The following text is from a series of notes written by Sister Helena Egan - a missionary in Kiribati from January 1939 until June 1983 - over 44 years. I was fortunate enough, as a former student of Immaculate Heart College, Taborio, Tarawa, Kiribati, to have met Sister Helena Egan during her time at Kiribati.The following text is presented in the form of the notes Sister Helena subsequently entrusted to me.
Towards the end of the l8th century, two British Captains, Gilbert and Marshall, discovered the central and northern islands of the Gilberts group which they named Gilberts. A group further north were named Marshalls. These islands are fairly close to the island of Makin which is the most northern island in the Gilberts. The Gilbert islands straddling the equator are just west of the International Date Line. The Ellice Islands lie about 320km south of the Gilberts. In 1890 Great Britain took control of the Ellice Islands which consisted of 9 islands. In 1892 the Gilberts became a British Protectorate. Then in 1916 the Ellice Islands were combined with the Gilbert Islands to form the Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony. In 1975 the two groups were separated and the Ellice group became independent in 1978, while the Gilbert Islands group became independent in July 1979. The majority of the coral islands of both Gilberts and Ellice consist of ring shaped atolls or coral reefs that surround lagoons. Since their independence the Ellice group are known as Tuvalu while the Gilberts have changed to Kiribati - the Republic of Kiribati, headed by a president.
The Republic of Kiribati consists of 16 islands or atolls in the Gilberts: Ocean Island about 400 kilometres west of Tarawa (Capital of the Republic), and east of the International Dateline, the Phoenix group with 8 islands, 1120 kilometres E.S.E. and the Line Islands - 8 Islands 2400 kilometres east of the Gilberts - a total of 33 islands, the total area being about 5 million square kilometres. The Catholic Mission Diocese also includes the Republic of Nauru with Bishop Paul Mea (Gilbertese) in-charge. Kiribati, Ellice and Nauru have each their own culture and language. Kiribati consists of very small low, white coral islands or atolls, which in most cases have a number of quite small islets which are separated from one another by narrow passages of water from the lagoon side to the ocean. Not all these islets are inhabited. A typical island or atoll is simply a series of very narrow strips of land forming an arc which partially encircles a lagoon on the western side.
Tarawa is the most important atoll of the group by reason of the good anchorage. Its deep lagoon provides for ocean-going vessels and it is also the headquarters of the Government, headquarters of the Catholic Mission, the main hospital, the Government Teachers' Training College, large stores and many other offices etc. This island consists of 30 or more islets which before causeways were built, were isolated from each other at high tide. In the 1960's work was commenced on building causeways thus making it much easier to get from one islet to the next. Nowadays motor vehicles can travel to many of these islets. When the Americans were preparing for the actual invasion of Tarawa they took aerial photographs and gave a special name to each of these tiny islets.
Prior to World War 1 many people in Australia had never heard of the Gilberts. On a small map there was no mention of them, while a very large map would show only a number of very small dots. However, since the Pacific War and the famous Battle of Tarawa, more is known about them but one still meets people unaware of their existence. In the early days travelling to the different islands was quite difficult, but nowadays airstrips have been built on all the islands to and from Tarawa where the Tarawa air terminal is situated.THE GILBERTESE PEOPLE
The Gilbertese people are of Micronesian stock, a very lovable race - very easy-going and have no regard for time. They are noted for their hospitality and will deprive themselves to welcome and feed strangers. It often happens that canoes will be taken out of their course on account of bad weather or contrary currents. They then land on another island where they are well looked after for days or weeks. In 1939 it was the drought time - seven years without any rain. In the southern part of the group small children did not know what any rain was, coconuts were getting smaller and in some cases the trees die. Often the people had very little to eat. Fish was not always easy to catch and their well water became very brackish. Some had to go on their canoes from one islet to another with their buckets or tins in order to get some drinking water. During this time some canoes arrived at their island so the villagers did all they could to welcome and feed these people. Orphanages and places for elderly or very sick people are unheard of as there is always someone to look after them. `
The Gilbertese people are of fine appearance, some among them even being very tall. They seem more vigorous than the natives of the Western Islands, while the women are also of a more refined type. They are of a brown complexion with black hair, not wavy like that of the pure Polynesians. They consider themselves a civilized race. A certain number can read and write, and among the women many sew well. Some even use sewing machines. Many of the men have worked on ships and at other work. Since the Pacific war quite a number of both men, and women have done University studies. Since their independence the President is head of the Republic of Kiribati. He is supported by a number of Ministers as his assistants. Quite a number of young people are working in government positions and some own trading stores. So the situation is quite different from that of pre-war days.ARRIVAL OF THE FIRST MISSIONARIES
The first Priests - Missionaries of the Sacred Heart - left France in 1888 and arrived at the island of Nonouti, Gilbert Islands on l0th May, 1888. Previous to this quite a number of Gilbertese people were taken by "black-birders" to work on the plantations on other islands in the Pacific. There they had met with zealous Missionaries who sowed the seed of the Gospel. Two of the men were from the island of Nonouti and on their return to their home island instructed the local people. Churches were built and each Sunday they assembled to sing hymns and to recite prayers. Before the arrival of the Missionaries the two Gilbertese workmen - Betero and Tiroi - had already baptized 560 people and were instructing another 600.
There were similar conversions on other islands in the group, but this Missionary work was carried on in the midst of a hostile population for militant protestantism had been active since 1857. This happened after the coming to Abaiang Island of Hiram Bingham of the Boston Missionary Society. As the number of Catholics increased, they requested more Priests for the Gilberts. Many letters were written to Bishops around the Pacific and one letter from Betero and Tiroi reached the Vicar Apostolic of Central Oceania. He contacted one of the priests of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart who was already in charge of Priests and were working in Papua and Thursday Island. As a result three Missionaries were chosen for the Gilberts - Father E. Bontemps, Father Joseph Leray (who later became the first Bishop of the Gilberts) and Brother Joseph Weber. The three Missionaries had had a rough trip from Sydney on a tiny schooner, the 'Elizabeth'. On Ascension Thursday, l0th May, 1888 they arrived at the island of Nonouti - an Island just south of the equator. The schooner anchored at the entrance of a very wide lagoon which is very shallow. A dinghy was sent from the shore where a large number of local people were awaiting the arrival of the Missionaries. It took hours for the slow trip to the shore so the two Priests decided to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice some distance from the land as it was close to midday. So the first Mass offered in the Gilberts was offered on this small dinghy on Nonouti lagoon. The Missionaries' first visit was to the church which they found to be large and well built, complete with crucifix, altar and altar linen. Next morning Mass was celebrated to the accompaniment of Gilbertese hymns and prayers. After Mass a statue of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart was placed where all could see it. Thus the Gilbert Islands Mission was founded.
In 1892 Father Bontemps with two young Gilbertese men set out for Europe in order to get help. They visited Rome and in 1894 visited Issoudun, France where the Daughters of Our Lady had their convent. Father Bontemps asked the Superior General, Mother Marie Louise for Sisters for the Gilberts. Mother Marie Louise was always eager to help the Missionaries, but this time she hesitated about the Gilberts because of the extreme isolation of these remote islands separated from the rest of the world and from each other by vast wastes of ocean. Finally seven Sisters were named for the Gilberts - the eldest was twenty- five years old. In Sydney two more Sisters were added to the group. These Sisters were going to islands or atolls so different from those of New Guinea. Here are none of the forests of the hot regions, nor high mountains nor rugged rocks. The group is only a belt of sand elevated so slightly above sea level that a wave of a few feet in height would wash right over it and sweep into the sea the entire population. This would be just as a wave breaks over the deck of a ship during a storm carrying all before it. There was also to be the problem of food supplies where the vegetation, practically nil, offered no means of support in this respect.
In April 1895 Father Bontemps with the young Sisters left Issoudun and after a short stay with the Sisters at Kensington, Australia left for the Gilbert Islands where they arrived in August at the Island of Nonouti. Here the Gilbertese Catholics warmly welcomed them. They had had a very trying voyage on the "Archer" which was a very ancient slow ship which pitched and rolled even in the best of weathers. No one would risk a new ship over such reef-strewn seas. Although they were given a great welcome by the Catholics there was quite a lot of opposition from the Protestant teachers. These first Sisters were very poor and had very little in the way of cutlery, saucepans etc. The Sisters really knew poverty, which however, they bore lightheartedly. In these islands are to be found only coconuts and taros, which with the fish constitute the food of the natives. Such food was insufficient for Europeans enervated by the heat. In the very early days these Missionaries used to take their meals in batches as there was so little crockery. Cups and glasses were out of the question, so like the truly poor they used old jam tins. That went on for two years or more. Their health suffered and they became sick, but they expected all kinds of privations. However, they were glad to suffer something for God and for the conversion of the Gilbertese. On their arrival the Sisters found their little Gilbertese kitchen was stocked with two small saucepans, a few plates and one spoon between two persons - the only utensils for twelve Missionaries. They had black coffee with coconut milk, brown sugar and big biscuits that had to be first soaked in water. Then there was boiled rice, tinned beans (sometimes) and salt beef. Condensed milk and bread were a real treat only for Sundays and feast days.
A second group of Sisters arrived at Nonouti on the 2nd February 1899. Everything was still very primitive and poor. In the first years of the Sisters in the Gilberts the young Superior, Mother M. Isabel travelled from Nonouti - the Mission headquarters at that time - to visit the newly founded Mission stations on other islands of the group. These voyages were always hazardous, often dangerous, sometimes amusing. Early in February 1897, Mother M. Isabel with another sister and Father Bontemps left Nonouti to visit one of the other islands. They battled against the wind and strong currents for nearly two weeks and then arrived at Nauru, hundreds of kilometers off course. They were invited by the Administrator to come ashore and Father Bontemps agreed to do so the following morning. However, the current carried them off to the Caroline Islands. There they were welcomed by the Spanish Capuchins. It happened they were just in time for a feast as the native King and Queen were to be baptized. Mother M. Isabel was given the honour of being godmother. At the end of a few days they set out for the Gilbert Islands. At last on the 27th June 1897 after an absence of five months, they sighted Nonouti.
Here the Missionaries rejoiced as they thought they had been lost at sea.
There were a number of deaths during the first few years, but it took four months or even longer for the news to reach Europe. On the other hand quite a number of the first Missionaries worked for many years in the Gilberts without ever returning to their homeland.
Besides the material difficulties the Missionaries had to contend with spiteful and continual opposition from the Protestants. People from the southern island of Nikunau had asked for the Missionaries, so the following year a Priest with two Sisters went to this island, but they were the butt of ceaseless persecution. On arrival they were forbidden to go ashore, but our brave Missionaries landed in spite of their opposition. They were left stranded on the beach with whatever possessions they had in the midst of a hostile people. No one would help them, but at nightfall a neighbouring European trader took pity on them allowed them to shelter on his verandah. The following day the two Sisters set out to collect native material to build their house. The local policeman threatened with imprisonment anyone who would work with the Missionaries so they had to do the work themselves. However, after a few years the Sisters were able to start a boarding school for girls.
In 1938 the Catholic Mission's first inter-island ship was launched. It had been built on Abemama Island by a half-caste, William Reiher. It was named "Santa Teretia". Previous to that in 1894 a small ship - the "Maris Stella" had been bought, but it had to be sold about 1910 as the Mission was in financial difficulties. So from that time until 1938 the Missionaries had to rely on passing ships carrying copra or cargo in order to visit the Missionaries on the various islands.
Mother M. Clementine who was superior from 1933 until 1945 would travel round the group to visit her isolated Sisters on a Burns Philip copra ship. Often she would go ashore at the island copra sheds, some distance from the Sisters' station late at night. Then she would walk to see her Sisters - maybe l0.00 p.m. and after a few hours set out again to where the ship was anchored. She would then go on to another island to visit other Sisters under the same circumstances. In most cases there were only two or three Sisters on an island (sometimes one French Sister and one Australian) with no chance of contacting the Sisters on the next island. One Australian Sister on coming to Australia for a holiday after many years said she had been a very long time on her island without seeing any other Sisters except the Superior who could not visit them very often. Cargo ships visited only a few times during the year, and when mail did eventually arrive, it was stale news. However, in I938 communication improved very much with the new Mission Ship. In 1950 the first ship was sold to a local company and "Santa Teretia" the second was bought in Australia. This ship went aground in Nauru during bad weather and could not be refloated. Then a third ship was bought. This also went on the reef of one of the southern islands.
In 1970 airstrips were built on most of the outer islands which certainly helped the Missionaries. In 1962 regular flights had commenced between Tarawa and Fiji by Fiji Airways. Later on Nauru got their own planes so now the missionaries can travel to Australia very quickly. In the early days when we travelled from Kiribati to Australia the trip could take several weeks or even more than a month as the phosphate ships from Ocean Island and Nauru sometimes ended up in New Zealand, Tasmania or other places. With Air-Nauru, one can leave Tarawa early in the morning, a short stop over at Nauru and arrive in Sydney that evening. Or sometimes the Sisters stay a day or more at Nauru and then on to their destination. On her first holiday after 13 years Sister Helena left the outer island at the end of November and arrived in Sydney on New Year's Day. The journey took her first to South Island New Zealand, then to Wellington, then to Auckland and finally to Sydney!
As a result of privations and hardships of the first Missionaries the mission has indeed been greatly blessed. Today our Bishop is Gilbertese. There are M.S.C. and Diocesan Priests, some Brothers and over 60 Gilbertese Sisters. During the last few years Priests, Brothers and Sisters of other Congregations have arrived to help in the various works of the Mission. In 1950 an indigenous foundation called the Sisters of St Therese was formed by the French Bishop at that time Bishop Terrienne. In 1960, some girls asked to be Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and were received into the Australian Novitiate. As there were not many in the Sisters of St Therese, these Sisters asked to be incorporated in the Congregation of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. This was accomplished in 1968. Then in 1976 a novitiate was established in the Gilberts under the direction of a Gilbertese novice mistress. Many of these Gilbertese Sisters are now holding quite responsible positions in schools as well as Family Planning, Radio Work, holding seminars etc.
War In The Pacific
Jane's Kiribati Home Page
Jane's Aspects of Oceania Page
Pacific Islands Radio Stations