Buffalo Jesuits maintain presence in South Pacific

by Patrick J. Buechi
Wed, Dec 11th 2019 12:00 pm
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The Jesuit community is well-known in Buffalo as the administrators of Canisius College, Canisius High School and St. Michael Parish. Less known is that many of those same priests have served in Micronesia, starting schools and building faith communities in a centuries-old mission.

Located in the Western Pacific, Micronesia is a subregion of thousands of small islands, now divided into six sovereign nations. Those nations are Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu. The mission began in the 1800s when Jesuits came from South America and Europe to the island of Yap, now part of the Federated States of Micronesia.

After World War II, the region came under the care of the New York Province of the American Jesuits. Micronesia has seen 15 Jesuits from Buffalo serving formally in parishes and schools, and informally with social and adult education. Currently, Father Thomas Benz and Father Francis Hezel serve there.

Father Kenneth Hezel, SJ, has been part of that mission in the Western Pacific since 1960, serving 20 years in Chuuk, eight years in Yap, 20 years in Guam and eight years in Saipan where he served as vicar general of the region and pastor of a parish. He just returned to his home in Buffalo this past August.

"A lot of my work from the very beginning was training people for pastoral formation for adults, training them to be church leaders, and in Saipan, deacons. We ordained five deacons there," he said.

The first missionaries, mostly Protestant, came in the mid-1800s. They introduced Christianity to the majority of the islanders. So, the seeds were planted by the time the Jesuits came just after World War II. The Jesuits have ordained many deacons, about 15 priests, and now have two bishops that came from Micronesia.

In Father Hezel's early years, a typical day might mean visiting the sick at the hospital, stopping by the school, preparing people for sacraments, as well as weddings and funerals. He handled regular confessions and Masses just as a local priest would. He used a motor scooter to get to remote parts of his island and outboard motor boats to other smaller islands.

"When I was in charge of religious education in those days, there was a whole set of other islands, which are 100 to 150 miles away, which we traveled to by ship. I would travel there to instruct religion teachers. Depending on where I was, sometimes those trips took 12 days," he explained, adding that he loved the experience. "I liked the people. I think generally the people were very receptive. I think they were engaged with the Church. I think at that one particular church, people could experience movement or growth. I contrast that with missionaries I've known in Japan. It takes a long time before they even have one person who converts to Christianity."

He gives credit to the early missionaries for paving the way.

"Once one group receives the faith then they themselves went out and told others. Part of the faith is spread through the individual groups, lay missionaries," he said.

The Jesuits used an abandoned Japanese communication center to house Xavier High School on Chuuk in 1952. Still open now, the school sees about 100 students preparing for college. This past June, 37 students graduated. All will be going on to college, having been awarded $5 million in scholarships. Many come to the states for college.

Along with Xavier, the Jesuits started an agricultural-technical school. "It was a very good school, but during my term, I could not find the staff to run the school," Father Hezel said. "Enrollment was down a little bit. We had to close that school when I was in charge. That was hard because it served very important needs. It gave kids skills to get a job, a sense of importance, all those kinds of things."

The newest school is Yap Catholic High School. Although started by the Jesuits, it is considered a diocesan school. The locals had been asking the Jesuits to open a Catholic high school for a number of years, as an alternative to the public school. Father Michael Corcoran and Father John Mulreany went in 2011 to establish Yap Catholic High School.

The first thing they did was find temporary space for the school while a permanent building could be constructed. By borrowing a faculty lounge in an elementary school and a meeting room from a parish, they could hold freshmen and sophomore classes taught by volunteer teachers from the States and Pakistan.

"We arrived on the Feast of St. Ignatius, July 31, and five weeks later we opened our doors for the first day of school," Father Corcoran recalled.

During the first year, they found a location to build a permanent school, although it was a bit remote. "It was property pretty much covered by jungle. We spent the second half of that first year with thousands and thousands of volunteers clearing the jungle and making room," Father Corcoran explained. "Then we hired some local workers to actually start building the buildings."

The next year freshmen, sophomore and junior classes were held. The year after that, they became a fully-functioning four-year high school.

"I was the president and principal. I was the treasurer. I was the maintenance person. I pretty much had all the titles at the school. I also taught math and physics, and Earth science and chemistry at one point. Reading," Father Corcoran said.
They designed the school curriculum on what they knew best, college preparatory classes much like at Buffalo's Canisius High School. 

"As we grew we recruited volunteer teachers from the United States, mostly from Jesuit colleges and universities," Father Corcoran explained. "They would come for one or two years, get a very small stipend. They were the teachers who ran most of the activities in the school."
Most of the teachers had prior service experience. Teaching halfway across the world for a small salary offered good work experience before hitting the job market.

"What I was always impressed by was the dedication of students to study," said Father Richard Zanoni, who arrived in 2012. Students would typically study until 9:30 p.m. Some would ask to stay late. He recalls the studyhall to be as quiet as the cliched church mice. "If you can imagine a room with more than 60 teenage boys studying away with no adult proctor around in absolute silence. If they wanted to talk to another student, they'd tap him on the shoulder and they'd go outside."

After the generator was turned off, the students would be reading by candlelight.

"It was a great experience," said Father Corcoran. "It was frustrating in many ways. Many of the government offices we had to deal with are somewhat dysfunctional. There hadn't been much interest or support of education out there. There was a lot of frustration to get things done and get things put in place. But at the end of the day, the school was very successful."

Like schools in Western New York, the Catholic school in Yap provided a better education than the public school, which faced truancy issues from students and teachers. Yap Catholic High School had 99 percent attendance rate, with some students not missing class during their four years.

Father Zanoni, who was simply an algebra teacher, recalls his time in the mission with fondness. 

"Great formative experience, humanly, religiously. Great team effort. At the time we must have had 20 Jesuits spread out. We were in all shapes and sizes, theologically, ideologically, but when it came to the mission, everyone was 100 percent."

Father Hezel whose ministry took him throughout the many islands, has mixed feelings about being back in his hometown.

"I hate to use this term family, because you are never part of the family as such, but they were the people that I knew. I had friends there. I miss them. I miss the warm weather. I had a lot of responsibilities. I miss some of the responsibilities and busyness that I had."

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