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of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Tarawa, Kiribati, Pacific Ocean
Chapel of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Tarawa,
Roman Catholic, Diocese of Tarawa and Nauru (a suffragan diocese
of the Archdiocese of Suva).
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 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.
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.)
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.
The date & time:
2 November 2008, 8.00am.
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
How would you describe the pre-service
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
What were the exact opening words of the
"Good morning to you all."
What books did the congregation use during the
Typed song sheet (words only). The congregation knew the liturgy
by heart (or were assumed to do so). The readings were from
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
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
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
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 Straightforward and simple.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
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
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
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 this church your regular (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
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Fellowship. The open-sided building. Breakfast.
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