PORT MORESBY – In 1948, there was a sudden rush by Christian denominations to establish mission stations after the colonial Administration lifted restrictions of movement to unpacified areas of what is now Enga Province.
Prior to that there had already been rivalry between Lutheran and Catholic missionaries to win new converts around Mt Hagen.
“The Lutherans and the Catholics disliked, mistrusted and avoided each other,” said Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson in their 1982 book, ‘First Contact’. “The Lutherans also disliked the Leahys and had much to say against the Administration.”
The Leahys had little time for the Lutherans but admired Fr William Ross, who went about armed and once startled a visiting priest by telling him it was preferable that the potential faithful learn about the gun before the crucifix.
But, to the highlanders, these were all whitemen and they were all wealthy.
Into this situation came newly ordained Dutch priest Fr Jerry Bus SVD, who had left Antwerp harbour aboard the ‘Grootekerk’ on 30 April 1947 bound for New Guinea.
The services of Fr Bus and other missionaries were urgently needed to bring Christianity to places like Enga and also in Indonesia.
Fr Antoon Verschuur SVD writes that mission areas had suffered during World War II. In PNG and Indonesia 89 missionaries had died, including two bishops. There was an urgent need for new blood.
Fortunately many young men from America and Holland were ready to serve.
When Fr Bus arrived, the apostolic administrator of SVD [Society of the Divine Word] missions, Willem van Baar, appointed him to the Wabag area, where few whitemen had gone.
Indeed, the first whitemen to have set foot in Wabag were the Leahy brothers, who in 1934 had left a trail of death and suffering at Tole when they indiscriminately shot dead 15 men and women and injured the same number.
Three years later Jim Taylor and John Black passed through Wabag on the famous Hagen-Sepik patrol of 1938-1939.
Then in 1941 John Clarke established a government patrol post at Wabag which closed in 1942 when war came. It re-opened in 1946.
That was about all the outside contact the people of Wabag had until 1948 when missionaries including Fr Jerry Bus arrived.
As he was inexperienced, he asked and got a Dutch ‘wantok’ to help him, a veteran missionary Fr Tony Cruysberg who agreed even though he was about to go on home leave, which for missionaries was a rare occurrence.
Tony spent three months with Jerry to give him a good introduction. The two men headed first for Pombopus in Wapenamanda where the gun toting Fr William Ross had originally settled.
Thereafter, Jerry trekked west, searching for land to establish a mission station in his assigned area in Wabag.
In the search for converts, the Lutherans had settled in a number of places along the Lai valley making their headquarters at Irelya and the Seventh Day Adventists had established a mission station at Rakamanda.
Jerry walked beyond Wabag patrol post to Kopen where he met two Nemane tribesman - Thadius Kaka Menge and Pupukaine – who gave him land to establish a mission station at the top end of what is now Kopen Secondary School.
It was an ideal spot overlooking the Lai river to the west which flowed down a gully from Lake Ivae parallel to the central ridge on which the Tole massacres had occurred.
“Pupukaine, who has recently died, and myself gave land to the ‘kone’ [whiteman] to settle on,” said Menge.
“He came up from Pompabus and told us he was looking for land so we gave our land to him. We didn’t need to tell other Nemane clan members. All that land belonged to us so we just gave it to him to settle on.
“But after a while the padre left us saying, there was no adequate source of water. So he went and settled at Sari not far from here.”
Fr Antoon Verschuur writes that this was real pioneer work. The first thing Fr Bus did was to learn the language and customs of the people. People did not know how to speak Tok Pisin at this time, but over a large area did share a common language.
In one of his first letters home Fr Bus wrote: “Don’t think that people were waiting for my arrival. Or that they were yearning to hear the Good News from my mouth.” The people preferred axes.
When he asked the people for a piece of land to build one or two houses, there was no response. Even if it were for a little school for the children to learn to read and write. We will pay the workmen. Negotiation and waiting, but no result.
Jerry didn’t give up. With the help of an interpreter he learned the language. And he bought timber and sawed planks to build a small church and a little house for himself. He translated into the local language the catechism he had brought.
But even as late as 1950, he sighed: “Few children come to school; maybe 10 people come to church on a Sunday. After two years there is little result from our efforts, and workers are hard to find to do the necessary work around the place.”
Was he tempted to go to another area and try there?
“These moods are passing and can make you down for a while; but a missionary must carry on and not give up.”
So Jerry persevered. He was still there in 1967, having extended his area of operation from Pompabus to Wanepap and Sari. In Sari he experienced his best years in the Highlands.
A big change took place in his life this year. He was appointed regional superior of the SVD in PNG with 180 confreres in four dioceses. He remained in this position for three terms, until 1976.
It was the time for big changes and important decisions: During his terms in office the Melanesian Institute was opened; SVD High School was started in Madang; the first Papua New Guinean men were recruited into the priesthood; and he supported the efforts for renewal from the Vatican Council.
In 1977 Jerry entered the third phase of his mission in PNG: working with the Movement for a Better World. He saw it was important to deepen the faith that he and others had awakened in people’s lives and to involve laypersons in that work. The laity must do more to carry the church, take responsibility and choose its direction.
From 1977 to 1995 this was Jerry’s major enterprise all around PNG and especially in those dioceses and parishes that embraced the renewal program. He managed this with a small group of dedicated religious and lay people, first from Madang and later from Kerowagi in Simbu.
By 1995 Jerry was 74 and it seemed best that he should leave PNG. He was respected and admired and he saw that others needed to come forward.
He also was also affected by the worsening political and social situation of PNG. His criticism could be negative. Recognising this, he asked for a transfer before disillusion and his views became too harsh.
He hoped that back home in Holland he have time for rest, contemplation and prayer. So, on 11 December 1995 Jerry got permission to leave PNG and return to his birth country.
But first, in 1997, the SVD celebrated 100 years of work in Papua New Guinea. Fr Bus had spent 50 of those years in Enga Province. He was touched when crowds of people came to celebrate with him and receive communion. His work and zeal had borne much fruit.
In Holland, Jerry settled in the Deurne community, where he found a useful pastoral role. In 1997 he became a member of the house council and vice-rector. He was reappointed as vice-rector in 2001 and 2004, when he turned 83.
He assisted in the parishes around Deurne and once a month celebrated mass. He mastered computers, collated liturgical booklets, continued his contacts with the people of the Movement for a Better World (which was also in Holland and Belgium) and raised funds for the PNG movement.
On 6 January 2007, Fr Jerry Bus fell and was badly hurt. He already suffered from heart and kidney problems and the doctors told him that he was probably beyond medical help.
Jerry answered: “That’s OK then; I always wanted to know how I would die”. He prayed his favorite Psalm 63 that he learned by heart: “You have always been my help...my heart clings to you.”
An ambulance took him to hospital, where he died at 4:30pm on 8 January 2007.
When the news of the death of their beloved pioneer priest reached the congregation of Sari Catholic Mission in PNG there was great sadness.
“A full and good life this missionary has had,” wrote Fr Antoon Vedrschuur SVD. “We lost a precious confrere and a pleasant companion. We thank God for him.”
Thadius Kaka Menge sits in front of the small house where he now lives near where Fr Jerry Bus settled at Kopen. He compares human life on earth as a morning dew drop on a leaf, you overturn it and it disappears.
He reflects that Joseph Tapus Kurai, the powerful Wabag leader, had died in 1981 and that Fr Jerry Bus died 26 years after him in his own country.
Thadius, now nearly 100 years old, wonders on the whereabouts of the other many hardworking missionaries, kiaps and policemen who came to Wabag.
“Soon I too will die,” he says. “My message to the young generation is to please go into a church. You must follow the teachings of Christ to enjoy your brief stay on earth.
“If you keep drinking beer and keep going up and down the roads with a bottle in your hands, your lives will be miserable. You will never find peace.
“Avoid homebrew, marijuana and other dangerous substances. Respect your bodies and try to live healthy lives.”
Thadius had been baptised by Fr Jerry Bus SVD but backslid and added two more wives to his harem increasing the number to 12. Thadius had felt guilty about this and went to share his spiritual burden with the priest.
“I cannot reveal what Fr Bus told me,” recalls Thadius. “But he said he was sending a letter to his superiors.
“I paid bride price for all my wives except one. I was sent to prison for that. You see, I was required to fulfill traditional obligations. You don’t get a woman for free but pay.”
Thadius feels he did not look after all his wives properly. Some died early. Others left him with children and he doesn’t know where they all are now.
He does not encourage young men to marry more than one wife, especially in this modern age and time when life seems to be centred around money.
When money is key to maintain large families, men should not marry multiple wives.
He believes God will forgive him when he finally dies.
“God is real. There is a God who everybody must adore and receive blessings from. I know I have done bad things in my life but I believe God is merciful. He will forgive me.
“I married many wives, fought tribal wars and did many bad things, but that was in the olden times before the government and missionaries came. Now, we must follow the teachings of the bible,” Thadius concludes.