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History of the Diocese of Tarawa and Nauru

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Tarawa and Nauru was a suffragan diocese of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Suva. Then it was erected as the Vicariate Apostolic of Gilbert Islands in 1897 and elevated to as the Diocese of Kiribati diocese in 1966. After Kiribati There was a name change in 1978 and, in 1982, the diocese was split from the Mission Sui Iuris of Funafi. The diocese currently has jurisdiction over all of Kiribati and Nauru.
  • Joseph-Marie Leray, M.S.C. (1897–1927)
  • Joseph Bach, M.S.C. (1927–1933)
  • Octave-Marie Terrienne, M.S.C. (1937–1961)
  • Pierre-Auguste-Antoine-Marie Guichet, M.S.C. (1961–1978)
  • Paul Eusebius Mea Kaiuea, M.S.C. (1978– )


 Post-Contact History

The Gilbert Islands remained unknown to European explorers until early in the 17th Century, when the Spanish explorer Quiros spotted Butaritari. During the next,150 years there were numerous sporadic sightings and minor contact, and in1765 the major voyages and explorations of the British Captains Byron, Marshall, and Gilbert began, resulting in the charting and recognition of the entire group by 1826. It is from this period (and the charts of the Russian hydrographer A.I. Krusenstern) that the islands became known as the Gilberts.

Towards the end of the l8th century, two British Captains, Gilbert and Marshall, discovered the central and northern islands of the Gilberts group which they named Gilberts. A group further north were named Marshalls. These islands are fairly close to the island of Makin which is the most northern island in the Gilberts. The Gilbert islands straddling the equator are just west of the International Date Line. The Ellice Islands lie about 320km south of the Gilberts. In 1890 Great Britain took control of the Ellice Islands which consisted of 9 islands. In 1892 the Gilberts became a British Protectorate. Then in 1916 the Ellice Islands were combined with the Gilbert Islands to form the Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony. In 1975 the two groups were separated and the Ellice group became independent in 1978, while the Gilbert Islands group became independent in July 1979. The majority of the coral islands of both Gilberts and Ellice consist of ring shaped atolls or coral reefs that surround lagoons. Since their independence the Ellice group are known as Tuvalu while the Gilberts have changed to Kiribati - the Republic of Kiribati, headed by a president.

The early 19th Century saw the visitations of numerous whalers, continuing into the 1870's, and during this period a small population of European traders and castaways became established. The US Exploring Expedition of 1838-42 visited the group, and the linguistic and ethnological report of Hale, the voyage's ethnographer, provides one of the earliest and most interesting cultural and linguistic descriptions.

Arrival of the Missionaries

In the early 1850's the first missionaries arrived, Protestants from New England. The most notable of these was Hiram Bingham Jr., son of the Hawaiian missionary, and with him the spread of Christianity throughout the islands was begun. Bingham's mark on the Gilberts was quite strong – his translation of the Bible into Gilbertese was the introduction of literacy to the people, and he has been hailed as the 'father of the Gilbertese (written) language'. Although he left the islands in the early 1860's due to ill health, he and his wife and fellow workers produced and printed Bible translations, school books and eventually a major dictionary (published posthumously in 1906).

About 20 years after Bingham's establishment of the Protestants in the northern part of the group, French Catholics arrived from missions in Tahiti, and began new translations, new texts and dictionaries, and furthering what would become virtually the total conversion of the natives to Christianity.

The first Priests - Missionaries of the Sacred Heart - left France in 1888 and arrived at the island of Nonouti, Gilbert Islands on l0th May, 1888. Previous to this quite a number of Gilbertese people were taken by "black-birders" to work on the plantations on other islands in the Pacific. There they had met with zealous Missionaries who sowed the seed of the Gospel. Two of the men were from the island of Nonouti and on their return to their home island instructed the local people. Churches were built and each Sunday they assembled to sing hymns and to recite prayers. Before the arrival of the Missionaries the two Gilbertese workmen - Betero and Tiroi - had already baptized 560 people and were instructing another 600.

There were similar conversions on other islands in the group, but this Missionary work was carried on in the midst of a hostile population for militant protestantism had been active since 1857. This happened after the coming to Abaiang Island of Hiram Bingham of the Boston Missionary Society. As the number of Catholics increased, they requested more Priests for the Gilberts. Many letters were written to Bishops around the Pacific and one letter from Betero and Tiroi reached the Vicar Apostolic of Central Oceania. He contacted one of the priests of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart who was already in charge of Priests and were working in Papua and Thursday Island. As a result three Missionaries were chosen for the Gilberts - Father E. Bontemps, Father Joseph Leray (who later became the first Bishop of the Gilberts) and Brother Joseph Weber. The three Missionaries had had a rough trip from Sydney on a tiny schooner, the 'Elizabeth'. On Ascension Thursday, l0th May, 1888 they arrived at the island of Nonouti - an Island just south of the equator. The schooner anchored at the entrance of a very wide lagoon which is very shallow. A dinghy was sent from the shore where a large number of local people were awaiting the arrival of the Missionaries. It took hours for the slow trip to the shore so the two Priests decided to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice some distance from the land as it was close to midday. So the first Mass offered in the Gilberts was offered on this small dinghy on Nonouti lagoon. The Missionaries' first visit was to the church which they found to be large and well built, complete with crucifix, altar and altar linen. Next morning Mass was celebrated to the accompaniment of Gilbertese hymns and prayers. After Mass a statue of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart was placed where all could see it. Thus the Gilbert Islands Mission was founded.

In 1892 Father Bontemps with two young Gilbertese men set out for Europe in order to get help. They visited Rome and in 1894 visited Issoudun, France where the Daughters of Our Lady had their convent. Father Bontemps asked the Superior General, Mother Marie Louise for Sisters for the Gilberts. Mother Marie Louise was always eager to help the Missionaries, but this time she hesitated about the Gilberts because of the extreme isolation of these remote islands separated from the rest of the world and from each other by vast wastes of ocean. Finally seven Sisters were named for the Gilberts - the eldest was twenty- five years old. In Sydney two more Sisters were added to the group. These Sisters were going to islands or atolls so different from those of New Guinea. Here are none of the forests of the hot regions, nor high mountains nor rugged rocks. The group is only a belt of sand elevated so slightly above sea level that a wave of a few feet in height would wash right over it and sweep into the sea the entire population. This would be just as a wave breaks over the deck of a ship during a storm carrying all before it. There was also to be the problem of food supplies where the vegetation, practically nil, offered no means of support in this respect.

In April 1895 Father Bontemps with the young Sisters left Issoudun and after a short stay with the Sisters at Kensington, Australia left for the Gilbert Islands where they arrived in August at the Island of Nonouti. Here the Gilbertese Catholics warmly welcomed them. They had had a very trying voyage on the "Archer" which was a very ancient slow ship which pitched and rolled even in the best of weathers. No one would risk a new ship over such reef-strewn seas. Although they were given a great welcome by the Catholics there was quite a lot of opposition from the Protestant teachers. These first Sisters were very poor and had very little in the way of cutlery, saucepans etc. The Sisters really knew poverty, which however, they bore lightheartedly. In these islands are to be found only coconuts and taros, which with the fish constitute the food of the natives. Such food was insufficient for Europeans enervated by the heat. In the very early days these Missionaries used to take their meals in batches as there was so little crockery. Cups and glasses were out of the question, so like the truly poor they used old jam tins. That went on for two years or more. Their health suffered and they became sick, but they expected all kinds of privations. However, they were glad to suffer something for God and for the conversion of the Gilbertese. On their arrival the Sisters found their little Gilbertese kitchen was stocked with two small saucepans, a few plates and one spoon between two persons - the only utensils for twelve Missionaries. They had black coffee with coconut milk, brown sugar and big biscuits that had to be first soaked in water. Then there was boiled rice, tinned beans (sometimes) and salt beef. Condensed milk and bread were a real treat only for Sundays and feast days.

A second group of Sisters arrived at Nonouti on the 2nd February 1899. Everything was still very primitive and poor. In the first years of the Sisters in the Gilberts the young Superior, Mother M. Isabel travelled from Nonouti - the Mission headquarters at that time - to visit the newly founded Mission stations on other islands of the group. These voyages were always hazardous, often dangerous, sometimes amusing. Early in February 1897, Mother M. Isabel with another sister and Father Bontemps left Nonouti to visit one of the other islands. They battled against the wind and strong currents for nearly two weeks and then arrived at Nauru, hundreds of kilometers off course. They were invited by the Administrator to come ashore and Father Bontemps agreed to do so the following morning. However, the current carried them off to the Caroline Islands. There they were welcomed by the Spanish Capuchins. It happened they were just in time for a feast as the native King and Queen were to be baptized. Mother M. Isabel was given the honour of being godmother. At the end of a few days they set out for the Gilbert Islands. At last on the 27th June 1897 after an absence of five months, they sighted Nonouti.

Here the Missionaries rejoiced as they thought they had been lost at sea.

There were a number of deaths during the first few years, but it took four months or even longer for the news to reach Europe. On the other hand quite a number of the first Missionaries worked for many years in the Gilberts without ever returning to their homeland.

Besides the material difficulties the Missionaries had to contend with spiteful and continual opposition from the Protestants. People from the southern island of Nikunau had asked for the Missionaries, so the following year a Priest with two Sisters went to this island, but they were the butt of ceaseless persecution. On arrival they were forbidden to go ashore, but our brave Missionaries landed in spite of their opposition. They were left stranded on the beach with whatever possessions they had in the midst of a hostile people. No one would help them, but at nightfall a neighbouring European trader took pity on them allowed them to shelter on his verandah. The following day the two Sisters set out to collect native material to build their house. The local policeman threatened with imprisonment anyone who would work with the Missionaries so they had to do the work themselves. However, after a few years the Sisters were able to start a boarding school for girls.

In 1938 the Catholic Mission's first inter-island ship was launched. It had been built on Abemama Island by a half-caste, William Reiher. It was named "Santa Teretia". Previous to that in 1894 a small ship - the "Maris Stella" had been bought, but it had to be sold about 1910 as the Mission was in financial difficulties. So from that time until 1938 the Missionaries had to rely on passing ships carrying copra or cargo in order to visit the Missionaries on the various islands.

Mother M. Clementine who was superior from 1933 until 1945 would travel round the group to visit her isolated Sisters on a Burns Philip copra ship. Often she would go ashore at the island copra sheds, some distance from the Sisters' station late at night. Then she would walk to see her Sisters - maybe l0.00 p.m. and after a few hours set out again to where the ship was anchored. She would then go on to another island to visit other Sisters under the same circumstances. In most cases there were only two or three Sisters on an island (sometimes one French Sister and one Australian) with no chance of contacting the Sisters on the next island. One Australian Sister on coming to Australia for a holiday after many years said she had been a very long time on her island without seeing any other Sisters except the Superior who could not visit them very often. Cargo ships visited only a few times during the year, and when mail did eventually arrive, it was stale news. However, in I938 communication improved very much with the new Mission Ship. In 1950 the first ship was sold to a local company and "Santa Teretia" the second was bought in Australia. This ship went aground in Nauru during bad weather and could not be refloated. Then a third ship was bought. This also went on the reef of one of the southern islands.

In 1970 airstrips were built on most of the outer islands which certainly helped the Missionaries. In 1962 regular flights had commenced between Tarawa and Fiji by Fiji Airways. Later on Nauru got their own planes so now the missionaries can travel to Australia very quickly. In the early days when we travelled from Kiribati to Australia the trip could take several weeks or even more than a month as the phosphate ships from Ocean Island and Nauru sometimes ended up in New Zealand, Tasmania or other places. With Air-Nauru, one can leave Tarawa early in the morning, a short stop over at Nauru and arrive in Sydney that evening. Or sometimes the Sisters stay a day or more at Nauru and then on to their destination. On her first holiday after 13 years Sister Helena left the outer island at the end of November and arrived in Sydney on New Year's Day. The journey took her first to South Island New Zealand, then to Wellington, then to Auckland and finally to Sydney!

As a result of privations and hardships of the first Missionaries the mission has indeed been greatly blessed. Today our Bishop is an I-Kiribati. His name is Bishop Paul Mea. There are many M.S.C. priests and Brothers as well as Diocesan Priests, and over 90 Kiribati Sisters. During the last few years Priests, Brothers and Sisters of other Congregations have arrived to help in the various works of the Mission. In 1950 an indigenous foundation called the Sisters of St Therese was formed by the French Bishop at that time Bishop Terrienne. In 1960, some girls asked to be Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and were received into the Australian Novitiate. As there were not many in the Sisters of St Therese, these Sisters asked to be incorporated in the Congregation of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. This was accomplished in 1968. Then in 1976 a novitiate was established in the Gilberts under the direction of a Gilbertese novice mistress. Many of these Gilbertese Sisters are now holding quite responsible positions in schools as well as Family Planning, Radio Work, holding seminars etc.

Catholic Mission Press

Bisbop Leray (1865)

·         Father Leray, another Catholic missionary, left a handwritten manuscript grammar in French, along strongly European lines, and with little novel material, but fairly extensive coverage.

Nantes (1898)

·         In 1898 the Catholic missionaries published another dictionary, this one Gilbertese-English (no author), containing glosses for about 2,200 words, and including some verbal derivations.

·         Although Bingham's dictionary came out in 1908, there was general competition between the Catholics and Protestants, including favored spellings, and the Catholics produced a moderate sized dictionary in 1930, with almost 5,100 Kiribati forms and an English-Kiribati section of about the same size, uniquely interwoven with the Kiribati-English. Definitions were particularly terse, often one word.

·         In perhaps 1920, they issued a Grammar and Vocabulary of some 1,250 words, but with extensive semantic sets, useful expressions, etc. These and subsequent works were dedicated to the training of missionaries in the language, and it is primarily the Catholic works which have the greatest scope and value, Bingham notwithstanding.

Sabatier (1954)

·         Sabatier was also a Catholic missionary priest, who produced a notable description of life in the islands (recently translated into English as "Astride the Equator"). His dictionary, photocopied and about 1,000 pages, is by far the largest, most complete and sophisticated of the Kiribati lexical efforts. Although not much larger than Bingham's in terms of main entries, many of Sabatier's definitions run for paragraphs or even whole pages, including detailed phonetic information, verb conjugation classification, derived forms, example sentences, presumed source morphology, related words and more. Although there are numerous typos and errors of both omission and commission, it remains the great lexical description of the language, but like much of the production of the Catholic Press, it was in French, and many off the new missionaries were English. Thus the publication in 1971 of Sister Oliva’s translation of the Sabatier works into English.


Oliva (1971)

·         Unfortunately for English speaking linguists, Sister Oliva's translation of Sabatier would better be termed an English dictionary based on Sabatier, for the two works are only similar in the broadest form. While Sabatier was scrupulous in presenting the phonetics of vowel length and velarisation for the majority of his forms, this information has been omitted from the translation – that is, no vowel length or velarisation is indicated. Sabatier's careful assignment of verb conjugation and accompanying charts and explanation have been completely omitted as well, If these weren't enough, whole pages have (apparently inadvertently) been left out of the translation, and innumerable individual entries have disappeared, spelling changes (typos?) inserted, sections of definitions omitted or in many cases changed. In all, the linguist attempting to use Oliva as a suitable substitute for the French original must be strongly warned – it should serve as no more perhaps than an index or aid to perusal of Sabatier. This is the only dictionary currently in print, and distributed rather extensively in the Gilberts.

Kerouanton (1962)

·         Grammars produced by priests learning the Kiribati language are often passed along to newcomers. Two of these manuscripts (see next) were located from the early 1960s, and they are both among the more sophisticated grammatical descriptions of the language. Kerouanton's is handwritten, and the smaller of the two, written in French. He includes extensive discussion of the problems of verb conjugation, setting up verb classifications which help to formulate a modern analysis of this structure.