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90 Years of Columban Mission in Korea

Maps laying on a table
Diversifying from Parish Work

By Fr. Denis Monaghan

Columban missionaries arrived in Korea in 1933 at the invitation of the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP) Bishop Demange of Daegu Diocese. As many of the MEP priests had died while working as chaplains in the first World War and many decided after the war not to return to the mission in Korea, the diocese was very short of priests and so the bishop petitioned Rome for help. Rome in turn invited the Columbans to take a mission in Korea. In 1934 we were assigned the provinces of Jeollanamdo and Jeju Island and from then on our priests worked mainly in parishes.

Flowering trees reflecting in a lakeHowever, Columban Fr. P. J. McGlinchey, while working at a parish in Jeju, started a 4H development program to help alleviate the poverty he encountered after the Korean War. Later he formed the Isidore Development Association which introduced new farming methods as well as cooperatives, credit unions, a hospital clinic, an animal feed factory, etc. Fr. P.J. was the first person to successfully grow grass on the hills of Jeju island, until then considered worthless, suddenly became land on which animals could be raised. Through this efforts farming became a viable way of life for people to prosper and rise out of poverty. Today Columban Fr. Michael Riordan continues the work at Isidore. Fr. Michael worked there as a veterinarian in the 1970s before later joining the Columbans and returning to Korea.

The first Columbans to work completely outside the parish framework were Owen Doyle and Kevin O’Rourke who, with the blessing of the then regional director Fr. Neil Boyle, decided to go into third level education as university teachers.

This decision was not welcomed by everyone, as traditionally we worked only in the parish apostolate and working in another apostolate was viewed by some as a betrayal of our charter. Gradually however their work became acceptable to the majority especially when they were recognized for their work by the State. Fr. Kevin O’Rourke was recognized as a foremost translator of Korean poetry and received many awards. He published some 25 books.

Another apostolate was the student chaplaincy which Columbans took up as a way of keeping in touch with young people. Columban Frs. Paul Kenny, Owen Doyle, Con Murphy, Liam McCarron and Sean Conneely were involved in this work. As a principle we have always looked for diocesan approval before beginning any apostolate, but it was not always granted immediately. For example, when Fr. Art McMahon first looked for permission to promote Alcohol Awareness Education in the Seoul archdiocese, he was told that Korean drinking patterns were “part of traditional culture” and such education programs were not really needed! However, the Bishop did take a copy of the “The Big Book” – (the AA Handbook) – and having read it some months later, he called Fr. Art and encouraged him to promote alcohol education!

The Columbans worked in Kwangju City from 1934. Fr. Gerry Marinan was the first appointed there as a curate to a Korean priest Fr. Min in Puk Dong parish. Catholics in Kwangju would have been very familiar with the Columbans. However, when Fr. Brendan Hoban was appointed to work in the labor apostolate in Kwangju, suddenly a whole new group of non-Catholic traders got to know the Columbans. How many times I went into a shop to be asked “do you know Fr. Hoban?” For almost 60 years we were anonymous to these people and suddenly a whole new section of society got to know the Columbans. I must confess as a parish priest I felt a bit envious that a newcomer was better known than I.

Each of the non-parish apostolates in which we were involved in deserves an article on its own but as they are so many I will just mention the particular apostolate and the number of Columbans involved over the years. Catechetics in Kwangju and Seoul – 2; Retreat Directors – 5; Student Chaplaincy – 5; Mass Communications in Wonju and Mokpo – 2; Working with J.O.C – 5; Labor Apostolate in Inchon and Kwangju – 2; 3rd Level Education – 5; Alcohol Education Programs – 5; Gambler’s Anonymous – 1; Marriage Encounter – 3; Retrouvaille – 2; Counseling & Clinical Pastoral Education (C.P.E.) – 5; Hospice Education Program – 1; Prison Chaplaincy – 6; Hospital Chaplaincy – 6; Migrant Workers – 4; Inculturation – 2; Dialogue with other Religions – 1; Working with persons with special needs – 1; Organic Farming – 1; Rural Farming community – 1; City Poor Apostolate – 10; Vatican Embassy Attaché – 8; Fish Market Ministry – 1; Missionary Parish – 1; Magazine Editor – 5; Columban Center – 4; Ecology – 1; J.P.I.C. Work – 1; Art Ministry – 1; Refugees – 1.

Many of the above works still continue today in the Region. We also have what I call “Columban work” such as Formation, Mission Education, Lay Mission, Mission Promotion, Vocations, House Managers, Bursar, etc. In fact, everyone in the region is involved in some way or other with Columban work, and those “retired” do not like to be referred to as retired! The Seoul Archdiocese, in line with most of the other dioceses, no longer uses the category retired. Instead upon reaching the age of 70, priests are assigned to sacramental ministry. Likewise, today all Columbans are involved in other apostolates — even the apostolate of “growing old!”

Columban Fr. Denis Monaghan lives and works in South Korea.