It is interesting what can eventuate from a meal one shares with strangers. Sharing food and drink together can lead to life changing moments. This month, on June 29, 2018 the Missionary Society of St Columban celebrates exactly 100 years since its canonical foundation and it all started with a chance meeting over a meal. In January 1912, 106 years ago, a Canadian priest, Fr John Fraser, sat down for a meal in a Brooklyn, New York presbytery with the local priests including an Irish curate, Fr Edward Galvin. Fr Galvin had planned to be out for that day but after being called away to administer the sacrament of the sick he returned to the presbytery a little late for lunch to find the Canadian visitor talking avidly about his work in China and its dire need for priests. By the end of that meal Fr Galvin had volunteered to join Fr Fraser and two months later the two of them arrived in Shanghai on the way to Hangchow, China. These days he would have had to first attend at least a nine month orientation course!
Over the next four years in China Fr Galvin toiled in this new cross-cultural situation with a very new language to share the Good News, administer Sacraments and help the poor but seeing the increasing numbers of catechumens was meanwhile sending home to Ireland hundreds of letters asking for more priests to come and help. On the advice of others and some prayer he summoned the courage to be the recruiter and returned to his native Ireland. He soon set about networking (as we call it today.) He knew he needed another local priest with some talent and authority to be a co-founder if they were to establish a new missionary society for China. They would first need to convince the Irish bishops to back this cause and give their permission to him and a few recruits to preach at Masses. They would need to fundraise for the purchase of a building for a seminary. He gave many talks and convinced a talented young professor at the Maynooth seminary, Fr John Blowick, to be the one who would plead their cause with the Irish bishops. By October 1916 they had received the Irish bishops’ permission to fundraise and appealed to the generosity and patriotism of a people who were in the midst of a struggle for their own political independence.
By early 1918 a small group of priest volunteers, mostly in their twenties, had already opened a seminary in Galway, started publishing the Irish 'Far East' magazine to spread their news, and by April had ordained the first five priests from the seminarians who had joined. The previous year they had received official approval from the Vatican to start a new society of secular priests, the Society of St Columban, as well as open a new missionary college and start a new vicariate in China. This new band of priests had initially called themselves The Maynooth Mission to China, as that appealed to the ecclesiastical and patriotic fervour of their time, but the great Irish missionary Saint Columban was chosen as a favourable patron when it was canonically founded on June 29, 1918 by Dr. O’Dea, the bishop of Galway.
It had taken several years from that Brooklyn presbytery meal shared by Fr Fraser and Fr Galvin for this dream to take shape but once Galvin had returned to Ireland the sense of urgency and generosity which Fr Fraser had originally instilled in him had inspired many in the Irish church to also respond. The fledgling Society of then started to spread its appeals for funding and recruits toward the Irish diaspora in the USA and Australia and by 1919 had received a reply from the Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr. Mannix, who had also studied at the Maynooth seminary. Through Archbishop Mannix’s introduction to the Australian and New Zealand bishops the Society was given permission to preach and collect funds in those countries and in January 1920 the first two Irish Columban priests arrived in Melbourne. Later that year two curates at Melbourne’s Northcote parish, Fr Romuald Hayes and Fr Luke Mullany, joined the Society.
As they say, the rest is history.
Fr Brian Vale
LISTEN TO: Director - A chance meeting over a meal
(Duration: 5:27mins, MP3: 2:49MB)