Even though it was my first time visiting Fiji, my short stay in Holy Family Parish in Labasa felt like a homecoming!
Situated among the sugarcane plantations, I arrived at the small, regional airport on a forty-minute flight from the capital city of Suva. My travel companion was Vida Hequilan, the international coordinator for Columban lay missionaries. Within moments of our plane touching down, we were warmly welcomed by Fr. Carlo Jung Euikyun.
As Fr. Carlo drove us along windy, country roads to Doguro Village, our conversation moved back and forth between his present-day missionary life in the remote countryside of Fiji and memories of the years we had spent together in Chicago. We had encountered one another for the first time in the Windy City in 2007, when – as a young seminarian – Fr. Carlo came from Korea to continue his studies at the Columban International Seminary where I had been the rector. During the next four years, we shared the ups and downs of daily life in that multicultural community. While the seminarians studied English and theology, living together and forming friendships with the other members of that community from various countries was considered equally as important as academic achievements.
As I moved around Holy Family Parish during the following days in the company of Fr. Carlo, I could see that both he and the community he now serves are reaping the benefits of those seminary experiences – he was able to engage easily with the indigenous Fijian people and the Indian Fijian people, whose language and culture differ greatly from one another. Meanwhile, he translated into English for me all that was going on around us!
What a joy to see that Fr. Carlo, who comes from the large city of Incheon in Korea, has found his life’s treasure in the sugarcane fields of Labasa, Fiji!
It was in Chicago that I also met Fr. Charlie Duster for the first time. From Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Fr. Charlie had spent more than twenty years on a mission in Fiji before coming to live in the Windy City in 2005. Since his last assignment in Fiji had been in Holy Family Parish (where Fr. Carlo is now the pastor), his conversations remained peppered with stories about its people.
Later, Fr. Charlie and I lived in the same Columban community outside Omaha, Nebraska. After his death there in 2017, another colleague who oversaw the disposal of his personal belongings gave me his travel bag, saying “You will be able to put this to good use!” Since Fr. Charlie loved to travel and made new friends quickly wherever he went, I continue to remember him fondly when I take that same travel bag on my visits to various Columban missions. When I told the history of my travel bag to the people of Holy Family Parish, they recalled many stories about Fr. Charlie, and we sensed that he was united in love and laughter with us within the communion of the saints.
It had also been in Chicago that I first met Fr. Willie Lee almost twenty years ago when he had come as a seminarian from Fiji to continue his preparations for the Columban missionary priesthood. Since he had grown up in Holy Family Parish, he knew many Columban missionaries. As a seminarian, he had spoken frequently about them, as well as about their close friendship with his family. What a pleasant surprise, then, for me to meet his father, Joe Lee, during my stay in Holy Family Parish.
Now in his mid-eighties and widowed, Joe shared with me stories about the first group of Columbans who arrived in that district seventy years ago. As an adventurous teenager, he had accompanied them through a maze of dirt tracks and had ferried them by boat from one mission station to another. He recalled jovially their gifts and eccentricities, as well as their creativity and commitment to his people.
Despite the limitations of age, Joe remains deeply committed to supporting Columban missionaries. During our initial meeting, he told me, “Since I first heard some weeks ago about your visit to Fiji, I have prayed every day for you”. Then, on the day before I left Holy Family Parish, he visited the rectory to say goodbye and to reassure me that he would continue to include me in his prayers.
Even though my stay in Holy Family Parish in Labasa had been just four days, I felt blessed to meet Fr. Carlo in his mission field; to share memories of Fr. Charlie Duster with his former parishioners; and to have the assurance of being prayed for by a faithful Columban friend of seventy years, Joe Lee. In some mysterious way, those three experiences made my first visit to Fiji feel like a homecoming!