This year in September we will be celebrating the life and ministry of John Coleridge Patteson, first Bishop of Melanesia, on the 150th anniversary of his martyrdom.
In a new series we will be reflecting on Patteson’s ministry and his legacy for Melanesians and Christians around the world today. Bishop Willie writes our first article, on how he grew up knowing and being inspired by Patteson.
I first heard of the name Bishop John Coleridge Patteson in 1960, when I attended a junior primary school named after him on South Malaita, where I come from and as two teachers there were also named Patteson. There we celebrated the feast of Bishop and martyr every year, as we still do in Melanesia, with feasting, drama and traditional dancing in our custom dress and attire.
The story of Patteson’s martyrdom was retold, preached and acted out in drama the years I was at school from 1960 until 1974, the year I left college for my training for the priesthood.
The most lasting memory of our beloved bishop and martyr for me, is our present Bishop Patteson Theological Centre, Kohimarama, where we have trained all our priests, catechists and lay church workers in evangelism, mission and ministry since 1969.
In the year 1971, my first year at BPTC, we celebrated the centenary of our Bishop’s martyrdom. First was the laying of the foundation stone of our College Chapel by Sir John Gutch. Sir John was the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific and was based in Honiara from1955 to 1960. He wrote a book to mark the Centenary of the martyrdom: “Martyr of the Islands – The life and death of John Coleridge Patteson”.
The College staff and students also did a presentation at St. Barnabas Cathedral, with a drama enacting the story of the life of Bishop Patteson, leading worship with hymns under the direction of Mrs. Muriel Jones, our Warden’s wife, who was excellent in drama.
We had various church dignitaries from New Zealand and Australia visiting us during the Centenary year at college, preaching historical sermons on the evolution of the Church in the Pacific. It was very moving when the Archbishop of Melbourne apologised for the black birding done by Australians that led to the martyrdom of Patteson and his companions on the Island of Nukapu.
The Text he preached on was John Chapter 4 verse 38: “I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour.”
It is a fitting text every time we celebrate the feast day of our Bishop and martyr including other founding fathers and mothers of the mission.
From 1977 to 1978 I served my curacy in Mission Bay Parish, Auckland Diocese. The parish church at Kohimarama, Mission Bay was dedicated to the Martyrs of Melanesia, and one of the main roads in the parish is known as Patteson Avenue, I walked along that avenue every morning and evening to church.
Another memory of our beloved Bishop Patteson is here in the UK at Exeter cathedral, his home diocese, where the pulpit in his memory depicting his martyrdom is so powerful. Standing in the parish church at Alfington where he served as a curate before he left for Melanesia and visiting his family’s home in Feniton, is like walking on holy ground.
The same thing could be said when visiting Merton College, where he was a Fellow. Touching his prayer desk gave me that connection with this holy man whose faith in God and his sacrificial love has touched us in Melanesia in a way that is so powerful even 150 years later. The inscription on his memorial on the Island of Nukapu reads “His life was taken by men, for whose sake he would willingly have given it.”
There is a feeling of guilt on our part in Melanesia every time we celebrate the feast of Bishop Patteson and yet there is much celebration and rejoicing at the same time, as if evil has been conquered and defeated by the death of Bishop Patteson.
Bishop Patteson is a saint according to Melanesia. He is honoured by many village churches that are dedicated in his memory. Also, schools and names of people bear the name in every generation.
We have great admiration for Bishop Patteson’s solid faith and witness for the gospel, a living legacy that we inherited by his death. I believe that has rubbed off on us to be missionary minded and outgoing. We have seen this most recently in the martyrdom of seven Melanesian Brothers and the growth of our four religious orders: SSF. CSC, MBH and CSM.
Bishop Patteson was truly a servant and disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave his whole life for the Gospel and for Melanesia. He was a shining star from God, who touched the lives of many in Melanesia in the past, today and in years to come.
And in his honour we say with the whole Church in heaven and on earth:
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit
As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be.
World without end.
The Rt Revd Willie A Pwaisiho