The history of the Catholic Church in Papua New Guinea is the history of the love of God for his people. In his great love God had called his wonderful people to be his own. For this reason, everyone give praise and thanks to God.
The 29th September 1982, marked one hundred years of the continual presence of the Catholic faith in the archdiocese of Rabaul. The centenary was a joyful occasion to give thanks to God for His wonderful blessings on the people and the pioneer missionaries. It was also an occasion to recognize and acknowledge the life of faith, the commitment and dedication of so many people in the vineyard of the Lord.
Thanks to ToLitur the local chief of Nodup who received the first Fathers and settled them in his home. Thanks to ToKalukal who invited the missionaries to Kokopo. Thanks to ToPeleram for inviting the missionaries to Malagunan. These were the strategic locations for the missionary activity around the Gazelle Peninsula and later beyond its boundaries. Special thanks goes to everyone in the islands of New Britain, New Ireland and Manus for allowing the missionaries to establish mission stations in their areas.
In 1881, His Holiness entrusted this area to the pastoral care of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC). On 29th September 1882 the first MSCs (Frs. Andrea Navarre, Theophil Cramaille and Br. Mesmin Fromm) arrived at Matupit Island after 13 months travel from Europe.
On arrival they learnt that Father Rene Marie Lanuzel, a French diocesan priest had been there a year earlier. He came with the settlers on the Marquis de Rey expedition who settled at the south coast of New Ireland. When the scheme failed Fr.Lanuzel came and settled at Nodup under the care of ToLitur the local chief. He already began pastoral work in Nodup, Baai and Malagunan and baptized many children. When the MSCs arrived in Matupit, Fr.Lanuzel was away in Sydney to collect supplies for the mission.
The missionaries first settled in Nodup but due to geographical isolation they moved to Kokopo. Not long after they had to move again because their house was caught on a fire. They moved to Volavolo and there build the first church building
The Catholic missionaries were not the first on New Britain. Reverend George Brown a Methodist missionary first landed in the Duke of York in 1875 and began his missionary work in the islands. His coworkers were Fijians and other Pacific islanders.
The Congregation for the propagation of the faith erected the Apostolic Vicariate of Melanesia in 1884. This included the islands of New Guinea, New Britain, New Ireland, Manus, Solomon Islands, Alices, Gilbert, Marshall, Carolina and the Mariana Islands. This covers the vast ocean of the Pacific including many thousands of little islands.
In 1884, an additional four missionaries arrived, Frs.Louis Vatan, Ferdinand Hartzer, Benjamin Gaillard and Br. Joseph de Santis. A week later, Frs. Navarre, Hartzer and Br. Santis left Volavolo in view of starting the mission in Papua. Bishop Moran of Sydney gave direction that Frs. Vatan and Cramaille can stay at Volavolo and Fr.Gaillard to work in Malagunan.
The Apostolic Vicariate of Melanesia was too big so in 1889 it was reduced to the islands of New Britain, New Ireland and Manus and called the Apostolic Vicariate of Rabaul. In 1890 Fr. Louis Couppe became the first bishop and settled down at Vunapope.
1n 1884 Australia and Germany divided Papua New Guinea. Australia became responsible for Papua while German took over New Guinea. The German Administration had its headquarters at Kokopo. In 1890 the German government introduced the policy of "spheres of influence". They (Germans) divided the population in the Gazelle so the Rabaul area was assigned to the Methodists and the Kokopo area to the Catholics. Neither the Catholics nor Methodists could do any missionary activity outside their already existing spheres of influence. Catholics could only work in Volavolo and Malagunan. The people and the Bishop opposed the policy and such restriction, so in 1899 the government lifted the restriction.
The missionary activity began to expand so the Bishop invited in Religious Women to assist in the mission. The Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (OLSH) arrived in New Britain in 1891. These were from a French congregation, so the German Government told the Bishop to bring in Sisters from Germany. The first group of MSC Sisters arrived in 1902. The Bishop then decided to start an indigenous congregation for the Sisters. In 1912 he started the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (FMI Sisters).
The Bishop saw the Tolais and the Bainings on the north coast were not in good terms so he started a new mission station in Vunamarita in 1896 and in 1898 at St. Paul's in the North Bainings. The Bainings were happy to receive services directly however some Tolais from around the Kabaira area were not happy so they influenced some Bainings to killed the missionaries.
On August 13th 1904, 10 missionaries together with 7 baptized Bainings were killed at St. Paul's. They were Frs. Mathew Rascher and Henri Ruetten, Brs.Eduard Plaschaert, Johannes Cornelius Schellekens and Alois Bley (brother of Fr. Bley), Srs. M. Sophia, M. Angela, M. Anna, M. Agnes and M. Agatha.
When the First World War ended (1914-1918) the Australian administration changed the German. The Bishop was told to change the German missionaries and to give way for new missionaries from other countries. Later in 1925 the administration changed its position following an intervention by the Holy See and allowed the German missionaries to stay and continue on.
Archbishop L. Couppe handed the responsibilities to Bishop Gerard Vesters in 1923. By this time the Catholic faith had gone around the north and south coast of New Britain, to New Ireland and Manus. Many catechists worked hand in hand with the priests and cared for many mission stations.
With the arrival of many more missionaries Bishop Vesters sent more priests to the north and south coasts to take over stations that were once looked after by catechists. By the beginning of World War II all the stations around the coasts had priests.
In 1934, Bishop Vesters and Bishop de Boismenu started a seminary for the training of local priest. No priest was ordained before the War. The first ordination of two diocesan priests from the New Britain was on November 13, 1953. They were Frs. Herman ToPaivu and George ToBata. However, the first PNG priest was Bishop Louis Vangeke from Yule Island and was ordained priest in 1937.
Bishop Vesters started the St.Paul's Catechist School at Taliligap in 1925. Formerly it was at Vunapope. The catechists did a tremendous work amongst the communities and were in the forefront in the work of evangelization. The need for catechists is still felt today.
In 1938 Bishop Leo Scharmach succeeded Bishop Vesters. In 1942, it was the beginning of World War Two. The Japanese imprisoned the missionaries at Ramale concentration camp until the end of the War in 1945. The War claimed 67 missionaries' lives and most of the mission stations destroyed. After the War, Rabaul saw the arrival of new missionaries from America, Australia and Ireland. These were involved with the re-building and restoration of the mission stations. German Missionaries were allowed only in 1951 to come to continue their work in Rabaul, a political decision.
The Sisters started new primary schools while the Bishop started teachers' training college. Previously the catechists would do all the primary school teaching but their training was not sufficient. Bishop Scharmach then invited the Christian Brothers to assist in the field of education. They arrived in 1950 and began to teach at St.Mary's High School Vuvu. Teacher training for the men began in 1958 at St. Paul's Training College. It began in Vuvu and in 1972 transferred to Vunakanau. Teacher Training for the women was started by the OLSH Sisters at Vunapope in 1955 then later was transferred to a newly built college at Kabaleo in 1965.
For the training of local priests, the Bishops of Papua New Guinea started a Minor Seminary, St. Peter Chanel College, Ulapia in 1955. Some young men decided to become Religious and joined the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, so the MSC novitiate was opened at Vunapau in 1964.
The diocese of Rabaul was divided in the year 1957. New Ireland and Manus became a diocese of its own under Bishop Alfred Stemper MSC.
In 1963, John Hoehne MSC became Bishop. Most work had been done on the coast so attention was focused on the people living inland of New Britain. Concerns were on building up the local church, encouraging the role of the laity, and pastoral work. Parish Pastoral Council was introduced and ecclesial movement was encouraged e.g. Legion of Mary.
Rabaul was made an Archdiocese on November 15, 1966. Bishop John Hoehne became the first Archbishop of Rabaul and Metropolitan Archbishop of New Guinea Islands and Solomon Islands.