The Society of Mary was approved by the Pope in 1836 when it undertook to send missionaries to the south-west Pacific.
The name Oceania has been used within the Roman Catholic Church, from the early 1800s. “Oceania” applies to that vast area of the world now known as Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the other Pacific Island states.
Thus the Synod of Oceania had all the bishops from Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands and the Pacific islands meet together.
Historically, the vicariate of Eastern Oceania was established in 1833 and entrusted to the French Picpus fathers. About the same time Australia was established as a church area of its own.
Three years later, on 10th January 1836, the vicariate of Western Oceania (which included New Zealand, but excluded Australia) was established, and entrusted to the newly formed Society of Mary.
In summary this Vicariate covered the southern Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, Tokelau, Phoenix islands, Gilbert Islands (Kiribati), Marshall Islands, Loyalty Islands, New Zealand, New Caledonia, New Hebrides (Vanuatu), Santa Cruz Islands, Trobriand Islands, Solomon Islands, Bismark Archipelago, New Guinea, parts of Molucca and the Caroline Islands.
Such a vast area was quickly subdivided into various other Vicariates Apostolic:
In 1842 the Apostolic Vicariate of Central Oceania was established (New Caledonia, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji);
In 1844 the Apostolic Vicariate of Melanesia (New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Bismarck Archipelago), and the Vicariate Apostolic of Micronesia for Carolines, Marshalls and Gilbert Islands. In 1848 the Vicariate of Western Oceania disappeared as two dioceses were established in New Zealand.
The story of the Marist work in each of these areas is a complicated and long one, but by the start of the 20th century,
Marists in Oceania were mainly working in the following eight areas (Vicariates) of Oceania: Bougainville (PNG), Solomons Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. The first arrival of Marists into each of these areas is as follows:
Wallis & Futuna 1836 Vataillon lands in Wallis; 1841 Martyrdom of Peter Chanel in Futuna
Tonga 1842 Marists reach Tongatapu
Samoa 1845 First Marists arrive
Fiji 1844 Marists begin in Lau
New Caledonia 1843 Catholicism introduced
Vanuatu 1847 Arrival of Marists
Solomon Is. 1845 Bishop Epalle (killed the following year); 1898 Marists resume mission
Papua New Guinea 1847 Marists reached Woodlark Islands
Bougainville 1898 First mass in Patopatowai
The Marists working in this area were formally constituted into the Province of Oceania in 1898, the main reason being so that missionaries were represented at the general Chapters of the Society of Mary at that time.
Established as a province from that date, 1898, the provincial administration was established in Sydney and remained there till 1971.
In the early years the provincial did not have much authority over Marists, in the far off regions. The various Vicars Apostolic (Marist themselves with the title of Vice Provincial within the Society) retained the major authority over Marists.
This way of operating remained largely intact till around the time of the Vatican Council when the various Vicariates Apostolic became Dioceses. It was around this time also that the decision was made to transfer the headquarters to a site within the geographical boundaries of the province and thus the provincial administration moved to Suva, Fiji in 1971, where it remains today.
Geographical, political and cultural diversity
Oceania Marist Province comprises six independent nations and two French territories, and covers an area as big as Western Europe.
This vast province, scattered around the various Pacific countries, embraces a great diversity of political and cultural diversity.
In the areas of Melanesia there are a large number of languages and dialects. For example in Papua New Guinea alone there are more than 600 languages and over 1000 dialects.
In these areas a “lingua franca” (common language) came to be developed, which in Papua New Guinea and Solomons is called Pidgin English and in Vanuatu, Bishlama.
The areas of Polynesia such as Samoa, Tonga, Wallis and Futuna each have their own language, which is basically the one language for the whole country.
Today the educated people tend to speak another main language - mainly English or French - depending on the colonising country. PNG, Solomons, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa have English as the second language, while New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna have French. Vanuatu uses both English and French (derived from its days as a Condominium of Great Britain and France).
The diversity of languages is simply one aspect of the diversity in cultures.However, such great diversity presents challenges to all who work in evangelisation in Oceania.
The apostolates of our men
Numerically the largest unit in the Society of Mary, our province has the lowest average age and includes about half of all Marists in formation.
We work collaboratively within the local Church as instruments of God's mercy giving hope to the most neglected people wherever we are sent.