My Only Uncle Was a Missionary Priest

The only uncle I ever had was a remarkable individual who spent much of his life as a Jesuit missionary in a far off land. Edwin G. McManus, two years younger than my father, was born November 12, 1908 in Brooklyn, New York. Following the footsteps of his brother, he graduated from Jesuit-run Brooklyn Prep and continued his education at another Jesuit institution, Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Edwin wanted to be a priest so intensely that he left Holy Cross College after completing three years and entered the Society of Jesus in July 1928.  His training for the priesthood included the customary schooling given seminarians and then several years of teaching. He performed this portion of his twelve years on the way to ordination at the Ateneo, a Jesuit school for boys in Manila, the Philippine Islands.

Back to the U.S. before the onset of World War II, Edwin received the sacrament of Holy Orders at the Jesuit seminary in Woodstock, Maryland, on June 23, 1940.  Though in poor health, his widowed dad (my grandfather) managed to attend this wonderful event and died shortly afterward. As a four-year-old youngster, I had visited Woodstock with my family in 1939. But I wasn’t at the ordination because my parents decided that my older brother by two years and I were too young to be expected to witness the glorious but lengthy ceremony. So we were left at home in Brooklyn.

The newly ordained Father Edwin began at once filling assignments given him by superiors. When World War II erupted in December 1941, the routines of most Americans changed dramatically. My uncle promptly asked Jesuit superiors for permission to join the chaplain corps. After receiving some rudimentary military training and a commission as an officer in the U.S. Army, he was sent to England where he brought the sacraments to our soldiers, many of whom eventually crossed the English Channel and died fighting the forces of Nazi Germany.

When the war ended, Father Edwin discarded his Army uniform and again donned the black suit and Roman collar he so greatly preferred. During the 1940s and subsequent decades, the Jesuits boasted of their five high schools and two colleges in Greater New York. He could have taught at any one of them, but he yearned to be a missionary. So, he volunteered for duty in the South Pacific islands, saw his wish granted, and arrived there in 1947. From the Caroline Islands where he was introduced to life in the South Pacific, he soon took up a post in the nearby Palau Islands where he spent the rest of his priestly life as the lone Catholic clergyman for the islanders.

An excellent writer, Father Edwin started composing his own newsletter for family, friends and benefactors. Calling it The Palau Press, its four pagers were always filled with news about conversions and the many needs of a struggling missionary priest. Each edition of his work was produced on his small typewriter and mailed to a Jesuit house in New York. There the good priests and brothers made copies and sent them to an ever-growing mailing list. It was always a delight during my days at Brooklyn Prep and Holy Cross to read his informative and decidedly inspiring messages. To say that I was edified surely understates the case.

Father Edwin established his base of operations on the island of Koror in the Palau chain. Quickly mastering some of the Palauan language, he became greatly appreciated by the rather primitive people he encountered. There was a residue of awareness about Catholicism in the islands but a definite need for a missionary priest. With a growing congregation, and with the help of funds from family and the growing number of readers of his Palau Press, he soon built a church and named it after Our Lord’s Sacred Heart. In order to reach out to other Palauans, he acquired a small boat with an outboard motor. This enabled him to bring the Faith and the sacraments to more than just those in his growing Koror congregation. He later died on the island of Babeldoap, near Koror.

Three times during the two decades he labored at his missionary work, he was ordered back to New York by Jesuit superiors. He never wanted to leave “his people,” but those who monitored his work felt a need to have him undergo periodic physical exams. One of those homecomings happened to coincide with my graduation from Brooklyn Prep in 1953. What an honor it was for me to have the ceremony interrupted slightly when my extraordinary uncle was given the opportunity to award me my diploma.

I remember several one-to-one conversations I had with him during his visit. I asked him all about his life in the islands, the people he served, and whether he was glad he had chosen such a life. He emphatically said that he was happy, even delighted to be away from the hectic life experienced by most New Yorkers and now able to bring the Faith to a faraway people. He told me that he had been given authority to administer the sacrament of Confirmation. He related his experience in performing an exorcism. Then he asked me if I had ever thought of becoming a priest and I acknowledged that I had. But that vocation wasn’t for me and I know he eventually accepted my decision.

During the summer 1958, I was serving as a lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. Still enjoying occasional correspondence with Uncle Edwin, I sent off a letter mentioning that I was one of the Marines who had landed in Lebanon on a special mission ordered by President Eisenhower. About two weeks later, I received a response telling me that one of his parishioners, a young Palauan who had actually been one of his altar servers, had moved to the U.S., joined the USMC, and was among the 1,900 Marines now in Lebanon. I looked up the young sergeant and had some pictures taken. When those photos arrived in Koror and my uncle showed them to the Marine’s family and friends, you can imagine how happy a great many Palauans were – and how happy my uncle was to be able to show off his nephew.

Along with all of his priestly work, Father Edwin found time to create a Palauan-English dictionary. A labor of many years, this first of its kind work in that language was eventually published by a division at Georgetown University. The dictionary has been recognized for expanding the native language from merely an oral capability to now being written. Even those who never embraced the Faith grew to love him for that remarkable effort.

His final visit to the U.S. coincided with my dad’s terminal illness in 1967. It enabled the two brothers to share what each knew would be their last time together in this vale of tears. Father Edwin stayed at my home for a few days, and offered Holy Mass at the local parish church in Wakefield, Massachusetts. It was a great thrill for me to be afforded the opportunity to be his server at a couple of private Masses. We talked even then about the revolution stirring within the Church in the wake of Vatican II. Neither he nor I had studied the Council’s documents at the time but I do recall his hope that celebrating Mass in the vernacular might ensue. I suspect that this has always been a distant hope of every missionary. But I know he would not have accepted the wholesale changes in the Mass that came.

Only two years after his brother had died, word reached us that Father Edwin had suffered a fatal heart attack in 1969. His last edition of the Palau Press, written only four days before his sudden death on September 19, 1969, noted that Georgetown Press had just announced that his dictionary would be published. His passing came as quite a shock to all of us because no one had any awareness of his having any heart trouble. His funeral in Koror drew a huge throng of Palauans, Catholic and others, who had come to love and appreciate what he had done for the people.

By 1991, the Palau islands had become semi-independent, with their own government and even their own post office. One hundred years earlier, German missionaries had come to the islands and a centennial celebration of their bringing Catholicism to that far corner of the world was staged. The newly created Palau post office issued a sheet of six postage stamps to commemorate the happy event. Of the six stamps, one contained a photo of my uncle and one the Sacred Heart Church he built. Other stamps on the sheet depicted a photo of three German Jesuits murdered by Japanese invaders during World War II; another showed the 1891 Palauan leader who welcomed the first missionaries to the islands; and the final two depicted Pope Leo XIII and Pope John Paul I, the reigning pontiffs in 1891 and 1991.

Over recent years, some friends have traveled to Palau for vacations and for the scuba diving experience for which the islands have become renowned. Twice these travelers have brought back photos of the simple gravestone above my uncle’s resting place and the Sacred Heart Church he built. Those who enjoyed their visit to Palau told us of the extra special reception they received after mentioning that they knew someone in the McManus family. It has been heartening to know how much Father Edwin G. McManus was loved in that far corner of the earth. R.I.P.