History of the Society

The Missionary Society of St Columban and the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of St Columban were born from the vision of two young priests whom Providence brought together in the years between 1916 and 1920.

Edward Galvin, on loan to the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, heard from a missionary about the religious situation in China and volunteered to go there himself. Four years later he returned to Ireland to seek the support of the Irish Church.

John Blowick, who had recently been appointed to the faculty of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, had long been haunted by the thought of the multitudes of China’s people still untouched by the Gospel. He resigned his chair of theology to go to China as a missionary.

The hopes of the two men converged in the vision of a new missionary family in the Church.

The Society takes its name from St Columban, Ireland’s missionary to Europe in the 6th century. It was first known as the Maynoth Mission to China and was formally launched in 1918 as a missionary society of diocesan priests. This was something unique, as until then all such movements were religious congregations.

They found others who embraced their vision and the first Columbans went to China in 1920, to meet the challenges of its language and culture and to share the suffering of its poor.
Within a couple of years the Columban Society of priests had spread to England, USA, Australia and New Zealand. The intention was to follow the Irish diaspora to the new world to seek support for the new missionary movement.

To inform people of the new missionary effort and to have the support of the church, a mission magazine was launched, The Far East. This was an instant success. For 100 years it has been the primary means of communication with the Irish and English church. A mission magazine was also launched in the USA and Australia and New Zealand.

For a brief period there was an effort to establish the Society in Argentina where there was a sizable Irish diaspora. They even published a magazine. However, they terminated this project after a few years.

Before long it became evident that in order to minister to families in China women were needed. Frances Moloney, a young widow with a burning desire to serve the most needy, had watched as the newly formed Society of priests came into being and set sail for China. How she wished that she too could be part of that mission! Her patience was eventually rewarded.

John Blowick, who with Edward Galvin had founded the Society of priests, now joined with Frances Moloney to found another branch of this missionary family – the Missionary Sisters of St Columban.

In 1922, Frances, together with twelve companions began their training to become missionary sisters, and a few years later they too set out for China. The newly formed Society and Congregation began to be known as Columban Missionaries.

At first the vision did not extend beyond China. But Christ’s command was – “Go, make disciples of all the nations” – and gradually the vision widened to the Philippines [1929], Korea [1933], Burma [1936], and Japan [1948].

When mainland China was closed to missionaries in the 1950s, the Society responded to the urgent call of Latin America [1951] and Columbans went to the poor in the new urban settlements in Peru and Chile. The Society also responded to the missionary needs of the Church in Fiji. Still more recently we have gone to Pakistan, Taiwan, Brazil, Jamaica and Belize. Due to diminishing resources, the Society has since withdrawn its commitment to Belize, Jamaica and Brazil.

The initial vision has also widened in numerous other ways. The Columbans, who originally drew its members from the English-speaking world, now invites to membership young men from all the Churches within which we work.

The Columbans, from its earliest beginning, recognised that without the generous support of the laity the missionary work entrusted to them could not continue. Consequently, Columbans saw the necessity of forming apostolic minded laity who would join them in bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to their neighbours.

The Columban Lay Mission Programme (LM) has grown with virtually every region sending and receiving LMs. There are presently 60 LMs in ten regions.

Since 1960 diocesan priests have been invited to join us on mission for a limited period as Associate members. They come from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Britain, Korea and the Philippines. There are presently ten Associates ministering in three regions.

In yet other ways the vision has not only expanded, but has deepened. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church in our time is challenging the injustice of structural poverty and spiralling violence with more emphatic insistence on the basic implications of the Gospel. Servants of the Church, we see this concern for justice and peace as central to our apostolate.

Within the concern for justice and peace, we have come to see that concern for the earth needs to be at the heart of all such issues. Consequently, environmental concerns are central to Columban missionary action.

Another vital concern in recent years has been the World International Debt. Poorer nations are so heavily burdened in servicing their debts that they cannot realistically address the problems of development in their countries. Columbans have been at the core of the Jubilee 2000 Campaign.

Today, a greater appreciation of Kingdom values in the world’s cultures and religions has led us to an increasing awareness of the need to dialogue with peoples of other religions and to promote an authentic inculturation of the Gospel. This has made our ministry in Pakistan and Southern Philippines a priority for the Society.

For us, as for our founders, the vision has continued to grow.

There are presently over 500 Columban missionaries in the Society.