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Old 02-02-2004, 01:30 PM
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Featuring the work of the Marist Nuns in PNG and Solomon Islands

A Feature Story on the Marist Missionary nuns who impacted on womens's development in the Solomon Islands and Bougainville.This month on January 7 they reached 100 years in their work and contributions towards church, community, women, health and education developments. A major celebration of the occassion will take place in Honiara in June. It is too important an occassion to by pass as a former student of the Marist nuns recounts.

By Veronica Hatutasi of Wantok

ON the centenary celebrations this month of the Marist Missionary nuns work and presence in the Solomon Islands, it is too important to forget their work in the development of women, education and health which also stretched to neighbouring Bougainville where today, many women who had been educated by them enjoy the fruits of their work as they contribute towards the development of PNG.

The Marist Missionary Society (SMSM) made its mark as one of the first to set foot in Oceania or the Pacific with the first martyr in the renowned pioneer French missionary priest cum St Peter Chanel who was murdered in the Wallis and Futuna Islands by opposing natives, heathens so to speak at that time, at the start of the last century.
From then on, the Society spread its work and influence throughout the South Pacific, particularly French Polynesia, Samoa, Fiji, Solomon Islands and thence Bougainville. Pockets in PNG also such as Kairiru in East Sepik is also a Marist territory. In the above mentioned island countries, one will find the presence of the congregation's Priests, Brothers and nuns harmoniously working with the people and communities.

As the Marist nuns in the Solomon Islands celebrate their century-old presence and work in a country which is PNG's neighbour, I also recall my days as a student at a school in Bougainville established and operated by them (Marists) and produced many fine girls who are now working for as better life and future for their families, communities, province and country in Bougainville- PNG and the Solomon Islands.

Firstly, a little bit of background history of how the Marists nuns first came to the Solomons and established themselves and their work there in helping women, education and health services development, according to this account by Archbishop Adrian Smith SM, of Honiara.
On January 7th 1904, one hundred years ago, the first Marist Missionary Sisters (SMSM) Sr. M. Irenee Coupry and Sr. M. Barthelomy Guerin arrived in Solomon Islands. On their arrival they went to stay on the small island of Rua Sura (this lies off Guadalcanal) just south of Ruavatu. After a few months of orientation, the newly arrived Sisters took up their posting at Tangarare, West Guadalcanal. Those brave French women came to Solomon Islands, it was then known as the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, (in the Church language it was known as the Vicariate of the South Solomons), with one very clear mission: they came to help the women of Solomon Islands.

As a group of women, the SMSM Sisters have an unusual history. Most of the missionary Orders or religious Congregations were founded in France or other countries outside what is known as the South Pacific. The SMSM Sisters were in fact founded in the South Pacific. A number of French women came as lay missionaries to work with women in areas in which the Marist Fathers and Brothers were already working. Eventually that group of lay women formed themselves into a religious congregation which we now call the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary. Many of us have come to know them just as the SMSM Sisters.

Their mission to women of course focused on education. Coming to know Christ is, for the SMSM Sisters, the foundation of education. Those early SMSM Sisters were very practical ladies. They nursed the sick, they taught family health care, domestic science, and even basic farming. The skill of reading and writing was always a priority in their work. The process by which mission schools grew was very much enriched by the presence of the SMSM Sisters. They were not about themselves, they were about the development of others. As early as 1935 they were already laying the foundations for the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (DMI), a Congregation of Solomon Islands religious women.
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Old 02-02-2004, 01:36 PM
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As time passed and the medical services became more formal, the SMSM Sisters were the nurses in many of the mission clinics. It is the same story in formal education. The SMSM Sisters were very much present in so many of the mission schools, and later in the National Secondary Schools and other educational institutions.

This is not a story of what happened in the past. It is a recalling of events so that we can better understand the growth of the SMSM Sisters to the stage they are at today. Though fewer in number, they continue to work for the development of women. They can be proud of the fact that four Solomon Islanders, who are members of their congregation, are missioned in Columbia and Jamaica, and one is preparing for her Final Profession in Fiji. It has been a blessed hundred years! Like the work of so many women within our families, communities, and the country at large, their input is silent. Later in June of 2004, there will be more formal celebrations of this centenary, but it would be a shame to let January 7th 2004, which is the hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the SMSM Sisters, to pass by unnoticed.

It is the same story on Bougainville of the Marist nuns involvement and the vigour and enthusiasm with which they worked tirelessly in the Solomon Islands.

When the Bougainville conflict erupted, the Marist nuns left for other shores to continue on the work they have always done with sacrifice, diligence and love. While some left for the Americas and Australia, others cut their journey short into to the Solomon Islands where they are teaching and nursing in the educational and health institutions there.
Sr Margaret Tisch SM is one such person whose has left a very strong impression on many ex-Asitavi girls and is now a principal and a teacher at a Catholic Secondary school in the Solomon's capital, Honiara.

She happened to be my Geography and English teacher at Asitavi in the early 70's and I can say that she excelled in her field. To me , she was one of the best teachers in English and Geography, thorough in her work and an excellent role model who while you could say was a no nonsense teacher who always gave her utmost best to her students and expected the same of them. One aspect of this nun is that she always carried around a smile, be it teaching, disciplining students or just plain walking and this made things a lot easier if ever the going got tough when in the years ahead, she became the head mistress of St Mary's Asitavi.

Since the crisis, I have had the good fortune to met Sr Margaret on two instances in Port Moresby when she transited while on work purposes. She has not aged and still seems the same young nun of my youth at Asitavi, who still radiates that same enthusiasm, robust smile and so full of life . During her stopovers here in 1998 and 2001, the ex-Asitavi girls in Port Moresby held a reunion for her and we all had fun but so full of sweet nostalgia.I am so thankful that I was educated by the Marist nuns who also were my mentors who have to some degree, set the foundations for the path I took in my future life. Today, I congratulate them for a milestone reached in their continuing work and dedication which has borne so much fruit in the places where they work and live in.
Below is my recollection of my days at good old rocky beach, Asitavi, a place where many a young woman dreams and hopes of the future and what it holds and I for one, is one amongst them.

Fringed on the foothills of Mt Balbi and nestled at a bay surrounded by aquamarine seas, rocky beaches and skies where on a clear day one can see over the horizon forever, lies Asitavi.
To the majority of Bougainvilleans, the name immediately connects with a high school where many girls from Catholic background on the island attended.

St Mary's Asitavi all girl's high school is what it was known as until the crisis erupted but in the aftermath, it has been converted into a co-ed high school.
But the latest report is that, relevant authorities are trying to gradually phase out the male students in the next couple of years and bring it back to the original state it has always been, and that is to make it an all girls high school.

However, many Bougainville women can say they are privileged to have attended that very school where they received quality education with focus not only on the best academic achievements but also on spiritual, ethical, moral and spiritual values. This also is the school where the young girls learned domestic science, family health care and even basic farming.

Several thousands of women from all over the island, since its humble beginnings in 1956 and the ensuring years until 1990, went through Asitavi. Some now are prominent Bougainvilleans, others support their husbands who hold high positions at the provincial and national levels and many have carved their niche to become successful in whatever walk of life their careers have taken them.

I have fond memories of my four years there. Four solid formative years where dreams and hopes of the future were build, where physical, strict social and spiritual values were instilled and developed. And a place where for some of us, laid the foundations to appreciate a few of some of the finer things in life such as books, poetry and writing. Such was the interest that today I count myself lucky that my vision is still very good due to the fact that after lights out at 9.00 pm, I would wait for the moonlight beams to filtrate through the windows and onto my bed where I'd strain my eyes to go through the pages of a book I was reading,which held my interest so.

n old picture of the Marist nuns and teaching children
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Old 02-02-2004, 01:38 PM
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Here also, we were taught to toil the land, whether under the scorching sun or torrential rain, and live off what we sowed. And heaps we reaped with good harvest of sweet potatoes, vegetable, bananas and fruits such as pineapples, oranges, mandarins and laulaus which were in plentiful supply.

As I write, I wish the clock could be turned back to those wonderful years but for now, I can only dwell on sweet memories.
But the credit goes to the Marist missionary nuns who went out of their way in leaving the comforts of their homes in far off places such as France, the Americas, and Australia to venture into new lands to not only save souls by spreading the Gospel but to also help in establishing services areas of health, education and the development of women.
They were instrumental in the development of womens affairs, particularly getting them educated in all facets of life from academic to domestic and family matters, gardening, agriculture, family health care and in many other related areas.

St Mary's Girls High School, Asitavi was started by an Australian Catholic nun of the Society of Mary Order who felt that girls needed to be educated for their advancement, their families, communities, island and the country.

That person is Sr Sister Emma (nee Catherine). In September 2001, accompanied by Sr Margaret, she took a brief visit to Bougainville to take part in the centenary celebrations of the Catholic Church there and hence, this interview..
Aged 82 then ( but now 85), Sr Emma is still fit and strong and I wonder if it is the blazing Bougainville sun where she spend about 46 of her good years, which gave her that vigour and strength to be what she is even at such an age.

She lives in Sydney at the Strathfield Marist community where she teaches English to asylum seekers from all over the world. Herself and the nuns left Asitavi as the Bougainville conflict worsened in 1990.
But little did she know that what she initially started advanced women to contribute towards nation building and development.
"With just 28 girls in the first year both Sister Sylvia an American and myself opened Asitavi.

"At that time,we saw that many girls were just getting educated as far as grades 3-4, and leaving back to the village. We saw the need for girls to get a good education and we pushed for Asitavi to become a girl's school. One of the girl's, Martha from Koromira (in Central Bougainville) wrote to the bishop and asked if he could help her become a teacher. We also talked to Fr L'Estrange who at that time was in charge of the Catholic education section and he thought that it was a good idea. "We went right ahead with the plan. We applied to the PNG Education for a teacher's college be established at Asitavi and the girls sat for the entrance examination for teachers and passed. The teacher training Certificate A program started immediately in 1956. Each year, we got more girls into teacher training.

"The high school did not start until 1959. Four volunteer teachers from England and Australia joined the Sisters. When Kabaleo Teachers College (in East New Britain) opened later, we closed Asitavi as a teacher training school with only the high school remaining. We also opened up Tearouki Nursing school with Sr Leo as principle. Until independence,104 Catholic community schools had most Bougainvillean teachers registered.

"Asitavi took operated as a Catholic all girls high school from Grade 7-10 level until 1990 when the crisis worsened. Until 1990 when I left, many young women who had passed through Asitavi had good jobs in the government and private sectors on the island, Port Moresby and other provinces. Some had gone through the universities in the country and one, Severina Soina, an ex Asitavi I heard even became the first female geologist in PNG.

"I am proud of the achievements and contribution which the girls who have passed through Asitavi have made over the years to their families, communities, province and the country. Likewise of their strength and involvement, with the other women counterparts from the island on the peace process on Bougainville. I see a bright future ahead for the women into weaving a new and brighter Bougainville," Sr Emma said.
She is pleased to find out on her trip to Asitavi that all the school buildings and staff housing at Asitavi are still intact, despite the war which destroyed most others schools on the island.

Sr Emma is happy to know that at least the school, though now a co-ed is starting again to take on the task of educating young Bougainvilleans whose education has been disrupted by many years of conflict.
The current news should please her more, knowing that the focus in womens education and development which she started will be revived and continued.

Thanks to all you Marist nuns, be it in France, the Americas, Australia, Solomon Islands and PNG for a great job done. You contribution to womens development will go along way in PNG's and Solomon Island's history books.

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