Forgotten times sealed in a book


CATHOLIC Mary Mennis now resides in Brisbane but she has lived in PNG for about 21 years since 1962. In 2008, she was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) medal for services to the Bel community of Madang through the recording of their traditional history”.in the Queen’s Birthday Honors list.
Mennis has done a lot of work in recording the history and culture of communities in PNG. Her recently released book, Rempi to Rebiamul : Missions from Madang to Mt. Hagen 1896 to 2016 contains a wealth of material relating to the establishment of the Catholic Church in Madang and the Highlands. While the book has only been recently published (2016), much of the information comes from material collected in the 1970’s. The author, Mary Mennis, had lived in Rabaul, Madang and Hagen, and had got interested in local history. She has previously published several books. They Came to Matupit and Tubuan and Tabernacle are about the missions in the Rabaul area. A Potted History of Madang is about Madang and its surrounding areas. Hagen Saga is mainly about Fr. William Ross, the Catholic priest who established the Church in Hagen.
Fr. Ross also features in this book, and indeed the title “Rempi to Rebiamul” is indicative of this. Rempi is a location not far from Alexishafen on the north coast of Madang where Fr. Ross lived and did pastoral work in the late 1920’s years and Rebiamul is the location where Fr. Ross established the Catholic Mission in the Hagen area. (Fr. Ross first established himself in 1934 at Wilya where the Leahy brothers had a camp and later in 1938 Ross moved to Rebiamul. Rebiamul was right next to the Government Station which is now the location of Hagen Town.
A valuable aspect of this book Rempi to Rebiamul is that it contains abundant primary source material.
During her years in PNG from 1962 onwards Mary Mennis had the opportunity to interview many prominent church, business and government officials and information from many of those taped interviews is included in the book. Among those she interviewed back in the 1970’s were Mick and Danny Leahy, Jock McKay. Dr. Braun, Neptune Blood, Sir Wamp Wan, Peter Manui, Archbishop George Bernarding, Frs. William Ross, Fr. Jacob Noss, and Fr. Bernie Dowd. Some of the material will not have appeared in publication before.
The book does not pretend to present a comprehensive history of the development of the mission, but the amount of primary source material in the book makes it an invaluable resource for anyone willing to begin a more comprehensive history.
After giving some historical background dating from the arrival of the first Divine Word missionaries in 1896, and including some incidents from the First World War (1914-1918), the author describes Fr. Ross’s early years in Madang from the time of his arrival there in 1926. It can be kept in mind that in the early years most of the Lutheran and Catholic missionaries were from Germany. Fr. Ross, himself was from the USA.
There is a brief but interesting description of the role of the Leahy brothers, Mick and Dan in exploring the Highlands and in urging Fr. Ross to come to the highlands. The role of Fr. Alfons Schaefer in the 1934 expedition is also clearly described.
The book also covers the period during the Second World War when the missionaries faced many difficulties and most were forced to leave the country. It includes the story, with personal comments by Sr. Vinciana, of how Danny Leahy brought a group of nuns and Fr. Laumann from the Sepik up to Hagen to escape from the Japanese.
After World War II many of the missionaries who had been forced to leave returned to PNG. The book describes the reconstruction that took place in the various areas.
The author returned to PNG for a visit in 1994 and again more recently in 2015.
From information gathered then she has provided updated information about the life of the Church especially in the archdioceses of Madang and Mt. Hagen.
The author is quite objective in presenting the various interviews. The readers are left to draw their own conclusions from some of the material presented. The book does not gloss over the difficulties and tensions.
There are accounts of tensions between the Catholics and the Lutherans, tensions between the Government Officials and the missionaries, and tensions between the Catholic missionaries themselves.
The author does not, in my opinion, attempt to exaggerate the success of the missionaries, reports are down-to earth and factual. One gets a clear picture of the various difficulties and obstacles that the missionaries faced.
As mentioned above there were tensions between the Lutherans, Catholics and the Government Officials, during those times. However perhaps these tensions created a healthy competitive framework. Efforts by the missions to provide health and education facilities did spur the Government on to provide better facilities. The churches competed with each other to extend their work and provide services.
The book also provides many examples of healthy cooperation between the Churches and the Government officials. In isolated areas they often had to rely on each other.
The book has a foreword and a good bibliography. There are one or two minor quibbles, e.g., Dalkeith Chambers, commonly known as Dal Chambers, has his name misspelled “Chalmers” on a few occasions, (e.g., captions of photographs on pages 89, 93.) Because the book includes material from so many personal interviews there is some repetition and the material is not presented in a strict chronological order.
However these are minor quibbles. The book contains a wealth of primary source material. The material is presented in a down-to-earth manner. The author is to be congratulated for not only preserving the material she collected forty years ago but also for the great effort to bring the history of the missions up to date. In my opinion this has been done in a very objective manner. For the most part the main characters in the book have been let speak through their own words.

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