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.), 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] The founders of the Society also founded the Missionary Sisters of St. Columban to share in their work.


Roots 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 the life of a missioner. He entered (usually called Maynooth Seminary), to study for the priesthood for his native Diocese of Cork, and was Holy Orders 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 serve in the 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 service in China. Galvin shared with Fraser the interest he himself had long held about also serving in China. Galvin told him that he had read everything he could about that nation he could find in the Brooklyn Public Library and asked to accompany him back to China. Fraser discouraged his interest but finally advised 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 joined in 1916 by two other priests. The three soon realized that some kind of organized effort would be needed to help 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.[3]

In June 1916 Galvin traveled to the United States on his way back to Ireland. As he crossed the nation he met with bishops and clergy everywhere he went, presenting his proposal. He found general support and encouragement for it. He arrived back in Ireland that August, where he proceeded to his Alma mater, the Seminary at 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.[3]

The Society[edit]

Galvin then presented his proposal to the Holy See, which gave its blessing to the project. 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, China. Galvin was named Prefect Apostolic of the region by the Holy See in 1923 and later made the Vicar Apostolic of the region in 1927, with Galvin being Consecration (Catholic Church) a bishop.

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 Warlord to flourish and to add to the misery of the people. The missions were routinely threatened by bandits. Supplies would be stolen while en route to the missions and mission workers were frequently kidnapped. Two Columban Fathers died at the hands of bandits in separate incidents during this period. Despite this, thousands embraced the faith of the missionaries, and the Catholic Church began to grow. The missionary priests were soon joined in their work by the newly founded Sisters of the Society. Growth was such that a new vicariate was established by the Holy See for Nancheng County in 1927 and entrusted to the Society.

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. This culminated in the Communist victory in 1949. The following year all the institutions of the Society were seized by the new government and by 1952 all Columbans had been expelled, the last two being the bishops of the Society, including Galvin.

Extension of the mission[edit]

From 1929 onwards, the Society extended its mission to further countries; the Philippines, Korea, Burma, Japan, Peru, Fiji, Chile, Taiwan, Pakistan, Brazil, Belize and Jamaica. The current international headquarters is in Hong Kong.

Columban mission in Pakistan[edit]

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

Notable Columbans[edit]

  • Bishop Edward J. Galvin (founder)
  • Father John Blowick (co-founder)
  • Father Shay Cullen, campaigner for the elimination of child prostitution in the Philippines [1] and defender of human rights [2], co-founder of the PREDA Foundation
  • Father Francis Douglas (1910-1943), New Zealand missionary murdered by Japanese soldiers the Philippines.
  • Father Brian Gore, Australian missionary to the Philippines who suffered false imprisonment
  • Father Rufus Halley, missionary to the Philippines who was murdered in 2001
  • Father Robert McCulloch, missionary to Pakistan for more than 27 years
  • Father W. Aedan McGrath, missionary to the China who suffered false imprisonment in the early 1950s
  • Father Peter Nguyen Van Hung, anti-human trafficking activist in Taiwan[4]
  • Father Niall O'Brien, missionary to the Philippines who suffered false imprisonment
  • Father Sean Nolan, founder and former president of Saint Columban College, Pagadian City and co-founder of other Columban schools in the Philippines.
  • Father James Stuart saved the lives of many refugees and American airmen in Northern Burma during World War II. In appreciation of the valuable service he rendered British and American Intelligence, the "Fighting Father", as he was referred to afterwards, was awarded the O.B.E.
  • Archbishop Patrick Cronin D.D., second archbishop of Cagayan de Oro and founded the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, located in that city.
  • Archbishop Harold Henry, D.D., first Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kwangju (1962-1971).



  • St Columban's Missionary Magazine - The Far East
  • 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]