Missionary of the Sacred Heart Father Adrian Meaney, Director of the MSC Mission Office Australia, shares his bittersweet experience of spending the holidays in Nauru and struggles to understand refugee detention in Nauru.
I celebrated the holidays on the island of Nauru.
Nauru is a tiny coral island about 40 kilometres south of the equator in the Central Pacific, 20 kilometres in circumference and about 300 metres above sea level. Palm-fringed, coral-girt and one of the loveliest of the Pacific Islands, Nauru was formerly the site of one of the world’s most valuable phosphate deposits. Even though I was there once before, I still marvel at the size of the Republic where one can drive around in less than half an hour.
Nauru is in the news mainly because our political leaders consider it a good place for the detention of asylum seekers. In fact the inhabitants of this small sovereign state (only a bit larger than the Vatican State) are a relaxed people who love music, feasts and their independence. Moreover they have compassion for those in the ‘Camp’ – the refugees who have landed on their shores.
I spent my time with Fr. Tatieru msc, Parish Priest and citizen of the nearby Republic of Kiribati. He is the latest in a long line of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart dating back to 1881. The refugees have asked only for Catholic Bibles in their local language, which are currently being organised. In the Parish we also have an MSC Refugee Group assisting Father Tatieru in his ministry.
I first met the refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru at the Vigil Mass for Christmas 2012. The Parish Church was full to overflowing but places were reserved for approximately 60 visitors. There were about 1,200 inside and outside the Church, and while it was hot and humid, the devotion of the people was very evident and the singing loud and harmonious.
In fact when two large buses arrived from the Camp there were well over 60 guests. Father Tatieru was hearing confession so I welcomed our visitors with their welfare officers from the Salvation Army and security staff. The meeting was joyful and relaxed, and I noticed that the majority were from Sri Lanka, with some refugees from Iran and Iraq.
After communion, the leader of the Sri Lankans sang a hymn in Tamil. As soon as they finished there was deep silence followed by rapturous applause. There was a profound sense of solidarity and friendship.
On Christmas day I was met at the Presbytery by a Salvation Army Officer who collected me and the religious items I had brought from Australia (books, medals, rosaries, pictures, liturgical calendars, etc.) and brought me to the Camp. After going through security, I was taken to the dining room where I found myself in front of a large nativity crib. It was made out of material scrounged from around the camp. It was wonderful to behold, with a lake at the bottom of a hill on the top of which was an improvised crib. The scene reminded me of the hills I saw around Kandy in Sri Lanka.
I was deeply touched by the sincere joy I found among the staff and refugees. During the Mass I reminded everyone that many people found themselves in places akin to prison, even Jesus and John the Baptist, and that the search for God must be foremost in their lives. And I reminded them that the very tents they were living in are the same used by Australian soldiers.
But having said that during Mass, I had a most profound sense of my inability to understand how or why we have such a place as this Camp in Nauru. In the silence after communion I was almost reduced to tears. But the congregation appeared joyful, and after Mass I was invited to go with them to three other cribs constructed in three tents and to bless the combined efforts of these faithful people. I noticed there was only one attempt to make an infant Jesus, and when I asked how they made the image, they said it was carved out of a piece of white soap.
The rest of the holidays were very hot but joyful and on the feast of the Holy Innocents, hundreds of children came, dressed in white and sang like angels.
A postscript: short history of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in Nauru
On April 16th 1881, Nauru was included in the Micronesian sector of the Missions of Melanesia and Micronesia entrusted by the Holy See to Father Jules Chevalier, on behalf of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and since that time the MSCs from Germany, France and Australia, Indonesia and Kiribati have worked there.
Nauru was annexed by Germany in 1888, so the first Missionaries sent were Germans. Father Friedrich Grundl msc, took up residence in the area called Ana, on land called Arubo, on Nauru Island. He administered his first baptism to a Nauruan baby girl in danger of death on 14th December 1902.
A much respected Missionary was Father Alois Kayser msc, who arrived there in 1904, and became the Apostle of Nauru. Soon after arriving, he gained the support of the people at Yaren and settled at a rudimentary second Catholic mission station in the south-east of the island, which he called Menen in the church records. With the help of a lay brother he built a mission station, comprising a church, a priest’s house, a Sisters’ convent, a school and a small hospital for women.
Father Kayser was hard working, strict and a clear thinker. He soon mastered the Nauruan language with the help of a local woman from Buada village. This enabled him to gain first-hand knowledge of the culture. Eventually he was considered the expert on local languages. But his interests went broader and in 1928 he published “Processing Oil on Nauru”, “The Pandanus on Nauru” (1934) and “Fishing on Nauru” (1936). But his most important work was to complete a Grammar of Nauruan language in 1936.
Though far from the bustling cities of the world, the people of Nauru have known the results of conflicts all too well. On the morning of 27 December 1939, German shells were fired from the sea on the phosphate works. Bursting shells and exploding oil tanks caused pandemonium. After that, things were quiet again for two years, until a new element of danger threatened. The Japanese had entered the war and before long their armies were moving south.
In July 1941, a cable arrived from the Australian Federal Government in Canberra ordering all expatriate women (except the Sisters) and children to be evacuated. The government had considered the Sisters’ desire to remain with their people. They could do so, but at their own risk. Soon after, they too had to depart for Australia.
Finally, the only ones to remain at the Mission were Fathers A Kayser msc, and P Clivaz msc. The Japanese troops landed on Nauru on 25 August 1942. They deported 1200 Nauruans with Fr Kayser to Chuuk Island. Fr Kaiser was tortured by the Japanese, and was buried in Chuuk on 21st October 1944.
In Nauru there is a Japanese gun emplacement at the bottom of the Priests’ house, and in the house there is a stone recovered from the grave of Fr Kayser. He arrived on Nauru in 1904 and served his people for almost 40 years. He was a zealous pastor and builder, and left a rich record of Nauran ethnography.
After the war the 737 Nauruans who survived the Japanese captivity in Chuuk returned to Nauru. In 1947, a trusteeship was established by the United Nations, with Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom as trustees.
On January 31, 1968, Nauru achieved the status of a Republic.