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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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To Rot, Peter (1912–1945)

by John Cornelius Dempsey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Peter To Rot (1912?-1945), martyr, was born probably in 1912 at Rakunai, New Pomerania (New Britain), New Guinea, third of six children of Angelo Tu Puia, a Tolai village chief, and his wife Maria Ia Tumul, both of whom had been received into the Catholic Church in 1898. Peter was baptized soon after his birth. He had an unremarkable childhood and adolescence, closely attached to his family, the Church and the mission school. Pleasant in nature, and gentle and helpful in disposition, he was enrolled in 1930 at St Paul's College, Taliligap, which was founded by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart for the formation of lay catechists. Three years later he was appointed catechist to the parish of Rakunai. On 11 November 1936 he married Paula Ia Varpit.

The Japanese occupation of New Britain in January 1942 marked a turning-point in To Rot's life. When the European missionaries were interned, he found himself responsible for the mission. He gathered the people for prayer, baptized and catechized adults and children, officiated at marriages, visited the sick, taught school children and catechists, and carried food to the interned missionaries and prisoners of war. Towards the end of 1943 Japanese tolerance of the Christian faith changed to confrontation. Peter was summoned to a meeting, questioned about his activities and ordered to restrict them on the grounds of 'wartime security'. About March 1944 he was forbidden to engage in any form of religious observance. Although he exercised more prudence, he refused to cease doing what he regarded as his duty. He built an underground shelter on his property at Taogo and continued to bring people there for prayer and the Sacraments. The Japanese had already imprisoned and executed those who broke their regulations, and he was aware of the risks involved.

To Rot faced a moral dilemma when the Japanese legalized polygamy with the declared intention of winning the collaboration of the village chiefs and local population. Because he spoke strongly against the practice, he was declared 'a malign and uncooperative' antagonist, not only of the Japanese, but also of local collaborators. To Metapa—a native policeman serving the Japanese—who wanted to take a Catholic woman as his second wife, reported him for officiating at the marriage of two Catholic couples. To Rot was arrested in April or May 1945 and sentenced to two months detention. In June or July that year, as the time for his release approached, he was murdered by two officers of the Japanese military police, Yoshinori Machida and Gunto, assisted by an army doctor who administered a lethal injection. The people of Rakunai buried him in the mission cemetery. His wife, and their son and daughter survived him; a second son, born after To Rot's execution, died in infancy.

On 2 April 1993, in the presence of Pope John Paul II, a decree was promulgated regarding the martyrdom of Peter To Rot, killed 'in odium fidei'. He was beatified by the pontiff on 17 January 1995 in Port Moresby. The cause of his canonization proceeds.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Dempsey, Peter To Rot, Martyr (Toowoomba, Qld, 1989) and for documents
  • Catholic Voice, Oct 1992
  • Post-Courier, 17, 18 Jan 1995
  • MP742/1, item 336/1/1955 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

John Cornelius Dempsey, 'To Rot, Peter (1912–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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