Project Canterbury

Francis de Sales Buchanan: Missionary in New Guinea

A Memoir by Gilbert White, D.D.

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1923
New York and Toronto: The Macmillan Co., 1923.

Chapter IV. Uga

WHEN Francis Buchanan came to Uga in 1911 it was practically untouched, though only twelve miles from his old home at Boianai. The Archbishop of Brisbane, writing of him and his change to Uga, says that his personal knowledge of him dated only from May, 1910, when he went to New Guinea a its second Bishop. "From then until heft in 1921 I saw him and stayed with him frequently. Of his long work at Boianai others will speak better than I. The reason for Mr. Buchanan leaving Boianai was that the number of Christians and communicants had become so great that the district was quite insufficiently served by monthly visits of a priest for purposes of Communion. I felt it to be entirely necessary to place a priest there permanently, and so Mr. Gill began at Boianai on September 2, 1911, Mr. Buchanan having gone on to Uga on the previous day." He had himself frequently urged that a priest ought to be stationed at Boianai, where there were now a large number of communicants, and which had become a centre of Christian influence.

"I remember, too, going to Uga for the day with [37/38] Mr. Buchanan some four or five months before he settled there, in order to choose a site for the new Mission-station. His eagle eye fixed on the very place which turned out to be the most suitable that could have been chosen in the whole district.

"He had a great genius for making places beautiful and keeping them so. Uga, which when he went to it was simply an overgrown wilderness, quickly became a paradise of beauty, with church, school, parsonage, guest-house, neat paths everywhere edged with stones painted white, crotons and flame flowers planted in every direction, and at the back of ail a perfect little Christian cemetery. Uga was in the district of Boianai, and Mr. Gill used to visit the place every three weeks, and stay a night and give Holy Communion to Mr. Buchanan and the native or South Sea Island teacher, together with one or two whom he took over with him from Boianai; for at first there were no communicants or Christians belonging to Uga itself, but when I left there was a band of, I suppose, over a hundred Christians and sixty communicants. I had dedicated one church, which was burned down, and then another which he built in order to replace it. It always surprised me how he got so much building and beautifying work accomplished with such little apparent labour and anxiety. Though unable to build with his own hands--nor, perhaps, would it have been altogether advisable for him to do so--he was somehow a very good director of the labour of others, and [38/39] supervised everything very carefully, and the result was that it was done."

The site chosen was about a mile from the coast, near the little village of Peruperu. For some months Buchanan lived with Richard Bourke in the schoolhouse, which was the first building erected, but gradually buildings began to rise and order to take the place of confusion.

The present Bishop of New Guinea, to whom he was devotedly attached, says: "After twelve years' work at Boianai there was an opportunity of a priest being placed there, and Mr. Buchanan moved on to Uga, glad to hand over his work to a priest, and well knowing how important it was for a priest to be living amongst the large number of Christians at Boianai. Dick Bourke went with his master to help him begin again in a new place from the very beginning. The new station was dedicated to St. Benedict in grateful memory of all the founder owed to the Benedictine Order. Francis Buchanan began here the last work God had for him on earth, and for ten years he worked there quietly, unostentatiously, faithfully. Soon he gathered around him a number of boarders from the hills behind Uga, and gradually, in what seemed a wilderness, he built up materially and spiritually a Mission-station with all its life and organisation. He was never in robust health, and often he had to spend the night in a lounge. He seemed to do with little sleep, and kept wonderfully in touch with the outside [39/40] world. When the war broke out he was very much upset until America joined the Allies; after that he felt happier."

Uga was under the charge of the Rev. S. R. M. Gill, who had followed Buchanan at Boianai, and Mr. Gill had many opportunities of getting to know and love Brother Francis, who was now over sixty years of age. Mr. Gill says:

During the following ten years we saw one another about every three weeks. There was a1way a special charm about those visits to him and the new flock he was gently and wisely tending.

"So often one's own estimate of one's qualities is very wide of the mark; the man (or woman) who tells his friends that he 'never forms an opinion until he has heard both ides'; that 'he takes people as he finds them,' and so forth, is, as often as not, rather conspicuous for the opposite tendencies. Brother Francis was an exception. He was not given to talking about himself--indeed, self-effacement was perhaps his outstanding characteristic--but he did pride himself upon the possession of one or two virtues. One was his loyalty to the parish priest. Those who were privileged to be to him in that capacity here in New Guinea, as, I am certain, those also under whom he worked before he joined the Mission, will bear me out when I say that never did a priest have a more loyal colleague than him. In my case this was the more remarkable, for, when I became Priest-in-Charge of the [40/41] district, he was a man of ripe knowledge and experience, whereas I was only just beginning--incidentally, he was old enough to be my grandfather.

"Coupled with his great humility there was--its true complement--deep wisdom. He, indeed, was one who always 'heard both sides.' Just as he would studiously read Church papers of all schools of thought, and theological works by authors of any denomination, so in daily affairs he would 'suspend judgment,' or, 'think it over during the night'--to use his own expression (it was a joke amongst us, his friends, that Brother Francis never went to bed!).

"In his gentle way, too, he prided himself upon being 'long-headed,' and so he was. Notwithstanding his inability to learn the native dialect, he could plan, scheme, and organise in a way that put many of us to shame. If in a year's time it would be necessary to rebuild a house, he would make his calculations and begin getting the material ready; and he would have notes of quantities written, illegible to all but himself, on the backs of envelopes (he wrote most of his letters on envelopes). I remember arriving at Uga early one morning, in between my regular visits, and as I walked along the wooded path leading to the station a mile away on the hill, I heard the sound of an axe at work. I turned aside and found a village man felling a large hardwood tree. On asking him what it was for, he replied: 'It's for the new church.' That church was begun to be erected two years later, [41/42] but in the brain of Brother Francis it was already an actuality.

"During the last few years of his life I was always very anxious about his health. Some people may have the idea that life on a small Mission-station must be a very placid affair, but--as Mr. G. K. Chesterton might say--they need not detain us. 'Life', everywhere is strenuous; it is just a question whether, on our part, there is application to detail or not. Brother Francis bore every soul in his charge, individually, upon his heart. And, apart from his spiritual cares, there were always with him, as still with us, the temporal and social anxieties to deal with--village disputes, illnesses, epidemics, accidents, and unforeseen happenings. One day he sent me an envelope to say that half the station, including the church, had been burned down (through the carelessness of a girl who had thrown a fire-stick away into some long grass). I hurried down to Uga, dreading lest I should find his frail body prostrated and worn out by the shock. He met me, smiling and brave, upon his verandah (his house had escaped), and said: 'What a mercy only half the station has been destroyed!' As I glanced round I noticed the altar from the church, and expressed astonishment that it had been saved--for at the time of the catastrophe only he and one small Mission-boy were on the station. He said: 'Yes, fortunately the west end of the church caught first (he was still talking in terms of good-fortune), and we [42/43]were able to get it out by making a hole in the east-end wall.'

"He was always anxious to improve his knowledge on any subject. He once asked me to lend him a book on oil-engines. A few weeks later he evidently felt that some slight explanation was due from him, so he told me that he had recently entertained a trader, who, on passing up the coast in his launch, had called upon him. In the course of conversation the guest mentioned having had some 'engine trouble,' and he, wishing to take suitable interest, had enquired after the state of the boiler! The expression on the face of the visitor convinced him that it was quite necessary for him to study up the principle of internal-combustion engines without delay."

The Archbishop of Brisbane (Dr. Gerald Sharp), writing of him in his later years at Uga, says: "I shall always see that picturesque figure, standing perched on the edge of the high, steep cliff upon which he lived, dressed in a clean white shirt, khaki trousers, and broad, bright red silk scarf round his waist, with his patriarchal beard. He always stood in exactly the same spot as I walked over the plain, across which I had to come from the place where the launch had landed me--a fine figure in every way.

"He lived in the simplest possible fashion. His meals at that time consisted of two or three biscuits broken into a basin of weak tea: that twice a day, and [43/44] that was all. He provided for his guests the best that he had, but he himself seldom went outside his tea and biscuits. He nearly always killed a chicken for me, and half my pleasure in eating it was spoilt by the fact that he himself would never have any.

"He was an inveterately late goer to bed and early riser. He never seemed to settle down peacefully in bed. I might sometimes be awake as late as 1 a.m., sleeping in the room divided from his sitting-room by a partition; but always the lamp was burning, and Mr. Buchanan was reading or moving about doing something, and I used to say that nobody on earth had ever been awake early enough to hear him get up."

The Rev. J. Hunt was stationed at Menapi, and, as the work developed at the head of Goodenough Bay, found it possible to go over to Uga from time to time and celebrate for the Mission in the morning without being more than a night absent from his own district; he says:

"Before Pentecost in 1921, owing to a rearrangement of the Menapi district and the opening of a station amongst mountain people at Sirisiri, a mile inland from the head of Goodenough Bay, I was asked to include Uga in the new district, and from that time until his death in October of the same year it was my privilege to visit Uga for a week-end once a month at least. I had not at that time seen Uga for some two years, and the school and church had been destroyed [44/45] some time before by a disastrous fire which laid low several other buildings, but had spared the house of Brother Francis. I found him remarkably well and the station rebuilt, and, as usual at Uga, everything in excellent order. The church, as at his old station at Boianai, was far and away the best building on the station. With the exception of the doors, which were of sawn timber, all the material was of bush timber; it was a well-proportioned oblong building with a high-pitched roof and a porch at the western end. The altar of hardwood had been made by some of Mr. Buchanan's old boys at Boianai under Mr. Gill's supervision, and would not have disgraced any church in Australia. The font was of hard stone and had been chiselled out, with much labour, by Brother Francis. I found the same well-attended services and the same reverent congregations as in earlier times, and a large number of Christians, many of whom were communicants. I also found over thirty catechumens nearly ready for their final preparation for baptism. These were all baptised a few months later. Brother Francis was the chief sponsor at these baptisms, and his joy was obvious in witnessing the baptism of so many of his children in Christ. At this time he had a village council of native Christians. One of his own local boys was pupil-teacher in the school, and with Luke Papuka took an active part in the daily services. Two other boys were evangelists, and acted as servers at the altar. After these baptisms there [45/46] were not many heathen left in the small scattered villages near Uga, and of these twenty have since been made catechumens. They are still carrying on. After ten years at Uga Brother Francis left behind him some two hundred Christians, of whom over eighty are communicants and some of whom are teachers or evangelists. He left behind him spiritual sons and daughters who, when earthly life is ended, look forward to meeting their father in the tearless life where sin shall be no more. He was loved not only by his native converts and the missionaries, but also by all the white men in Papua with whom from time to time he came in contact."

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