Archived News Item

Celebrating fifty-year Mercy presence in Wewak


This year marks the fiftieth anniversary since the arrival of the first Sisters of Mercy in Wewak, Papua New Guinea. In 1957, seven sisters from the Brisbane Congregation arrived in Wewak at the invitation of the Bishop of Wewak, Leo Arkfeld. Between May 27 and June 3, about forty Australian Sisters of Mercy joined with PNG Sisters of Mercy and the broader community for a week of celebrations in the Wewak Diocese. At the request of Sister Mariska Kua (PNG Congregation Leader), Sister Elizabeth O’Keefe RSM (Local Communications Facilitator, Brisbane) reports on the celebrations.


Last year, 2006, we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the first Sisters of Mercy to Goroka, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and this year, 2007, we celebrate the fftieth anniversary of the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy in Wewak, on the coast of PNG. It has been a wonderful 12 months for the Sisters of Mercy PNG to celebrate and to recall past and early happy memories and for the present women of PNG to acknowledge their presence in PNG and their contribution to the people of PNG.

Seven sisters from the Brisbane Congregation arrived in Wewak at the beginning of 1957 at the invitation of Bishop Leo Arkfeld, Bishop of Wewak. Mother Mary Damian Duncombe, Mother General at the time, asked Bishop Leo to place the sisters with the poorest of the poor. So Bishop Leo took them to Kunjingini and the sisters became involved in teacher education, primary education, catechetical work and health services, and later vocational “˜skul-anka’ work and secondary school education. Soon followed Convents at Torembi, Yarapos, Ulupu, Yangoru and Negrie where the sisters were involved in primary education, health and pastoral work. A number of the Mercy Congregations in Australia including Cairns, Townsville, Rockhampton, Grafton, Perth, Ballarat responded with Sisters to form communities in these places.

This year the celebrations in Wewak commenced on Sunday May 27 and culminated on Sunday June 3. About forty sisters flew in from all around Australia, including Sister Bridie Fennessy and Sister Val Cervetto, two of the original seven founding sisters, to join the PNG Sisters for the celebrations. Sister Margarita Shannon and Sister Marietta Riedy, both founding sisters, were unable to attend because of ill health. Each day we made a pilgrimage to one of the mission stations and schools that the Mercy Sisters had established in Yangoru, Ulupu, Kunjingini, Drekekier, Yarapos, Kairiru and Kaindi. In each village we were made so very welcome by the local people and sing-sing groups. In some villages we joined the Catholic community for Eucharist while in others we were entertained by the children of the local Catholic school and the community. Many friendships were renewed.

The main celebration was on June 1-2 when the Sisters of Mercy PNG not only celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their foundation in the Wewak Diocese but also the foundation of the first Catholic Teachers Training College in PNG which was founded first in Kunjingini by the Sisters of Mercy in 1957 and which later in 1968 moved to a more central position in Kaindi. In 2003, St Benedict’s Teachers College Kaindi was amalgamated into the Divine Word University as the Faculty of Education within the university. Brother Andrew Simpson, Vice President Academic of the Divine Word University, said:

“St Benedict’s Teacher College has proved to be one of the prime teachers’ colleges in PNG and the graduates have moved throughout the whole country. They are recognised by their professionalism as dedicated, committed and competent teachers who have been influenced by Christian principles and who are willing to work for the good of their community. They are respected for their loyalty to the St Benedict’s commitment to Work, Study, and Prayer, the motto of the College.”

Two very significant movements have arisen out of St Benedict’s. The first was the development of the Mercy Mission Society in the 1980s where young teachers, nurses and other educated young Papuan New Guineans volunteer to commence their professional service by going to isolated areas to teach or nurse by serving the people in these areas for a number of years. This meant that schools and nursing posts were staffed in isolated areas by young professionals with a sense of service of the community through living the Gospel.

The second was in 1991 when the members of the Mercy Mission Society extended their service for others through the formation of Callan Services for disabled persons. Thus was established a series of training and service programs for disabled persons within PNG. Callan Services has now grown into a major national network of services for the disabled and the influence of Callan Services today is intertwined with the services offered at St Benedict’s.

Speaking during the celebrations Grand Chief, Sir Michael Somare, Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, said:

“If it was not for the Mercy Sisters, education in the province would not have reached a milestone. Catholic Education everywhere had done a lot for the people of PNG.”

On the occasion of the visit to Mercy Secondary College at Yarapos as part of the celebrations, Sister Mariska Kua, Congregation Leader of the Sisters of Mercy PNG, in speaking to the current students, past students and visiting sisters described how proud she was to stand there as a Melanesian woman and thank those Mercy women who took the risk of coming to Wewak and the courage they showed in responding to the spirit of Catherine McAuley to help the poor women and children through God’s compassionate love:

“The Mercy dream helped the women to acknowledge and embrace themselves as special and made them feel very unique in that they have gifts and talents to share beyond their own boundaries. Today we have men and women who are leaders in the community, business sector, church and state. This is because Mercy Sisters and other religious women had a dream, a vision for the women of PNG.”

In speaking at the celebrations in Kaindi Brother Graeme Leach CFC said:

“God’s mercy/God’s loving kindness has been shared generously in all directions by these sisters in response to the needs of God’s poor and to the needs of the Church. The Sisters of Mercy must get the prize for uniting together and being the number one fence-breaking team in PNG. The sisters came from many Mercy Congregations in Australia, and even from New Zealand. In our country struggling to grow in unity with 800 languages, cultures and many tribes, struggling with law and order problems, corruption and family violence, and threatened by HIV and AIDS, we the people of  PNG need to live and act on Catherine McAuley’s message. God’s mercy cannot be fenced in. We must break through the fences even if this means changing our attitudes because after all, God’s love is for all… and we are all in PNG gifted and called to help everyone, especially the poor and the needy… to make sure that they too have a share of His mercy. This is the gift that the Sisters of Mercy have brought to PNG. This is what their lives and work point to.”

At the time when the pioneer sisters arrived in the 1950s the demand for health care was very high. The establishment of the health services was by either the Holy Spirit Sisters or the Sisters of Mercy because they were the first missionary congregations in the Wewak Diocese.  To respond to the vast need, clinic facilities were set up in all mission stations. In speaking at the celebrations, Sister Grace Domani, Holy Rosary Sister, paid tribute to the contribution of the Sisters of Mercy to Catholic Health Care in the Wewak Diocese:

“Sisters, your labour has not been fruitless.  The clinics you have started are now elevated to the status of Health Sub-Centres. You are great trainers, you are great formators, and you are women of trust and faith in the other and your co-workers. You train co-workers to take on the ministries you are involved in and you remain open to other needs that arise. The progress of the health services and commitment of the nurses are results of the seed of faith and trust you have sown with people you have worked with.

Your high level of collaboration and participation and openness to respond to needs that arise has resulted in a solid foundation of faith deeply rooted in the lives of the people in this Diocese. Now, as you see the faith of the people, you can be assured that you have done so well. You have sown the seed of faith and trust with affection. You have matured the soil so well that it will never die. In the storms or in the winds or in the sun, it will survive for you have matured it so well. To those who are not able to be present today, and those who have gone for eternal rest, our hearts and thoughts turn to them with gratitude. And to you sisters who are present today, how delightful our hearts are to see you face to face again.”

And in speaking to the Sisters of Mercy PNG, Sister Grace urged them:

“To you our dear National sisters, let the lives and works of your pioneers be your model to pursue through the new challenges and needs that arise that requires your hearing and involvement. As you begin as Papua New Guinea Mercy Congregation and as you turn in new directions of mission let the flag of mercy be continually raised. Your pioneers were women of courage, faith and trust. Move on with conviction and inner determination to where the spirit leads you today with trust in the providence of God that will provide the rest.”

Since their foundation, the Sisters of Mercy Papua New Guinea have been involved in a variety of ministries including:

  • upgrading teacher education particularly with women’s teacher education
  • novitiate-formation
  • disability work and HIV and AIDS work
  • pastoral care and health care
  • secondary school education in Catholic schools and a number of government schools
  • academic and spiritual support for seminarians
  • formation support for the Rosary Sisters
  • parish and diocesan renewal
  • lay spirituality of young women
  • nurse-training
  • hospital management and CHW training
  • remote, rural health services
  • supporting the Presentation Sisters

Report from: Sister Elizabeth O’Keefe RSM (Brisbane)

Messages to: Sister Mariska Kua RSM Email: