When Our Lady changed her mantle

Fr Donal McIlraith standing beside Mary's Statue - Photo: Fr Donal McIlraithFr Donal McIlraith standing beside Mary's Statue - Photo: Fr Donal McIlraith

“and Mary arose in those days and went in haste …” Lk 1:39

It was Easter 2012, and I was acting parish priest of the Columban Parish of Ba in Fiji. On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, the Ba River burst its banks, flooding the town and its vicinity. As usual, the village of Votua was also badly affected. Once more, they had to rescue the Blessed Sacrament from the church by boat. 

Votua is the only village in Fiji with a chapel named after St Columban. There are two statues in the church, one of Our Lady and one of St Columban. The flood did not harm St Columban, but the statue of Our Lady was destroyed.

When I got to the village on Easter Sunday to celebrate the Easter liturgy with them, the old ladies were very upset. “Our Lady has left us,” they told me.

As was right and fitting, I preached on Jesus and his resurrection during Mass. Before the blessing, I said, “Please do not be worried about Our Lady leaving you. She most certainly has not. She and Jesus will always be with you. But perhaps she has gone to change her clothes.” I have no idea what prompted me to say that.

A few weeks later, the pastor, Columban Fr Paul Tierney, returned and took back his parish. I had a commitment to do cenacles for the Marian Movement in New Zealand. In a parish in Hamilton Diocese, I met an old friend, Edward Gangalo, who always brought his large statue of our Lady of Fatima to the cenacles. He said to me, “I am worried that if anything happens to me, they will just throw out the statue. Do you know anyone who needs a statue of Our Lady?”

“Do I ever?” I thought to myself. To Edward, I said, “Yes, Edward, I actually know a church in Fiji that needs a nice statue like this, but I am now going to Wellington. I will be leaving for Fiji next weekend from Auckland.”

“No problem,” chipped in a lady at the meeting, “I am going to Auckland and can deliver it to you.”

When I left for Fiji, I had two items of baggage. As the machine was only registered for one, I got the message, “Go to the counter.” At the counter, the lady serving me asked, “What is this?”, pointing to the nicely wrapped statue.

Parishioners at St Columbans Church in Fiji, including Catechist Ramoce, together with Columban Fr Donal McIlraith and Deacon Iowane Naio (fourth from right) - Photo: Fr Donal McIlraithParishioners at St Columbans Church in Fiji, including Catechist Ramoce, together with Columban Fr Donal McIlraith and Deacon Iowane Naio (fourth from right) - Photo: Fr Donal McIlraith

“That is Our Lady,” says I, with my money ready to pay. “We can’t charge for Our Lady,” announced the lady, and I did not argue.

Sometime later, I was sitting in my seat when I suddenly remembered that I had Our Lady’s crown in a small bag and had left it in the waiting area just outside the plane. I rushed to the attendant by the still-open door and said, “I have left Our Lady’s crown in a bag outside.” She slipped out of her shoes and raced out. I remember the pilot looking out to see why things were not moving. Then she returned, triumphantly waving the bag. “They had already cleaned up,” she said, “but I found it in the bin.”

Now, Ba and Votua are about an hour’s drive from Nadi where the international planes land. In Nadi, I looked for someone to drive me to Votua, and my friend Ken Pickering came to the rescue.

Our first stop in the village was at senior catechist Ramoce’s house, but he was out farming. I proceeded to the church. It was May 1, and several people were in the church preparing a very small statue of Our Lady for the May procession through the village that night. We unpacked Our Lady. I blessed the statue and got a child to add the crown.

As I left the church, catechist Ramoce and some of the menfolk of his family, who were sitting just outside with a bowl of kava for me, thanked me and presented me with an extraordinary gift in Fiji: a whale’s tooth. So, Our Lady changed her mantle and sent me a whale’s tooth.

Columban Fr Donal McIlraith, lives and works in Fiji.

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