Empowered by the Word

American Divine Word Missionaries arrive in the New Guinea Highlands

The SVD presence in Papua New Guinea, the eastern half of the southwestern Pacific island of New Guinea, grew out of Germany’s colony of Kaiser-Wilhelmsland. In 1896 the first German Divine Word Missionaries arrived at Madang, on the northeastern coast of the island. After World War I, it became clear that a native English speaker would be a boon in dealing with the Australian government, which now occupied former German New Guinea. In 1926, the North American Province sent Rev. William Ross SVD as the sole American in an otherwise German mission. 

Ross would eventually become one of the best-known white men in the country, and was even featured on a Papuan postage stamp in 1976. When he first arrived Fr. Ross worked primarily at the coastal mission stations around Madang and Alexishafen, but the work that would come to define his career—and future SVD missions in Papua New Guinea—would come on the heels of a huge discovery.

For centuries, Europeans assumed that New Guinea’s interior was too mountainous to be habitable, but the advent of aviation provided explorers with another vantage point. In 1933, an Australian aircraft flew over the New Guinea Highlands for the first time and discovered the Waghi Valley, first settled over 50,000 years ago. 

This area would become the base of operations for Fr. Ross. He, along with Brother Eugene Frank SVD (another American) would journey into the Highlands in early 1934, encountering tribal communities that had never before laid eyes on outsiders. In 1935 Brother Eugene died after an attack by native Papuans, a cruel reminder to the Divine Word Missionaries that their presence had disrupted life in the area and was sometimes unwelcome. This dark trend would continue. 

After Japan declared war on the United States in December 1941, SVD activity in Papua New Guinea was thrown into deadly disarray. Japan’s campaign for control of New Guinea began in early 1942, and by the end of the year Divine Word mission stations had been occupied, looted, and destroyed, while priests and Brothers were captured as prisoners of war. One of the seven American SVDs on the island, Joseph Kotrba, had been killed at the hands of Japanese troops. Two others, Arthur Manion and Victor Salois, would join the 62 religious executed aboard the Japanese destroyer Akikaze on March 15, 1943.

The tragedy that most devastated the SVDs took place on the Japanese merchant vessel Dorish Maru on February 5, 1944. The vessel was strafed by American naval planes, which were not aware of the prisoners on board. A total of 22 SVDs and 34 Holy Spirit Sisters (SSpS) were killed in the incident. 

In all, the war cost the lives of roughly half the SVDs on New Guinea and wiped out 90% of their missions. The rebuilding process would be led by the Americans. Fr. Ross and other Divine Word members had been safely evacuated from the island to Australia before the Japanese invasion, and were allowed to return to the Highlands in September 1944 to begin assessing the damage. Ross’s work in the area was not nearly finished. 

Meanwhile, at St. Mary’s Seminary in Techny, IL, new Divine Word Missionary priests and Brothers were being assigned to Papua New Guinea. In 1944, without other mission fields available due to the war, 20 men were tapped to make the voyage. These new faces, along with those who would arrive in subsequent years, would come to define the SVD efforts in Papua New Guinea for the next four decades.

Among the names in the 1944 ordination class are those of the first two American vicars apostolic of New Guinea: Bp. Leo Arkfeld SVD and Bp. Appelhans SVD. Consecrated together at Techny in July 1948 the two were the first of many American SVD bishops in Papua New Guinea, the others being George Bernarding (1912-1987), John Cohill (1907-1994), Raymond Kalisz (1927-2010), and Adolf Noser (1900-1981). 

Arkfeld, who would go on to become Archbishop of Madang, used the same technology that enabled the discovery of the Highlands societies to transform the ways Divine Word Missionaries in Papua New Guinea performed their duties. Long enamored of aviation and airplanes, Arkfeld found after arriving in the coastal missions that flying was ideal in such a mountainous, undeveloped landscape. Eventually known as the “flying bishop,” Arkfeld found the strategy allowed remote mission stations to be built quickly and staffed efficiently. It also granted him a degree of notoriety that enabled him to raise both money and awareness of the Society’s efforts. By the time he made his final flight in 1990, Arkfeld had logged almost 9,000 flight hours over his 42 years as a pilot.

It was Abp. Arkfeld who, in 1975, ordained the first native Papuan priest. This landmark moment took place the same year the country achieved its independence, and demonstrated that the seeds planted by the American Divine Word Missionaries had begun to flourish. Through their work establishing churches, school, and a system of seminaries, their efforts in publishing newspapers and running radio stations, and their anthropological studies of important native tribal cultures and customs, the SVDs of the Papua New Guinea missions helped build a thriving Catholic culture where there had not been one before. 

Fr. William Ross, the first American SVD in Papua New Guinea, continued his own work in the remote Highlands for the remainder of his life, sometimes going months without seeing another SVD, walking from village to village to train native catechists, say Mass, and perform sacraments. For decades Fr. Ross shunned any administrative appointments, choosing instead to remain an active missionary until his death in 1973. By then, he had spent 47 years as a missionary in Papua New Guinea.

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