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70 years since the Order entered the jungles of West Papua to bring the Gospel to the people

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

The link between West Papua and the Order of St. Augustine celebrated its 70th anniversary this year. Fr. Tony Banks, Assistant General for the region of Australasia, and Maurizio Misitano, director of the Augustinians for the World Foundation, tell us about the history of West Papua and their recent visit to see first hand the work of the Order there.

In 1953, the Augustinian friar Pieter van Diepen, of the Province of Holland, travelled through the shortcuts, paths and trails of the second largest expanse of tropical rainforest on the planet. Moved by the impulse to bring the Gospel to the small communities of the territory, especially in the highlands, the former bishop of the diocese of Jayapura was able to see in his lifetime how the legacy and work of St. Augustine would take root in this remote region with new vocations for the Order.


In order to understand the history of the Augustinians in the country, two points are crucial. Firstly, the end of the Dutch presence in West Papua. Fr. Anthony Banks, the Assistant General for Australia and Oceania, tells us, "There are different views on what happened, but the Dutch and Indonesians went to the United Nations and transferred control of the territory to the UN for a year and then to Indonesia".


Seven years later, in 1969, a plebiscite was to be held on whether West Papua should remain part of Indonesia or become an independent nation. 1,026 representatives were brought to Jakarta to represent West Papua's one million Melanesians. All voted, "apparently obliged", to remain in Indonesia. "In the midst of this situation of uncertainty and instability, the Augustinians paid great attention to the needs of the native Papuans", Father Banks recalls.


At that time, the Dutch Augustinian missionaries were given the option of returning to the Netherlands and retaining their Duch citizenship or acquiring Indonesian citizenship, the latter option which many friars opted for, for it was clear to them, as the General Councillor recalls, that "future vocations could only come from there".


And so it was.


A rich ecclesial reality


Since the last of the Dutch missionaries passed away last April leaving an "immense legacy of ministry and service" associated with his name and that of the Order, the number of Augustinians continues to grow. At present the vicariate has 55 members in solemn vows, 31 in simple vows, 8 novices, 15 postulants and 3 aspirants.


Over the past 12 years, the Order has opened an upper secondary school and a nursery school to provide educational opportunities for children in the highland parishes.


"We need to know the reality of what is happening there, the work being done on issues such as land reform, the tension with the Indonesian army and the reality of the human rights abuses being carried out. These are tasks that need to be addressed before and during the evangelisation," says Fr Banks.


There is a very diverse reality, linguistic, cultural", says the director of the Augustinians for the World Foundation. Formation and social work, educational support programmes, human rights and agriculture are our main priorities".


Over the past 12 years, the Order has opened an upper secondary school and a kindergarten to provide educational opportunities for the children of the highland parishes.


"We need to know the reality of what is happening there, the work being done on issues like land reform, the tension with the Indonesian army and the reality of human rights violations being perpetrated. These are tasks that need to be addressed before and during evangelisation,' says Father Banks.


There is a very diverse reality, linguistically and culturally,' says the director of the Augustinian Foundation for the World. Training and social work, education support programmes, human rights and agriculture are our main priorities'.

Two new churches for West Papua


In a recent visit to the region, both the General Councillor of the Order and the director of the Augustinians for the World Foundation were able to see "the great work done by our brothers". Two new churches have recently been built, one in Ayawasi with a capacity for 2,000 people and the other in Senopi, both with the help of the Indonesian government. The visit to Yuruf, on the border with Papua New Guinea, was the first by a member of the Order's General Curia. The areas around Ayawasi in the west and Yuruf in the east of West Papua have been in constant conflict, plagued by violence from both the Papuan independence movement and the Indonesian military.


Working to safeguard the dignity of all Papuans, to offer them the light of the Gospel and better living conditions have been, are and will be the Order's priorities in this beautiful and remote place.



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