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In this report Father Paul Stenhouse MSC describes the celebrations on the Island of Sideia marking the 75th Anniversary of the Arrival of the First Australian Missionary, Father Frank Lyons MSC, 22nd April 1932.

In perfect weather, the Catholic Mission boat the Morning Star, filled to capacity with visitors, or people returning home, anchored off Eastern Papua’s Sideia Island late in the morning, on April 22, 2007. As the tide was low we couldn’t reach the jetty. But we could see in the distance the crowd of adults and children that had been patiently awaiting our arrival. The excited buzz of anticipation on the Star was audible.  

We waited patiently for the Miva, a smaller mission vessel with a more shallow draught, to pull alongside and take off our passengers, amongst whom were the Papal Nuncio to PNG, Archbishop Francisco Montecillo Padilla, and Bishop Francesco Panfilo, SDB, bishop of Alotau-Sideia. Along with Father Giorgio Nalin, Superior General of the Rogationist Fathers and several of his priests, we were coming to Sideia to celebrate with the local villagers, the school-children, priests, sisters and teachers, the 75th anniversary of the arrival on Sideia of the first Catholic priest in modern times – Father Francis Lyons, MSC – on April 22, 1932.  

Many hundreds of villagers and school-children, dancers, sisters, priests and brothers, waited at the jetty to greet the Papal Nuncio, Bishop Francesco, the Father General and the crowd of well-wishers who accompanied them. Visitors had come from neighbouring islands. School-children looked very neat in their uniforms. Dancers and musicians proved that the local and Catholic culture could blend harmoniously and joyfully. Children held up a banner that read: “Foundation Anniversary of Catholic Mission Sideia: April 22, 1932 – April 22, 2007. We thank you and love you with all our hearts”.

On the previous evening, after Mass in the Sacred Heart Cathedral at Alotau, a replica of the World-Youth-Day Cross carved from Papuan rosewood, had been solemnly taken by some fifty young Milne Bay Catholics, to Sideia by boat, where it awaited its installation and blessing in a special ceremony.

Father Michael Sims, MSC, Superior of the MSC Community in Eastern Papua, and for twenty years parish priest of Sideia, was taken off the Morning Star aboard a native canoe, and ceremonially landed at the spot were Father Lyons probably made landfall. Before the Mass, the arrival of Father Lyons was recalled in song and dance, and much was made of his description of the ‘crazy canoe’ that met him and his companions seventy-five years ago.

The Papal Nuncio was principal celebrant at the Mass which was enthusiastically attended by close to a thousand people who crammed into the former Cathedral which had been refurbished for the occasion. During the Mass the work of pioneer MSC priests and brothers, and OLSH and MSC Sisters, local catechists, lay people and especially lay-missionaries, was recalled and justly praised.

The strongest impression that I took away from the celebrations organized by the people of Sideia, their bishop, priests, religious and teachers, was one of optimism, hope and deep faith. Today, a third of PNG’s population of six million is Catholic. Catholics occupy positions of trust in all the professions, in the bureaucracy and in government in this, one of the world’s least explored countries with more than eight-hundred-and-fifty indigenous languages – more than 12% of the world’s total - and with less than 20% of its people living in urban centres. The very flag of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea is based on a design submitted by Susan Kanike, a Catholic school-girl from the MSC mission school on Yule Island.