The Society of the Columban Fathers

The Society of the Columban Fathers takes its name from St Columbanus, Bangor’s senior missionary to Europe in the 6th century. It was first known as the Maynooth Mission to China and was formally launched in 1918 as a missionary society of diocesan priests. This was something unique, as until then all such movements were religious congregations. They found others who embraced their vision and the first Columbans went to China in 1920, to meet the challenges of its language and culture and to share the suffering of its poor. Within a couple of years the Columban Society of priests had spread to England, USA, Australia and New Zealand. The intention was to follow the Irish diaspora to the new world to seek support for the new missionary movement.

At first the focus did not extend beyond China. But gradually the vision widened to the Philippines [1929], Korea [1933], Burma [1936], and Japan [1948]. When mainland China was closed to missionaries in the 1950’s, the Society responded to the urgent call of Latin America [1951] and Columbans went to the poor in the new urban settlements in Peru and Chile. The Society also responded to the missionary needs of the Church in Fiji. Still more recently they have gone to Pakistan, Taiwan, Brazil, Jamaica and Belize. Due to diminishing resources, the Society has since withdrawn its commitment to Belize, Jamaica and Brazil.

In 1933, nine Columban priests on their way to China received word to go to Korea instead. The previous year, Bishop Edward Galvin, writing of the chaos in China, strongly advised, “I think the Society ought to look for some other field in which to work.” Korea became the “some other field” with its own problems and its own rewards. Within five years of their arrival, the Columbans were entrusted with two missions-in Kwangju and Chunchon.

The early years were dominated by harassment from the Japanese who occupied Korea. This harassment culminated during World War II when all Columbans were either put in jail, placed under house arrest or deported. At the end of the war, Korea was divided into North and South, with the Communists taking control of the North. Four years of an uneasy peace were followed by the Korean War in 1950. Columbans saw 17 years of patient effort wiped out as the Communists spread terror, ruin and death over the land. Six Columbans were martyred by the Communists and one died in prison; two survived the infamous Death March to North Korea.

This has been admirably demonstrated in the recent Korean Exhibition at the Somme Museum, Conlig and I pointed out the Bangor Connection to Councillor Montgomery, Mayor of North Down. The Christian Church has now grown remarkably in South Korea, particularly the Presbyterians. The Mayor was surprised when I told him that there are now more Presbyterians in South Korea than the whole of the rest of the World put together. This has been primarily due to the efforts of American missionaries. And, of course it all started in the USA with Francis Mackemie, born of Scottish parents near Ramelton, County Donegal.


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