The Columban Fathers: A bridge from Bristol to the World Church


Editor’s note: With special attention being focused on the vocations lived by men and women religious during the celebration of the 14-month Year of Consecrated Life called for by Pope Francis, Rhode Island Catholic is publishing a series of reflections on religious orders whose members serve in the diocese.

BRISTOL — The Missionary Society of St. Columban, popularly known as the Columban Fathers, was only 15 years old when it came to Rhode Island in 1933. The first American house had been founded in Omaha in 1918, the year the Columban Society officially came into existence.

Their first American recruits began their studies for the priesthood in Nebraska in 1921. Three years later a preparatory seminary was set up in Silver Creek, N.Y. Soon these new premises became crowded and a third seminary was needed for those who would receive a special year of spiritual preparation before their theological studies. At this point Providence Bishop William Hickey welcomed the Columban Fathers to the Diocese of Providence and approved their establishing a house just North of the Mount Hope Bridge. Bishop Hickey presided at its dedication on October 2, 1933.

The Columban story began in the heart of a young Irish priest who was ordained in 1909, and started his ministry as curate in Brooklyn, N.Y. That priest, Father Edward Galvin, was on loan to Brooklyn Diocese because his home diocese of Cork, Ireland, had more priests than it needed. Father Galvin trained for years to be a diocesan priest, but he often felt a deeper call to go as a missionary priest to China.

In January 1912, that call to mission took on a powerful urgency. The pastor introduced him to Father Fraser from Canada. “He is a missionary, and he’s looking for people to go to China with him.” Father Galvin took the visitor to his room and told him he would go with him. Father Fraser’s answer was direct: “We leave on February 28th.”

From China, Father Galvin wrote to priest friends in Ireland urging them to join him. Eventually two of them did, but they soon realized they needed a steady stream of priests. In 1916, they sent Father Galvin home to attend to that need. In Ireland he was joined by a seminary professor, Father John Blowick and together they journeyed to Rome to get direction from the Vatican. They were advised to form a missionary Society and set up a college for training priests. Father Galvin left his professor friend to do that work in Ireland, while he traveled to the United States to do the same. Apparently Father Galvin’s earlier years in the states had convinced him that Irish goodwill did better when united with American “can do.”

Saint Columban’s began to exist officially with a decree from Rome on June 29, 1918. That year the Columbans opened their seminary in Ireland and the Nebraska house where the first American students began their studies. A Columban house in Australia opened in Melbourne in 1921. As the membership grew, the Columbans began responding to requests and sending priests to new missions.

The first mission was China. In December, 1919 Rome assigned Hanyang, China, to the Columbans who sent pioneer missionaries there in 1920. In 1927 Father Galvin was ordained Bishop, and named Vicar Apostolic. In 1928 Rome also assigned Nancheng, China to the pastoral care of the Columbans.

In 1929, the first Columbans arrived in the Philippines to staff Malate parish at the request of Archbishop of Manila. The Philippines eventually became the Columbans’ largest mission, with more than 200 Columbans by the 1960s. In 1933, the same year the Columbans opened the house in Bristol, ten Columban priests arrived in Korea. Korea was to become the Columbans’ second largest mission. There are now Filipino and Korean Columban priests serving as missionaries outside their home countries. In 1936 eight Columbans arrived in Rangoon on their way to open a mission in the North of Burma, now known as Myanmar.

After Pearl Harbor, World War II spread to Asia with serious consequences for the Columbans. Japan regarded most Westerners as enemies, so they interned Columban priests in Burma, Korea and the Philippines as ‘enemy aliens.’ The tide of war would turn, but five Columban priests were killed during the liberation of Manila.

Their mission to post­war Japan started with two and eventually numbered almost 100. The situation in China worsened as the Communists established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. A systematic persecution followed, and by 1954 all Columban missionaries were expelled.

With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, many Columbans were in danger as the North Koreans backed by Communist China advanced South. Seven Columban priests lost their lives.

In 1951 the Columbans sent 12 newly ordained priests to Fiji. In 1952 Columban missionaries expelled from China opened new missions in Peru and in Chile.

The next 20 years saw steady consolidation. In 1968 the Columban mission effort peaked with about 1,000 priests, the majority active in the missions, and the remainder in supporting roles at home. New missions were opened in Taiwan and Pakistan in 1978, Brazil in 1985, and in Jamaica and Belize in 1986.

A profound change began in the Columban world. The stream of missionary vocations during the 30s, 40s and 50s, slowed to an uncertain trickle. By 1983, the Bristol Columban house inaugurated 50 years earlier, had transformed into place of retirement. Forced by advancing years and declining health to forsake life on the missions, aging missionaries occupied the rooms once used by youthful students. At present 20 retired Columban missionaries reside at Bristol, collectively having given about 1,000 years of missionary service to the Church.

Where do priests go when they retire? Back to work is the answer. The Diocese of Providence provides retired Columbans opportunities for ministry in keeping with their limited health and energy.

The retired missionaries rotate in a series of pastoral activities: Sunday Mass at the R.I. Veterans’ Home, and other masses at Saint Mary’s Bristol, at St. Barnabas’, Portsmouth and occasional Masses and confessions in English, Spanish or Korean. The house also offers meeting space to Alcoholics Anonymous, Knights of Columbus, occasional prayer or reflection groups.

The words spoken by Bishop Hickey still ring true after 82 years: “The house here established and today blessed solemnly with the ritual of Holy Mother Church, is a house of prayer and spiritual training.”