The Missionary Society of St Columban was founded in 1918 in Ireland as a society of priests for the evangelisation of China. The young co-founders, Fr. Edward Galvin and Fr. John Blowick, attracted others who embraced their vision and the first Columbans went to China in 1920.
Edward Galvin was born in 1882 on the feast of St. Columban (23rd November), in a little village south of Clodah in Ireland. He was ordained in 1909 but, unable to work in his home diocese, he was sent to the United States to begin his ministry. His passion to become a missionary still at the forefront of his mind, Edward jumped at the opportunity in 1912 to travel to China, where he worked in Chekiang province for some years.
In 1916 he returned to Ireland and, together with Fr. John Blowick, founded the Maynooth Mission to China, which was formally approved by the Pope as an Apostolic Society of the Church on 29th June 1918. Invoking the patronage of the sixth-century missionary abbot, St Columban, Galvin and Blowick’s new Society was keen to expand the Church in China.
In March 1920, Galvin and Blowick and the first Columban priests set sail for China. Galvin worked to evangelise China for a number of years and became the country’s Vicar Apostolic in 1927, the same year in which he was consecrated as the first bishop of Hanyang diocese.
Columban missionaries in China faced great hardship, particularly in more isolated rural parishes. There was little food, water or lighting. Although the number of Catholics in Hanyang rose with the arrival of the Columbans from 14,000 in 1922 to 17,000 by 1930, the conflict between communist and nationalist forces and the political turmoil in China resulted in those figures declining again. Like other Christian missionaries, the Columbans were seen as a threat by the communists.
When mainland China was closed to missionaries in the mid 1950s, the Society responded to the urgent call from Latin America. Columbans went to new urban settlements in Peru and Chile. The Society also responded to the missionary needs of the Church in Fiji in 1952, the same year that Edward was expelled by the communist authorities in China. Sadly he was diagnosed with leukaemia and died in Dalgan Park, Co Meath, four years later in February 1956 at the age of 74.
In the following years, new structures of what it meant to be a missionary were developed to meet the needs of the changing realities that missionaries were faced with. In 1979 teams of young Columbans were sent to the new missions of Taiwan and Pakistan where they worked with the indigenous peoples and the marginalised of those lands. Their work included primary evangelization and pioneer work in interfaith dialogue. By the mid 1980’s vocations to the priesthood were accepted from various mission countries. The Columbans also invited lay people to join as Lay Missionaries, to work alongside the ordained members.
Today, Columban priests and Lay Missionaries work together to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ in parts of Oceania, Europe, Asia and the Americas. Guided by the Spirit, we aim to grow vibrant Christian communities, restoring dignity to the marginalised and equipping them to challenge the root causes of poverty and social injustice impacting on their lives.
The General Council
The international governing and administrative team of the Columban Missionaries is known as the General Council. It consists of the Society Leader, the Society Vicar and two Councilors. This leadership team is elected every six years during a meeting of representatives from all Columban missions.
The most recent international meeting of Columban representatives took place in Taiwan in 2018. It elected Fr. Tim Mulroy (from Ireland) as the Society Leader, Fr. Brian Vale (from New Zealand) as the Society Vicar, and Kang SeungWon Joseph (from Korea) and Alvaro Martinez Ibanez (from Chile) as Councilors. Their term of office will come to an end when the next international meeting of Columban representatives takes place in 2024.
The Columban international leadership team of priests works closely with the Columban international leadership team for lay missionaries. Besides, both teams actively collaborate with Columban leaders in our various missions around the world to facilitate and enhance our mission of sharing the Good News through word and deed with the people we are called to serve. We also work in partnership with several other personnel – both lay and ordained – with expertise in particular areas, such as mission theology, communications, culture, justice, ecology, history and finance.
From the founding of the Columban missionaries in 1918, successive international leadership teams resided in Ireland. However, in 2008 the decision was made to relocate our international headquarters to Hong Kong in order to be closer to many of our mission countries and to support the growing number of younger members – both lay and ordained – who come from the Asia-Pacific region.
It remains important for Columban Missionaries that all aspects of our leadership reflects our commitment to sharing the Good News with peoples of different cultures and inviting them to become missionary disciples.
“You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”