Our Diocesan Connection with Papua, Indonesia

The Diocese of St. Cloud is deeply connected to Papua, Indonesia. Bishop Alphonse Sowada, retired Bishop of the Diocese of Agats in Papua, who passed away Jan 2014. He  is from the St. Cloud Diocese through the Crosier Community in Onamia. Similarly, the last Onamia Crosier to return from Papua, diocesan native Fr. Virgil Petermeier, OSC lived and ministered in Agats for over 35 years. Many other Crosiers have spent time in Papua as well, and their stories, ministry and life-outlook from their mission experiences there have impacted the people of St. Cloud as well.

sowadaThe late Bishop Alphonse Sowada: 40 years of missionary service

Crosier Bishop Alphonse Sowada retired as shepherd of Diocese of Agats in 2001. He passed away in 2014.  He served for 32 years as the Bishop of Asmat in Irian Jaya, also called Papua, on the western side of the island of New Guinea. Bishop Sowada is originally from Elmdale, MN. He was first sent as a Croiser Missioner to Indonesia in May of 1961, and ordained as Bishop of the newly created Agats Diocese in 1969.

The Asmat people are commonly associated with headhunting and cannibalism but in a 2001 interview with the St. Cloud Visitor, Bishop Sowada insisted that the Asmat people are very “open and friendly.” Bishop Sowada has been instrumental in evangelizing the Asmat people and helping to save their identity through the preservation of Asmat Art and culture. “Evangelization of the peoples like the Asmat, however, does not mean insisting that all cultural practices end,” he said in that same 2001 Visitor interview. “The result is ‘Catholicism with an Irian bent’…and helping them realize that God and his love are already present in their midst.”

sowada2Bishop Sowada has also worked to promote awareness of environmental issues, human rights, and property rights among and for the Asmat people. Learn more about the Crosier Missionaries and Papua by checking out a special video news documentary about the Crosier Fathers and Brothers work in Papua that is available for loan from the St. Cloud Mission Office.

Crosiers and the Asmat

“Prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of another religion, and in witness of Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these people, as well as the values of their society and culture.”
(Vatican II, document on The Church Today and The Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions)

Under the direction of Bishop Alphonse Sowada, OSC, pastoral work among the Asmat people has operated according to the spirit and documents of the Second Vatican Council. The missionary work has included close dialogue between the Gospel and the local culture. Traditional stories and myths, as told by Asmat elders, were written down by the missioners in order to discover the deeper religious values of the Asmat people. Liturgies were adapted to incorporate important aspects of the Asmat culture.

petermeier_luncheonPastoral workers in the Diocese of Agats-Asmat study Anthropology as an integral part of their formation, along with Theology and Philosophy. The Crosiers continue to promote respect for the Asmat culture, and dialogue between the social sciences and pastoral theology.

Although traditionally food gatherers and hunters with little sense of planning, it is essential that the Asmat gain leadership and organizational skills in order to deal with outside influences currently threatening their environmental and cultural survival. Hopeful signs of the result of education and formation efforts include Asmat participation in the Diocesan Pastoral Council, women’s gatherings, and the formation of the Asmat Traditional Deliberative Institution, a network of sub-groups of Asmat who gather to mediate inter-community conflicts and solve social and environmental problems. The Institution recently successfully ousted an illegal fish cannery that was in its initial phase of construction.

A current threat to village and church life is the harvesting of “gaharu” or eagle-wood. This aromatic wood is in demand from foreigners for use in making perfumes and incense. It has, however, always been taboo for the Asmat to cut or harvest eagle-wood. For the past 3 years foreign merchants based out of Jakarta have been enticing Asmat people to harvest the wood for them in exchange for such things as rice and boom boxes. The merchants then sell the wood for $1000/kilo. Soaring rates of prostitution and AIDS have accompanied these merchant middlemen to Papua.

In addition to the challenges presented by the eagle-wood industry, the secession movement in is high gear. Since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, and the events in East Timor leading to independence, the Papuan people have been actively promoting self-determination. The hope is that progress can be made through dialogue and other peaceful means. However, Papua is much richer than Timor in resources, such as gold, copper, zinc, oil and wood, so the struggle for independence may come at even greater cost.

petermeier_feathersThe Minnesota Crosiers have developed a Mission Fund that will assure support for the native Crosier community in the years ahead.

Asmat Museum: Preservation of a People

Irian Jaya means, “glorious rays of the sun shining over the sea when the sun is rising behind the mists.” It is home to 200 species of land animals, 6-7,000 species of fish, 16,000 species of plants and 80-100,000 species of insects. This eastern-most province of Indonesia was renamed “Papua” last year. It is located on the world’s second largest island, Papua New Guinea. The people of the island speak 1000 different languages. The Asmat people, who inhabit the western side of the island, speak 4-5 different dialects. They live in the largest contiguous rain forest outside of South America. This is where the Crosier Fathers and Brothers from Minnesota have served people of God in the Diocese of Agats for over 40 years.

Cut off from contact with outsiders by the towering mountain peaks of Papua, by the dangerous tidal surges of the Solo, and by the jungle itself, the Asmat lived a life of hunting and gathering, warring and celebrating. Even today in the solid jungle, the Asmat’s only mode of travel is in long hand-hewn canoes. As they search for food in the jungle, they carry fire with them on the canoes because there is no way to start one in the wet, muddy land. They live on what they find in the jungle: Sago Palm, Sago grubs – larva of capricorn, and beetles.

After World War II there was a call for missionaries to help restore peace and harmony in the villages of Papua. Cannibalism was still being practiced, even into the 1960s. The Indonesian government, in an effort to stop the head-hunting, suppressed all Asmat cultural practices such as feasting and dancing, ritual drumming in the longhouses, and art. The Crosiers helped mediate between the native peoples and the government, and their efforts helped preserve the Asmat culture.

When the Crosiers went to Papua, they found the jungle people had a vivid joy for life. The face paint, weapons and feathers were worn to give courage in an environment filled with the forces of nature, where humans had little control. The Asmat believe that life has to be kept in balance or bad things happen. They believe that everything lives and is animated, and that people were made of the Sago Palm tree, which provides the people with housing, food and firewood, all essentials for survival. Creation started with the drums, thus drums are sacred and on special feasts the men and boys drum until dawn in the longhouse. The missionaries say they did not bring God to the Asmat, but rather found God there where everything is sacred.

The Asmat are endangered by current logging activities perpetrated by international companies. The logging changes the whole ecological system and upsets the delicate balance of life in the rain forest. A further threat to the Asmat people is the threat of repression by the Indonesian government as the Papuans push for independence.

asmat_art Bishop Alphonse Sowada, who served in Papua for 40 years,returned to his native St. Cloud, andcompleted a second book on the Asmat and their culture, Asmat: Perception of Life in Art. From the efforts of the Crosier Fathers and Brothers to protect the human rights of the Asmat and preserve their culture and way of life, in 1995 the American Museum of Asmat Art was created and is currently located on the campus of St. Thomas University in St. Paul, MN. The mission statement of the museum reflects the museum’s appreciation of both the art and the humanity of the Asmat people:

The American Museum of Asmat Art is dedicated to the study, preservation, and presentation of the culture and spirit of the Asmat, as embodied by their art forms.

View the Asmat Museum’s website, or call to arrange a guided tour at (651) 287-1132.  Borrow a 30 minute film on the Asmat, or other great resources on Papua from the Mission Office.

Interested in more?

For more information on the Crosier community, visit the Croiser Fathers and Brothers Web Site.

Or invite a Croiser Father or Brother to come to give a presentation to your parish, school, or group about Papua or our other diocesan connections with the people around the world.