Chapel of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Tarawa, Kiribati

Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Tarawa, Kiribati


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Our Lady of the Sacred Heart
Location: Tarawa, Kiribati
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 November 2008, 8:00am

The building

The chapel is an octagon about 20 metres across. The walls are all open meshwork to allow the sea breeze through. (This is welcome since it rarely rains in Tarawa and the temperature is usually 25-30 degrees Celsius.) The lower part is concrete breezeblock, the upper part a lattice of coconut wood. The entrance features a trellis work of flowers - a rare touch on a coral atoll. Inside there is a ring of chairs around the outside and pandanus sitting mats on the central floor area.

The church

The Sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart is a community of religious women who do charitable work of various kinds. In this particular house there are about eight sisters and seven postulants. Most are teachers, but some do social work, and one works as a legal aid lawyer. Some of the older sisters are originally from Australia or Ireland, but the younger ones are all indigenous i-Kiribati. Their Sunday mass is one of only two church services in Kiribati that is in English rather than i-Kiribati. It therefore attracts an assortment of Christian expatriates, not all of them Catholic.

The neighborhood

Tarawa (latitude 1°22'47" N, longitude 173°09'06" E) is the main island of the Republic of Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands). It is a classic tropical atoll – a narrow and low coral island surrounding a lagoon about 20 kilometres across. It is shaped like a triangle, with most of its 50,000 inhabitants living on one side of the triangle. The chapel is located at one of the widest and highest parts of the island, about 250 metres from the lagoon and two metres above sea level. (Yes, I do mean two metres, i.e. about six feet – the island is endangered by sea level rise.)

The cast

A priest of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart community identified only as Father Korata. He was assisted by one of the sisters, whose name was not given.

What was the name of the service?

Mass in English.

How full was the building?

Full. On the chairs around the outside there were the eight resident sisters and about a dozen expats (mostly white); on the floor mats sat the seven resident postulants and about 60 locals (mostly young families).

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. As I was one of the first to arrive, a sister welcomed me briefly and asked where I was from. She then wondered if I would mind reading a lesson, and I replied, "Yes, as long as it's in English." We then examined the lectionary together to find the right reading.

Was your pew comfortable?

"European" worshippers were on plain wooden seats in the outer ring, against the wall. (In the Pacific Islands, the term "European" means anyone vaguely white in appearance, including Australians and Americans.) The main congregation sat cross-legged on the central floor, as is customary in these parts.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The sisters were at prayer in the chapel when I arrived. That done, people moved quietly to their seats as they filed in - most pretty much on time, but some up to 20 minutes after the start.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning to you all."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Typed song sheet (words only). The congregation knew the liturgy by heart (or were assumed to do so). The readings were from a lectionary.

What musical instruments were played?

Synthesiser for the beat and a taped voice for the lead.

Did anything distract you?

Speculating about where the priest came from, since he was clearly neither i-Kiribati nor European. His size, features and accent all suggested Polynesia - Tonga perhaps? His sermon resolved the question: Futuna (a small French territory to the north of Samoa).

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Middle of the road, as masses go. The entire service was in English, with a liturgy very similar to New Zealand Anglican. Some key prayers were chanted to simple tunes by the priest or congregation, but most were said. There was no incense waving, and less movement from kneeling to sitting to standing than I've seen in some high church Anglican services. (Such movement is awkward when you start from cross-legged on the floor.) We had about six songs, all short, with simple tunes and in modern English.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

5 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – Straightforward and simple.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He spoke about St Peter Chanel, a missionary to Futuna in the 1840s, who worked for God with great determination but was killed before the fruits of his labours were fully apparent. (The whole island converted within a year of his death.) But today on All Saints Day, we remember that not all saints are as dramatic as he was – most were just ordinary people like you or me, striving to be better Christians, as we should all do.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Being surrounded by a lively young congregation, clearly dedicated to serving Christ in the world.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The opening song. For the first verse at least, virtually only the song leader was singing, as no one else appeared to know the tune. I feared that it could be a long morning with another five songs to come, but fortunately it got better as we went along.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

After collecting my shoes from outside the entrance, I was quickly led to coffee and breakfast. In the islands, it is customary to take off shoes on entering someone's house, including God's house.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The Europeans (though not the i-Kiribati families, who mostly had other family obligations) joined the sisters for a full breakfast in their convent. There was tea, coffee and home-made bread and buns, complete with home-made jam. This is clearly a welcome weekly social occasion for the small expatriate community. Even as a one-time visitor I was made very welcome, and had a long chat with one of the sisters about her work and how it related to mine.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

9 – This is one of the very few church services in English on Tarawa. Although not a Roman Catholic, I had been invited to come. It is a fellowship for the churchgoers of the small European community, at least one other of whom was not a Catholic either. For that reason it would probably be my regular place of worship if I lived on Tarawa, even though I'm a Protestant, but I was only visiting for one week.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Fellowship. The open-sided building. Breakfast.

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