Meditation In A Time Of Social Isolation

Martyrs of New Guinea

The martyrs of Papua New Guinea were not saints or Popes or world leaders. They were nurses and priests, teachers and a carpenter. Some of them were Papuan; some of them were European. They were people much like most of us: ordinary people.

And they are an encouragement to us today, a reminder that the gift that matters in challenging times is just what they had: ordinary faithfulness, keeping on with what God had called them to do in the place God had called them to do it. Keeping on loving the people God had given them to love. Keeping on loving their Lord.

It is in their ordinary faithfulness that they became witnesses. They simply stayed with the people they served, in a dangerous time. Three hundred and thirty-three martyrs by the current count, more than half of them Roman Catholic, but also Methodist and Salvation Army and Lutheran. Twelve of them were Anglican, involved in the Anglican Missions at Gona and Sangara in Papua, and it is these for whom a day of remembrance was first established on September 2 by the Anglican Church in 1948.

When the Japanese landed in north-east New Guinea in 1942, the Australian and European Anglicans at the Mission refused to leave. They had built a school and a hospital as well as a church; they worked with the Papuans to teach and heal and preach the Gospel. How could they leave now, when the people among whom they lived were in danger?

Mavis Parkinson was a young teacher at the coastal Mission Station of Gona. She said to the Bishop, when he suggested she move to a safer place, “What will the children do if I go?”

May Hayman said the same thing about her patients. Bishop Strong recounts that about a month before her death, in addition to her work at the hospital she took in and nursed a wounded American airman who had fallen from the skies. Without her care he would have died, and so she unwittingly echoed Jesus’ own life: “She saved others; herself she could not save” (cf. Matt 27:42). Mavis and May stayed. Mavis was 26; May was recently engaged. They were bayoneted to death by the Japanese over an open grave. http://anglicanhistory.org/aus/png/strong_shepherd1983.html

Six others from the Mission in Sangara were taken captive.

Lucian Tapiedi, Papuan teacher and evangelist; 21 years old.

Vivian Redlich, priest, recently engaged to May Hayman.

John Duffill, lay missionary and carpenter

Margery Brenchley and Lilla Lashmar, nurses.

Henry Holland, 42 years a missionary, newly ordained priest.

New Guinea Martyrs window by Napier Waller

Tapiedi, guiding the others through the jungle, was the first to die, killed by a Papuan man named Hivijapa with an axe. The others, taken captive and handed over to the Japanese, were beheaded together on Buna beach.

John Frederick Barge stayed at his church after the invasion, going openly about his work. He was taken away on a Japanese ship—in order, the villagers were told, to bring back supplies—and executed. A fellow priest, Bernard Moore, died in the same area.

And the elderly Henry Matthews and his friend the Papuan evangelist Leslie Gariardi died together with a boat-load of mixed-race Papuans (whom they were accompanying, they hoped, to a safer place), when the Japanese bombed their ship and strafed the drowning survivors.

All of these people—women and men; Papuan, Australian, British—were just Christians doing their jobs. Their work was to teach and to heal and to build the church, and in this way to speak Christ to the people among whom they had chosen to live.

They stayed because they loved the people with and for whom they worked; because to leave would be to abandon them, to betray their trust. It was a decision to be faithful in small things, taken in a perilous time. “What will the children do if I go?”

Lucian Tapiedi made the same decision, for the sake of the foreign missionaries. He was their guide when they hid in the jungle to evade the Japanese. He stood by them in the name of Christ and died with and for them.

They were all ordinary people. But in their care for those whom they served and in their faithfulness they became extraordinary. They became martyrs, those who make of their whole lives an offering, those in whom the self-offering of Christ for all the people is known.

Bishop Strong said, when the Japanese landed, “No, my brothers and sisters, fellow-workers in Christ, whatever others may do, we cannot leave….I cannot guarantee that all will be well—that we shall all come through unscathed. One thing only I can guarantee: that if we do not forsake Christ here in Papua in His Body, the Church, He will not forsake us.”

And, it seems, He did not. Two churches were built after the war in memory of Lucian Tapiedi. One of them was built by the man named Hivijapa. Lucian’s killer became a Christian and called himself Hivijapa Lucian.

And a man named David Hand heard Vivian Redlich’s story—how when a villager ran on that Sunday in July to tell him the Japanese were there he said, “It is the Lord’s Day, and I will celebrate the Lord’s Service”—and decided to become a missionary in Papua New Guinea. David Hand became the first Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea.

 Ordinary people, who became in their deaths extraordinary witnesses.

How did it happen that they could do this, that their hearts could be proved great and their faith single-minded?

In October 1942, just after the church in Australia learned of the deaths of May and Mavis, Canon Maynard, in a sermon at St. Peter’s Melbourne, said this: “It is in such crises that the metal is proved. But it is not in such crises that the metal is created. The character of those missionaries was formed in the days of peace, and formed in prayer and through the grace of the sacraments.” http://web.stpeters.org.au/views/sermons/other/FEM42martyrs.pdf

Their faithfulness, the depth of their love, was formed also by a daily care for the people that grew out of their love for Christ. This is how witnesses are made: by a life that is faithful to Christ in the small things, in prayer and in the sacrament and in a daily care for the people among whom we live; a care that becomes love.

Ordinary people in ordinary times, by grace made—in the time of crisis—extraordinary.

Our crisis, this time of the virus, is real – though, it must be said, this is not war. It is helpful, as we face the many challenges of going back to church and school and work in person, to remember the people of New Guinea in 1942. There is no bayonet facing us; masks are a small thing, by comparison. 

But this too is true: there is God’s grace in this. It is in the challenging times that we are given, especially, the opportunity to grow in faith. To discover the beauty of our Sunday worship together and to claim it as the centre of our lives. “It is the Lord’s day, and we will celebrate the Lord’s Service.” Masks and all. 

We will come to our Lord’s altar and we will take the bread, the beloved body, in our hands. Such a love there is, waiting for us there! Such a joy there is, waiting for us to sing it! And we will sing it, together, in our hearts when we cannot sing with our lips. Such a people there is waiting for us there, this family that God has gathered for us, our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are a gift God has given, each of us to the other. To be with each other, to pray and care for each other! God is giving us again this grace. 

It is in the ordinary faithfulness that the metal is formed: “formed in prayer and through the grace of the sacraments.” We are going back to Communion, together. Thanks be to God.

Catherine Sider Hamilton

Catherine Sider Hamilton

Catherine Sider Hamilton is Priest-in-Charge of St. Matthew's Riverdale, and Professor of New Testament and New Testament Greek (part-time) at Wycliffe College. She has served also as Chaplain at Havergal College and Associate Priest at Grace Church on-the-Hill and St. John the Baptist, Norway (Toronto). She enjoys singing around the piano with her kids, her husband's Indian food, all things Italian -- and above all her two little grandchildren. Catherine and David live in Greektown. She blogs occasionally on feasts and fasts at feastfastferia.wordpress.com.