The priest of Bali Hai

Ash covering Bali Hai. Photo: Fr Donal McIIraith SSC Ash covering Bali Hai. Photo: Fr Donal McIIraith SSC

Chased from his parish by a volcano. That is the story of Fr Laurence Lulkon, a diocesan priest from the Diocese of Port Vila, Vanuatu. Little did I think when I taught Laurence as a seminarian in Fiji that I was preparing him to deal with volcanoes!

Fr Laurence is the Parish Priest of Lolopoepoe on the Island of Ambae in Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Ambae is better known internationally as Bali Hai, the beautiful island sung about in the popular musical comedy, South Pacific. From the nearby island of Santo (site of the US Navy base during WWII) Ambae can now be glimpsed covered with cloud and volcano smoke. It is said that J. A. Michener, author of 'Tales of the South Pacific' based his island of Bali Hai on Ambae.

There were about 12,000 people on Ambae when their quiet lives were shattered on September 16, 2017, when the Marano Voui volcano erupted. Fortunately before the eruption, the signs were so bad that the Vanuatu Government declared a state of emergency and ordered a complete evacuation of all the residents.

Lolopoepoe was one of the ports of evacuation and thousands of residents poured into the mission where Fr Laurence was helping with food and water as best he could. He left himself with the final group and noted the people weeping as they left and continued to weep until the island disappeared from their view. Their homes and livelihoods were in ruins.

The people were evacuated to various islands and Fr Laurence went with those going to nearby Santo. There he was able to continue serving them and to fly to the island of Maevo once a month to celebrate Mass and minister to the Ambae people there.

The people of Bali Hai were subsistence farmers who lived off their gardens and plantations where they grew Kava, the ingredient of the popular drink, ‘yangona’. Kava, copra and cocoa are their main source of income.

By the end of 2017, the state of emergency was lifted and people started returning to Ambae only to have their hopes dashed by another eruption on April 9, 2018, at 9.00pm.

The following morning was dark with smoke and for three hours the people used torches only to find that everything was covered in ash. Roofs had collapsed and trees and shrubs damaged. Children developed asthma. Rivers were poisoned. Yet the root crops survived and temporarily helped keep the people alive. But replanting was impossible because of the ash. It seemed like the end of "Bali Hai".

Again the state of emergency ended on November 26, 2018 and some people returned, concerned for their homes and gardens. Cattle and pigs had further damaged their gardens. But the people did their best to repair their homes and re-plant. 

With the permission of the diocese, Fr Laurence returned to Lolopoepoe in January, 2019. With the roads destroyed by landslides and heavy rain, he travels about on foot and by boat. Drinking water is scarce. Two schools are functioning. Lolopoepoe primary school has about 100 children but it is almost impossible to keep the primary schools open under these conditions. Sometimes, Fr Laurence told me, he has ten people for Sunday Mass.

Most people have now tried to make a second home elsewhere. A group of visiting Australian scientists recently advised those still on Ambae to leave as they saw no future for them there.

For those who try to stay on Ambae, Fr Laurence says, there are enormous challenges. Their livelihood is gone. Most of their families are elsewhere and they do not have the support of their culture.

At the moment there are no public services to Ambae, no planes where once there were three airstrips, no banks, no public works or education department. But the priest of Bali Hai is determined to stay.

“The people feel happier and more secure when they have a priest with them,” Fr Laurence says.

He finds that a priest has an important role and task listening to and accompanying the people in such a desperate situation. He sees himself staying on as "The priest of Bali Hai” as long as life is at all possible there.

Columban Fr Donal McIlraith, Mission Awareness and Education, Fiji.

Listen to "The priest of Bali Hai"

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