Missionary Society of St. Columban

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The Missionary Society of St. Columban (Latin: Societas Santi Columbani pro Missionibus ad Exteros) (abbreviated as S.S.C.M.E. or S.S.C.), commonly known as the Columbans, is a missionary Catholic society of apostolic life, founded in Ireland in 1916 and approved by the Vatican in 1918. Initially it was known as the Maynooth Mission to China.[1] Members may be priests, seminarians or lay workers.[2] Fr John Blowick, one of the two founders of the Society, also founded the Missionary Sisters of St. Columban to share in their work. The society is dedicated to St. Columbanus. The current international headquarters is in Hong Kong.[3]

Foundation[edit]

The Society was founded through the inspiration of the Reverend (later Bishop) Edward Galvin of Ireland (1882-1956). Galvin had considered serving as a missionary as a young man, but he was dissuaded by the concerns of his parents over such a life. He entered St Patrick's College (usually called Maynooth Seminary) near Dublin to study for the priesthood for his native Diocese of Cork, and was ordained in 1909. Due to an oversupply of clergy for that diocese, his bishop suggested that Galvin offer his service in the United States, until such time as there would be an opening in Cork. Galvin followed his advice and went to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn in New York City, where he was assigned to Holy Rosary Parish.

While serving there, Galvin came to know John M. Fraser, a Canadian priest, who stayed there while en route back to China. Galvin shared with Fraser his interest serving in China. Galvin told Fraser that he had read everything he could about that nation in the Brooklyn Public Library and asked to accompany Fraser back to China. Fraser discouraged Galvin's interest but finally told him that he would need the authorization of his bishop for this action. Galvin wrote and received this permission. Galvin departed for China on 25 February 1912.

Mission to China[edit]

Galvin first traveled to Toronto, Canada, to meet Fraser. Together they traveled across the country to Vancouver, where they set sail for China on the RMS Empress of India (1891). He then began to serve in Zhejiang, where he spent the next four years. During that time, Galvin was appalled at the poverty and began to request help and assistance from his connections back in Ireland. He was even more appalled by what he called their ‘spiritual poverty’. Here were millions of friendly and industrious people who, because of the lack of missionaries, knew nothing of Jesus Christ.

He was joined in 1916 by two other priests, Frs. Patrick O’Reilly and Joseph O’Leary. The three soon realized that some kind of organized effort would be needed to adequately deal with the situation. His new colleagues urged Galvin to return to Ireland to establish a new missionary Society. Galvin was hesitant but eventually felt called to take this step.[4]

In June 1916, Galvin through to the United States on his way back to Ireland. He met with bishops and priests everywhere he went, presenting his proposal. He found general support and encouragement. He arrived in Ireland that August, where he proceeded to his alma mater, Maynooth, and began to recruit among the seminarians there for his proposed society. A local Curate, Thomas Roynane, introduced Galvin to one of the seminary faculty, John Blowick, who agreed to join the endeavor and was to prove an important contributor to the development of the Society. Within two months of his arrival, Galvin had recruited five more priests, bringing the new Maynooth Mission to China to a total of eight members.[4]

The Society[edit]

Galvin then presented his proposal to the Holy See, which gave its blessing. Galvin and Blowick spent 1917 laying the foundations for the society. Formal approval for the group, now named the Society of St. Columban, was given by Rome on 29 June 1918, and a new seminary was immediately founded in Ireland to train new members for the missions. In the United States, a house soon was opened near Omaha, Nebraska, where another seminary was opened within a few years. The Society grew to number 40 priests and 60 seminarians by 1920. Galvin then led the first band of the Society to open their mission in the Hanyang District (modern day Wuhan, China). Galvin was named Apostolic Prefect of the Apostolic Prefecture of Hanyang by the Holy See in 1923 and later made the Apostolic Vicar of the promoted Apostolic Vicariate of Hanyang in 1927, with Galvin being consecrated as its titular bishop (it became a diocese under him in 1946, suffragan of Hankou).

As they began their work, the missionaries encountered various calamities to which the region was subject, ranging from famines to flooding. They also soon found themselves in the middle of a civil war between the forces of the Guominjun Nationalist Army and the Chinese Communist Party, which lasted for the next three decades. This social instability allowed warlords to flourish and mission stations were routinely threatened by bandits. Supplies were often stolen en route and mission workers were frequently kidnapped. On July 15, 1929, Communist Army bandits captured Columban Fr Timothy Leonard. After a few days as a prisoner, they murdered him. Others, though, were taken captive and released, but one, Father Cornelius Tierney, died after three months of harsh captivity. In the fall of 1932, Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist republican troops began attacking the Communists with a vigor never seen before. The Communists fell back on all fronts, and, once more, people could move about with relative safety.

“The reign of terror,” wrote one Columban, “far from weakening the appeal of the Catholic Church in this area, seems to have strengthened it.” It was an extraordinary time as thousands expressed a sincere desire to enter the Church.

In 1933, the Holy See designated a new territory for the Columbans and Fr Patrick Cleary was appointed in charge of the Apostolic Vicariate of Nancheng (in Nancheng County, south of Hanyang). The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 saw the Society challenged to care for both civilians and soldiers, as major outbreaks of Cholera swept the populace. This was soon followed by the outbreak of World War II, when members of the Society from the Allies of World War II had to be repatriated or face house arrest. The war had just ended when it became clear that Communist forces under Mao Tse-tung would soon defeat the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek. In 1946, the Holy See entrusted a new mission, known as Huchow, to the Columban Fathers.

Three years later, the Communists took over this area, and, before long, they were in control of all of China. Several Columbans were thrown into jail and eventually all the Columban priests and Sisters were expelled. Bishops Galvin and Cleary were expelled in 1952.

By 1954, every one of the 146 Columbans serving in China was “expelled forever.” On September 19, 1952, a weary, haggard man stumbled across the Communist China border into British concession enclave Hong Kong. Forty years of heroic missionary service had ended; Bishop Galvin was even branded a “criminal.” Three-and-a-half years later, death came quietly for this great Catholic missionary.

Extension of the mission beyond China[edit]

From 1929 onwards, the Society extended its mission to the Philippines (1929), Korea (1933), Burma (1936) and Japan (1948).

When mainland China was closed to missionaries in the 1950s, the Society responded to the urgent call from Latin America and Columbans went to new urban settlements in Peru and Chile. The Society also responded to the missionary needs of the Church in Fiji (1952).

Still more recently, the Society has gone to Pakistan, Taiwan, Brazil, Jamaica and Belize. Due to diminishing resources, the Society had to withdraw its commitment to Belize, Jamaica and Brazil.

Columbans first went to Pakistan in 1979 at the request of the Bishop of Lahore in Punjab Province and in 1983, the Columbans began to work in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hyderabad in Sindh province.

Superiors general[edit]

(from Ireland unless otherwise mentioned)

  • Bishop Edward J. Galvin (founder, see above, also first bishop of Hanyang)
  • Michael O’Dwyer, (1924 – 1947)
  • Jeremiah Dennehy, (1947 – 1952)
  • Timothy Connolly, (1952 – 1962)
  • James Kielt, (1962 – 1970)
  • Richard Steinhilber, (1970 – 1976)
  • Tony O’Brien, (1976 – 1982)
  • Bernard Cleary, (1982 – 1988)
  • Nicholas Murray, (1988 – 2000)
  • Brendan O’Sullivan, (2000 – 2006)
  • Tommy Murphy, (2006 – 2012.09.20)
  • (Australia) Kevin O’Neill, (2012.09.20 – ...)

Prelates from their ranks[edit]

(by year of demise)

Other Notable Columbans[edit]

References[edit]

Sources[edit]

  • St Columban's Missionary Magazine - The Far East
  • GigaCatholic
  • Catholic Liturgical Calendar - Columban Calendar
  • William E. Barrett. The Red Lacquered Gate. 
  • Jack Barnard, M.C. The Hump: The Incredible Courage of War Weary Men in the Last Evacuation of Burma. 

External links[edit]