Who are the Columban Missionaries?

The Missionary Society of St. Columban was “conceived” in China between 1912 and 1916 when Fr. Edward Galvin and three or four other Irish diocesan priests working there saw the need for a mission of the Irish Church to China. It was “born” on October 10, 1916, when the Irish bishops, approached by Fr. Galvin and Fr. John Blowick, a young professor at St. Patrick’s, Maynooth, the national seminary, gave their assent to “The Maynooth Mission to China”. It was “baptized” on June 29, 1918, when it formally became the Society of St. Columban.

The Columbans went to the USA and Australia to establish roots there. Archbishop Jeremiah Harty of Omaha, Nebraska, USA, invited the Society to set up shop there. He had been Archbishop of Manila (1903 – 1916).

The first group of Columban priests went to China in 1920.

In response to an urgent appeal by Archbishop Harty’s successor in Manila, Irishman Michael O’Doherty, the Columbans took over Malate Parish in 1929. By the 1970s around 260 Columbans were working in Luzon, Negros and Mindanao. Nearly all the parishes they staffed and opened are now served by diocesan priests. Over the years the Columbans have taken on missions in Korea, Burma (now Myanmar), Japan, Chile, Peru, Fiji, Pakistan and Taiwan. They have had missions also in Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Guatemala and Jamaica.

Most of the younger Columban priests are from countries the older men had gone to from the West. Fr. Leo Distor, the first Filipino Columban parish priest of Malate, is a symbol of the changing face of the Society born in Ireland nearly 100 years ago. After serving in Korea he spent many years in Chicago and in Quezon City in the formation of future Columban priests from Asia, the Pacific and South America. Below is the story of the Columbans.

Who is Saint Columban?
St. Columban. November 23 this year is the 1,400th anniversary of the death of St. Columban (or “Columbanus”). The saint was born in south-east Ireland between 540 and 543. When he was already in his 40s he and twelve other monks left their monastery in Ban-gor on the north-east coast of Ireland to sail for the European Continent where the saint was to found many monasteries. The two most notable were those in Luxeuil, France, and in Bobbio, Italy, where he died. Both lasted until around 1800 when the monks were dispersed.

St. Columban expressed his understanding of his way of life in the Latin phrase, “Christi simus, non nostrl,” “Let us be of Christ, not of ourselves.” Pope Benedict said on June 11, 2008: St Columban's message is concentrated in a firm appeal to conversion and de-tachment from earthly goods, with a view to the eternal inheritance. With his ascetic life and conduct free from compromises when he faced the corruption of the powerful, he is reminiscent of the severe figure of St John the Baptist. His austerity, however, was never an end in itself but merely the means with which to open himself freely to God's love and to correspond with his whole being to the gifts received from him, thereby restoring in himself the image of God, while at the same time cultivating the earth and re-newing human society.”

The only two cathedrals dedicated to St Columban are in Asia. Bishop Edward Galvin, Co-founder, named his cathedral in Hanyang, China, after the man on whose feast day he was born in 1882. The Diocese of Myitkyina in Myanmar/Burma also has St Columban as its cathedral’s patron. The Columbans went there in 1936.