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.