How to begin this story? When missionaries are inspired to offer themselves for service in remote places they have only a vague notion of what awaits them or indeed sometimes why they are going in the first place except that they have a call to mission.
Without a missionary sense of church and an awareness of the wider world and its needs, the early disciples would never have left Jerusalem. So here we were a small group of diocesan priests from Melbourne in 1969, followed by lay missionaries, and followed by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Cluny in 1971. (Sr. Josephine O’Kelly Sr. Gwen Daw, and Sr. Bernadette Gauthier.)
We had been preceded by Fr. Jean Besson MSC from France, in 1966 who arrived at the location that will be the main topic of this article, viz, Kanabea, a distance 20 minutes by plane from Kerema, although at that time air transport was still a dream. Kanabea sits in clouds much of the time, at 4,500 feet. A beautiful place with very endearing people scattered in multiple villages. They had been almost untouched by the outside world, and amazed even by the sight of cows, bush knives, white people not to mention a small fair boy who once popped out of a helicopter captivating all the children who charged after him in admiration and wonder all over the station.
The Australian priests that I can recall were Frs Cyril Blake, Maurice Adams, Peter Cullen, and Peter Fulton, then Fr. John Flynn. All of these, are now deceased, having gone to God, either through air crashes, illness and other causes, later in Melbourne.Two lay missionaries also lie in the small Kanabea cemetery, Vin and Ann Cafarella. Missionaries have paid a high price for the service they gave the mountains.
Fr. Patrick Harvey still serves in Melbourne, having among other things, built the High School at Bema, operated since 1997 by the Cluny sisters in that remote location.
Fr. Besson had the first contact and started in his own inimitable way, having brought cattle from Wau, and moved further inland to Kamina when the Australians came. The Australian priests began to put in the infrastructure in communication, education and health, airstrip (started by Fr. Besson) with picks and shovels, then bull dozer and tractor air lifted in by the army, and of course evangelization. Without pushing it, it seemed only right that the people did get an insight into what on earth possessed these strange people to leave their own land behind and come and do all these things at Kanabea, Bema and round about. I guess there must have been a great deal of dialogue with whoever could be mustered to interpret, re land, projects, schools, medical assistance etc! All of this was largely funded, and much is still being funded by Melbourne Overseas Missions, under the leadership of successive Archbishops.
Education wise, I recall that in 1971 a primary school already existed at Kanabea, with others at Manimango, and Kotimbaiwa and Meiwari . Others were established, at Kamina, Bema, Kotidanga, Komako, Hawabango. In 1972 the first girls were admitted at Kanabea Primary School, and I suppose about the same time in other schools mentioned. Then the time came when a few students were ready for High School. Some of these went to Mainohana, in the Bereina diocese, and eventually were trained as teachers, nurses and other useful professions.
Eventually the High School was built at Bema, as mentioned above, but my own clear memories are from 1972 and 73, and then after 1991. So, please forgive any discernible gaps.
People who know PNG well understand that any child trying to get an education must struggle with many obstacles. In the mountains of the Gulf Province, our children may have to walk two hours to school, with no lunch, the first person in their family receiving an education, absence of teachers, no reading materials at home, no radio, no news papers, no English, not to mention television!! Many were able to board on main mission stations and with some help mainly had to look after themselves. They would have to be a straight genius to make it to High School and further training! And yet many of them did make it with great perseverance and determination.
In High School, how to make up for the years of struggle to get through primary School? Eventually the OLSH sisters appointed a principal, Sr Rita Grunke, and then the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Cluny took over with Sr Alice Vivien in 1997 as mentioned above. Today there are four sisters there, one of whom was a former lay missionary and is now the Principal and local community leader; Sr Gina Delmar. All have degrees and teach as well as manage the school.
One of the more compassionate and effective educational measures of the PNG Government would have to be the CODE studies, now known as FLEXIBLE OPEN DISTANCE EDUCATION. At various times the sisters at Kanabea organized this way of upgrading marks which enables young people with ability to then apply for teaching, nursing, agriculture etc. In the 90s, a CODE centre was also established at Bema, as students from there were drifting across the mountains to Kanabea but usually had nowhere to stay.
I recall counting up to more than 50 such placements in higher education, many years ago in the 90s when three of us were regular teachers in the CODE Centre. I have no idea now how many have found places in further studies, but there must be large numbers, all of whom with upgraded marks who made it further into education, and will be able to contribute and are contributing to the welfare of the area and country.