on the verandah and drinks were flowing freely, in fact the host would not allow anyone’s glass to be any way empty, filling each up with neat Scotch.
Well, the only way Mike could cope was to keep emptying his glass over the side of the verandah. The next day the news went around Wewak that this young American priest sat drinking Scotch all night and left the party as sober as he arrived.
In Maprik, Mike had an extensive library mainly on intellectual subjects. A field officer with the Malaria Control Unit visited the presbytery, and on seeing Mike’s books remarked: “Father, I love books. At home I’ve got the complete works of Zane Grey!”
Fr Much, a German SVD, was stationed on Karkar Island in the early 1960s and the stories about him there abound. His great saying was: “SVD – smoke ve don’t, so ve drink”
In fact many SVDs did both, including Fr Much! The story behind this little tale is that strictly speaking they were not supposed to smoke according to the rules of their order.
This prohibition was not repealed until the middle sixties – which, looking back, seems rather strange for at this time the general community started to become increasingly anti-smoking.
From memory Fr Much’s favourite smoke was a giant cigar that he rolled himself from native tobacco leaves – brus.
When he was on leave in Germany, a medical opinion said he needed an operation.
Fr Much wrote to John Middleton along these lines: “I’m being attended to by two surgeons – one a woman and the other a man. The man thinks I should not be operated on – the woman tends to differ. I know the woman will get her way and I will die.”
Unfortunately he did die after the operation.
I first met Fr John O’Toole in Dreikikir in 1962 when he was the parish priest or missionary-in-residence. I’m trying to think of the right title or designation, both would be appropriate.
John was a Bostonian of Irish descent who took his religious calling seriously. He also loved a drink and the convivial company of the station expats. If one happened to be Catholic he insisted you attended Mass every Sunday – you either came every Sunday or stayed away altogether.
At this time there was a well-known medical assistant stationed at Dreikikir, Frank Gilbert. Frank and I both shared the distinction of going off the side of the Karkar Island airstrip on a motor bike.
Frank did it in a much more dramatic way and literally flew off the side of the strip and into the ocean, while I just tumbled over the side onto the rocks. Anyway that’s another story.
Fr John got Frank to go to Mass while he was in Dreikikir, but he didn’t get around to going to the sacraments. In early 1963 Frank decided to go finish - return to Australia for good to get married to a Catholic woman.
Prior to his marriage in Australia, Frank decided to go to Confession. After he confessed and indicated how long he’d been away from the practice of his faith, the priest in confession asked what brought him back.
Frank said: “While I was in New Guinea I met a priest who was a man.” This was John O’Toole! Frank wrote to John and told him this – O’Toole was very pleased.
On celibacy, John once said to me, with a hint of regret in his voice, that this was something he signed up to years ago.
The last time I saw Fr John O’Toole was in Sydney on his way to the States – going finish after nearly 40 years in PNG. Not too long after he arrived in the States he died.
I first met Fr Karl Junemann at his Kombi Mission Station in the Dreikikir area – a very spiritual and humble man from Hanover. He spoke high German unlike many of his colleagues who mainly hailed from southern Germany.
During the war he was conscripted into the German Medical Corps, and sent initially to the Eastern Front. In the Ukraine, when the inhabitants found out that he was a Catholic priest, he was well treated by them.
After Eastern Europe he was sent west and was part of the triumphant German entry into Paris.
He never approved of the Nazi war, but couldn’t help sounding a bit proud when expressing the success of German arms as he was telling me about the victory march into Paris.
Karl stayed in the Sepik until he died, and he was buried in Wewak in the mission cemetery after almost 50 years of dedicated service in PNG. A gentle and hospitable man.
I remember Patrol Officer Jock McIntyre at Dreikikir, a man of Presbyterian background, setting out on patrol with a certain amount of relish to read the riot act to Fr Junemann.
To Jock, the father initially was a Kraut Roman priest. Coming back to the station after visiting him, McIntyre was completely charmed and full of praise for Fr Junemann.
Fr Fons Ruijter came to PNG in the early 1960s and to Angoram in 1964. His theological and ecclesiastical stance was in many ways more progressive than the Second Vatican Council.
He was in favour of wearing secular clothing while celebrating the Mass and he tended to downplay the importance of Confession. The practical application of the Gospels to everyday life was his rule-of- thumb in judging how we lived the Christian life.
In 1972 I went to Manila in the Philippines to marry my future wife, Deborah. When making arrangements with the church authorities there I was required to get a clearance from my parish priest that I was eligible to be married in the Catholic Church.
In other words, that there was no known impediment to me getting married. To facilitate this I sent a radiogram to Fons Ruijter.
Well I got a radiogram back written in Latin. To my unscholarly eyes everything appeared to be in order, however I do remember seeing something like impotentia coeundi in the text which aroused the suspicion of my friend, Peter Johnson, but we really thought nothing of it.
At school I did have three years of Latin, but it was always in the same grade – I didn’t get beyond the first declension – I clearly remember mensa, mensa, mensam, mensae, mensae, mensa, but that was it.
Fons’ radiogram was duly presented to the Filipino priest who was going to marry us, and I thought nothing more of it for the next few days until Deborah and I called in to see the priest.
He indicated that he wanted to talk to me privately. He asked me if I was a good friend of Fr Ruijter’s and I said, yes. He then explained to me briefly what was in the radiogram, and he said that Fr Ruijter was probably having a little joke with me.
The missive from Fons said, in so many Latin words, that there was a diriment canonical impediment to my marriage due to impotence.
To say the least I wasn’t too happy and I didn’t have the grace to see the joke, but really I was upset for appearing to be such a rough untutored lad. Fortunately the words were not taken seriously by the priest in Manila and the marriage went ahead without a hitch.
When I returned to Angoram I was a bit off hand with Fons for a while, but he was upset that I had not seen through the whole thing because he genuinely believed that my original request was a bit of a joke on my part, just to create amusement among the expats in Angoram.
So in a way he was only playing along with the joke, thinking I would have enough Latin to understand his reply to me.
Fons stayed in PNG until the late 1980s or early 1990s. For his last years there, he ran a community farming project in Gavien just outside Angoram.
The last I heard of him, he was working with the unemployed in Holland.
The abovementioned people are just a few Divine Word Missionaries of my acquaintance.
There have been many others such as Fr Robert Jilek, the captain of the Marova; Bishop Leo Arkfeld, the flying bishop; Fr Shadeg, a gifted school teacher; Fr Mike Hughes; Fr Ivo Ruiter; Fr Mitterbauer; Br Gonzaga; Br Patroclus Appeldorn; and last but certainly not least, Ralf Stüttgen, a highly intelligent man, who arrived in the late 1960s as an SVD. He later left the order and to this day is a resident of Wewak.
Blessed Arnold Janssen, founder of the Society of the Divine Word, has cause to be proud of the members of his Society.