MARIAN MERCY MISSION TIMELINE
1900s (Early): The Catholic faith was introduced to Bougainville, by mainly German and French missionaries of the Society of Mary (MSSM), establishing their first mission station in Kieta in 1901.
1953: Francis Ona was born.
1959: The Me’ekamui Pontoku Onoring (“government of the guardians of the sacred [or holy] land”) movement formed.
1977: The Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) was introduced in Bougainville by Australian Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC).
1988 (November): The Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) sabotaged a power line pylon, cutting off power to the Panguna mine and initiating a decade long civil war.
1993: Francis Ona established the Marian Mercy Mission (MMM) with himself as the leader (superior).
1994: Catholic priests went to Guava village to consecrate the movement.
1998: The civil war ended.
2005 (July): Francis Ona passed away.
Francis Ona (1953-2005) established the Marian Mercy Mission (MMM) in 1993 in Guava village near the Panguna mine in Central Bougainville, part of the now Autonomous Region of Bougainville (AROB) in Papua New Guinea. (Image at right) The movement was initiated in the middle of a civil war, which had forced Francis Ona to his home village of Guava in the Panguna Mountains. He remained in this hideout until the end of the conflict (1998) with help of roadblocks, preventing anyone from getting up the Mountain without his consent. While the movement had disciples in Koromira, Buin and Nagovisi (areas to the south of Panguna in Central Bougainville), the center of the movement was in Guava village with Francis Ona. After Francis Ona passed away in July 2005, the movement slowly dissolved.
The establishment of the Marian Mercy Movement is intimately entangled with the history of the Marist Mission and Catholic Church in Bougainville (Hermkens 2018; Kronenberg 2006; Kronenberg and Saris 2009; Momis 2005), local customs and ideologies (Hermkens 2007, 2011), and with the Bougainville crisis. The Catholic faith was introduced to Bougainville mainly by German and French missionaries of the Society of Mary (MSSM), referred to as Marists, at the beginning of the twentieth century. The society derives its name from the Virgin Mary whom the members attempt to imitate in their spirituality and daily work. Positioned and mediating between (post-)colonial rule and local populations, they often advocated both local and Marist political interests and views in the continuously shifting religious, and socio-economical political context of colonial and “post-colonial Bougainville (Hermkens 2018:132-33). Marist missionaries were also very concerned and vocal about the establishment of a large copper mine in the island’s central mountain range near the village of Panguna. This mine, which was one of the world’s largest copper mines, would instigate an almost decade long civil war, resulting in widespread trauma, destruction and loss of human life.
The Panguna mine was owned by for Conzinc Riotinto of Australia (CRA) and operated by Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL) from 1972 onwards. The project increasingly began to face local resistance and demonstrations by landowners. Francis Ona, an alleged Panguna landowner and a previous BCL employee himself, would lead the protest in the 1980s and 1990s. Together with his sister, Ona demanded ten billion kina compensation for past damage to the land and environment, but the mining company ridiculed this demand and refused to meet their other terms. Angry at BCL’s response, Francis Ona and his group, who would become known as the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), sabotaged a power line pylon, cutting off power to the Panguna mine. This militant action, which took place in November 1988, was followed by other sabotages that shut down mining operations. Closure of the mine meant a financial disaster for both Bougainville and PNG, BLC being the nation’s largest employer and providing almost half of PNG’s export earnings (Waiko 1993:240). The Papua New Guinea Government responded with force, and, after first having sent a police riot squad, mobilized its defense forces (PNGDF) to protect the mine and bring the BRA under control. The result was a almost decade long civil war that not only pitted Papua New Guinea against its own Province of Bougainville and its population, but also caused civil conflict within Bougainville as regions, villages and families became increasingly divided along religious and political lines.
Francis Ona, as leader of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), played a major role in directing and prolonging the crisis. His vision for Bougainville was not just to become independent, but to become a divinely inspired theocracy with Ona as its royal sovereign, the King of Me’ekamui (see further Hermkens 2007, 2013). Ona’s religious and political ideology influenced the establishment of several other charismatic Marian devotions (see further discussion under Issues/Challenges’) during the Bougainville crisis, all of which supported Ona’s fight for independence and sovereignty. These movements all looked up to Ona as their political leader.
Despite peace negotiations and the establishment of an official peace treaty in the late 1990s, Ona and his followers refused to take part in these negotiations. Ona claimed Bougainville was already independent, with him as the leader, and refused to acknowledge the post-war elected Bougainville government. In 2005, A few months before Joseph Kabui, a former BRA member, was elected as the president of the Autonomous Government of Bougainville, Francis Ona proclaimed himself in protest as His Royal Highness King Francis Dominic Dateransy Domanaa, King of the Royal Kingdom of Me’ekamui. Two months later, on July 24, Ona passed away unexpectedly. After Francis Ona passing, the Marian Mercy Mission, as well as the other Marian movements established during the crisis, slowly dissolved. The reasons for this decline are related to the fact that with Francis Ona’s death, the political and nationalistic drive of these movements was effectively undermined. Moreover, the ending of the crisis resulted in a significant decline in membership and members’ activity and participation in these movements. Leaders of other Marian movements established during the crisis lament about members having lost spiritual focus and dedication after the crisis. While this post-war moral decline resulted in the establishment of new movements, such as the Rosa Mistika movement in Muguai village near Buin in South Bougainville (see further below), none of the Marian movements established during the crisis survived the death of Francis Ona and the new, post-conflict sociality of Bougainville. However, while some ridicule Ona’s ideas, beliefs and ambitions, he continues to have support and be treated with reverence, especially in the Central region of Bougainville Island (Image at right)
The Marian Mercy Mission was a very strong charismatic movement, combining Catholic beliefs and practices with indigenous spiritual and political ideologies. The Marian Mercy Movement seems to have been particularly inspired by the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR), which was introduced in Bougainville in the late 1970s. Members would receive the Holy Spirit by speaking in tongues, receiving gifts of prophecy and receiving gifts of healing. In addition to placing Mary at the center of devotional practices, the movement also had a very strong political agenda. The movement placed a strong emphasis on morality, striving for the conversion of all Bougainvilleans so that the whole of Bougainville could become Holy again, Me’ekamui (The Holy Land of Bougainville).
The notion of Me’ekamui stems from Ona’s connection with the Me’ekamui Pontoku Onoring (“government of the guardians of the sacred [or holy] land”) movement. This movement was initiated by Damien Dameng around 1959 (Regan 2002:21-22). The Me’kamui movement’s advocates and followers aimed to rebuild customary Bougainville social structures as a response to the colonial administration and the Christian missions, both of which Dameng opposed. However, while Francis Ona’s concept of Bougainville as holy land was similar to that of Dameng, Ona saw Bougainville’s future and salvation not only in custom, but also, and perhaps more strongly, in Catholic devotion and belief. Ona was convinced that if Bougainville was to become holy again, Bougainvilleans, and especially their leaders, would also have to become holy. In Ona’s vision of Me’ekamui, the Catholic faith and, in particular, the veneration of Mary played a crucial part in this quest.
One of the main aims of the Marian Mercy Mission movement was to help others and pray. Members prayed for healing, but also for holy support. Mary was addressed for protection, goods and food, and, most importantly, to bring independence to Bougainville. In fact, Francis Ona and members of the Marian Mercy Mission drew a lot of strength from the movement to pursue their dreams and struggle for self-determination and freedom. As narrated by Maria from Guava village, who became a MMM member in 1993:
Ona had visions of Mary talking to him. She was telling him to inform people that they have to change. Everyone had to become holy. He foresaw through Mary what would happen in the future. Ona was a man of prayer. He committed himself to prayer so the result would be independence. The whole Marian Mercy Mission committed themselves to these ideals. Ona’s dream was for the whole of Bougainville to come inside this Lotu [Church / religion] and become independent. Santu Maria helped us in our struggle for independence. She protected us. The Marian Mercy Mission prayed to Maria for help. For cargo and money from America or other countries. […] Santu Maria has been giving many things to Francis Ona. It was Santu Maria and God who chased out all this big mining companies. It was with her help that this was made possible. Santu Maria was very close to Francis Ona (interview with MMM member Maria (2005) in Hermkens 2015).
Ona’s dedication to Mary also transpires from the fact that everyday he addressed a statue of Mary, seeking her advice. Ona would only proceed with his daily agenda after he received a confirming message from Mary. The interplay between Ona’s nationalism and his devotion to Mary also came to the fore markedly in the warm welcome he extended to the pilgrimage of the international Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Our Lady of Fatima to Guava village in 1997 (Hermkens 2009). Ona appears to have been convinced by Mary to stop the fighting (soon after the visit of Fatima, the crisis ended). Catholic missionaries captured the proceedings on film at the time, and on these recordings, Ona can be seen and heard praying in front of the statue, making a vow to Our Lady of Fatima to work toward peace. (Image at right) More significantly, Ona also consecrates the island of Bougainville in the name of Mary. As such, Ona appropriated the whole of Bougainville in Mary’s name, thereby converting the whole of Bougainville into one Holy Catholic Nation.
While the Marian Mercy Mission was primarily located in Guava village, the movement’s ideologies were picked up by other Marian movements in the region (see below), which would travel around with the aim of helping and converting people. In addition, Francis Ona’s Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was equally inspired by the Marian Mercy Mission, as (Catholic) combatants would pray the rosary and engage in prayer and fasting sessions before engaging in combat (see further Hermkens 2007). (Image at right)
Prayer meetings were the structural element of the Marian Mercy Mission. The movement’s devotees recited the rosary for hours and regularly engaged in fasting sessions. Leaders and followers recount receiving gifts (charismata), such as prophetic inspiration from the Holy Spirit and/ or Mary, the gift of healing, freedom of fear, and speaking in tongues. The rosary and statues and images of Mary figured prominently in people’s religious practices. Ona daily addressed a statue of Mary and members of the BRA carried rosaries and small statues of Mary onto the battlefield to remain holy during the fight and to receive Mary’s protection so as to incur no harm (Hermkens 2007, 2013).
Francis Ona established the Marian Mercy Mission (MMM) with himself as the leader (superior) in 1993. He asked Guava villagers to pray for a name for their prayer group. They prayed to Santu Maria, and the name Marian Mercy Mission emerged. The movement had church workers, catechists, and a women’s and youth group. But members also wanted a priest who could give blessings and the sacrament. Two Marist fathers, one of whom who had taught Francis Ona during his time at High School, went to Guava village during the crisis to give prayer retreats and mass. Moreover, after the cease-fire in 1994, Catholic priests went up to Guava village to consecrate the movement. These visits strengthened the movement. Having support and acknowledgement from the Catholic Church in Bougainville convinced Francis Ona that he had the Church behind him. However, the Bougainville Catholic Church did not agree with the political ambitions of Francis Ona and his secessionist warfare (see also Griffin 1995). Despite these tensions, Ona is credited with keeping the Catholic faith alive, especially in Guava village.
During the crisis, especially in Central Bougainville, the establishment and popularity of Marian movements like the Marian Mercy Mission and others (such as Our Lady of Mercy (OLM), Rosa Mistica, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, and the Immaculate Conception) all occurred as people longed for new spiritual guidance in order to deal with the hardships they encountered. These movements where clearly inspired or carried by the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and its dogmas, but they also incorporated local ideas and beliefs about custom and political sovereignty. During the crisis most foreign priests had left Bougainville, and the indigenous Bougainville Bishop Gregory Singkai passed away during the crisis (September 1996). As a result, the Marian Mercy Mission and the other charismatic Marian movements developed and flourished to a large extent outside the official Catholic Church (see further Hermkens 2018). In fact, the Church sometimes explicitly rejected them as they developed into what Church officials and others called, “cults” (see also Swain and Trompf 1995).
This tension between local charismatic (Marian) movements and the official Catholic Church is ongoing in Bougainville. For example, despite being opposed by the indigenous Bishop Gregory Singkai and his successor, Dutch Bishop Henk Kronenberg, the Rosa Mistika movement (Image at right) managed to establish itself immediately after the crisis in Muguai village in the south of Bougainville, an area which remained cut off from the rest of Bougainville long after the crisis had ended due to the continued presence of roadblocks. This relative isolation from Church control and influence meant the movement could grow and thrive without Church interference. In 2005, the movement had taken over almost the entire village and was controlling the daily activities and ritual practices of most of its residents with daily sets of charismatic prayer meetings (including members receiving gifts of prophecy and conducting exorcism rituals), and prescribed lengthy periods of fasting (Hermkens 2005). In 2014, the movement was still thriving, despite efforts by the official Church and its clergy to control and rein it in.
Image #1: Map of Bougainville.
Image #2: Pamphlet of Francis Ona in Buka village.
Image #3: Francis Ona and Fatima.
Image #4: A Marian Mercy Mission prayer table.
Image #5: Rosa Mistica movement, South Bougainville.
Griffin, James. 1995. Bougainville: A Challenge for the Churches. Catholic Social Justice Series, no.26.
Hermkens, Anna-Karina. 2018. “Marists, Marian Devotion, and the Quest for Sovereignty in Bougainville.” Social Sciences and Missions 31:130-61.
Hermkens, Anna-Karina. 2015. “Marian Movements and Secessionist Warfare in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea.” Nova Religio 18:35-54.
Hermkens, Anna-Karina. 2013. “Like Moses who led his people to the Promised Land: Nation- and State building in Bougainville. Oceania 38:192-207.
Hermkens, Anna-Karina. 2011. Mary, Motherhood and Nation: Religion and gender ideology in Bougainville’s Secessionist Warfare. Intersections. Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific. Accessed from http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue25/hermkens.htm on 15 March 2020.
Hermkens, Anna-Karina. 2009. “Mary’s Journeys through the warscape of Bougainville.” Pp. 69-85 in Moved by Mary: The Power of Pilgrimage in the Modern World, edited by Catrien Notermans, Anna-Karina Hermkens and Willy Jansen Farnham, Burlington: Ashgate.
Hermkens, Anna-Karina. 2007. “Religion in war and peace: Unravelling Mary’s intervention in the Bougainville crisis.” Culture and Religion 8:271-89.
Hermkens, Anna Karina. 2005. Ethnographic observation.
Kronenberg, Henk. 2006. Bougainville. Pp. 114-16 in Alive In Christ. The Synod For Oceania and The Catholic Church In Papua New Guinea, 1998-2005, edited by Phillip Gibbs. Point No.30, Goroka: Melanesian Institute.
Kronenberg, Henk and Hendry Saris. 2009. “Catechists and Church Workers in the Church of Bougainville.” Novum Forum 11:91-100.
Momis, Elizabeth I. 2005. “The Bougainville Catholic Church and ‘Indigenisation’.” Pp. 317-29 in Bougainville: Before the Conflict, edited by Anthony J. Regan and Helga M. Griffin. Canberra: Pandanus Books.
Regan, Anthony. 2002. “Bougainville: Beyond Survival.” Cultural Survival Quarterly 26:20–24.
Swain, Tony and Garry Trompf. 1995. The Religions of Oceania. London: Routledge.
Waiko, John D. 1993. A Short History of Papua New Guinea. Oxford University Press.
22 March 2020