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Vangeke, Sir Louis (1904–1982)

by James Griffin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Louis Vangeke (1904-1982), Catholic bishop, was born in 1904 at Beipa’a, in the Mekeo area of the Central District of Papua, into the Ongofo’ina sub-clan, of which his father was a head sorcerer. There are three stories about his survival, the most pleasant of which being that his mother died in childbirth and his father, believing that he was too weak to survive, handed him over to the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Yule Island. They baptised him ‘Louis’.

On Yule Island Louis attended St Patrick’s primary school and at 14 had to return to Beipa’a to learn Mekeo. Although Pope Benedict XV had prescribed the development of an Indigenous clergy in missionary countries, Archbishop de Boismenu doubted that Papuans had the necessary moral fibre, but he did found an order of Little Brothers of Our Lord, which accepted Louis in 1922. Scandalous behaviour in which Louis was not implicated confirmed the archbishop’s fears and led to the order’s disbandment. Moreover, a mixed-race Papuan chosen to study for the priesthood, Joseph Taurino, died of pneumonia in France in 1922, his death suggesting to superiors that cold climates would always be a problem. Because of Louis’s exemplary conduct and ability to deal with celibacy he was invited in 1925 to train for the priesthood. In spite of aptitude in drawing and creating songs, he himself doubted his intellectual capacity, but he was given personal tutoring. The stigmatic-mystic Marie Thérèse Noblet encouraged him and chaperoned him through his first visit to Port Moresby and Sydney en route to Madagascar, where the warm climate and less racial discrimination made it more suitable for postulancy than Australia. With a keen sense of humour Louis would for the rest of his life entertain friends and flock with his saga of exotic travel, imagined perils, loneliness and strenuous efforts to overcome self-doubt.

In June 1937 at Tananarive Louis became the first Papuan to be ordained to the priesthood. He returned to Port Moresby in August. Lieutenant-Governor Sir Hubert Murray reported that 34-year-old Louis was ‘quite a presentable youth’ but some white residents were enraged that a Papuan spoke French, English and Latin, as well as several native languages. Murray noted ironically that, as drinking by ‘natives’—according to the ordinances—was banned, Louis should not have been able to receive the Eucharist in both kinds; that he should ‘strictly speaking say Mass stripped to the waist’ because of ‘native’ clothing regulations; and that he should be subject to curfew. These ordinances were simply ignored; Louis was borne in triumph around Mekeo, Roro and Kuni country on a makeshift gestatorial throne. His integrity led in 1941 to admission to the Congregation of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC). He was devoted to his flock, tolerant of traditional custom and indulgent towards cultic leaders, some of whom believed he could walk on water, but he was never given a parish of his own. He refused to express any resentment of this.

Fr Vangeke visited Europe twice, for a holiday in 1951 and for the general chapter of the MSC in Rome in 1969. On 3 December 1970 he became the first Papua New Guinean Catholic bishop. In Sydney Pope Paul VI consecrated him titular bishop of Culusi, but he was made only auxiliary bishop of Port Moresby because some European priests were wary of serving under a ‘native’ and because he seemed to lack the administrative skills, although certainly not the spirituality, needed for an episcopal role. At Beipa’a he was installed as a chief; thousands of people witnessed a syncretic ceremony in a temporary ufu (ceremonial hall). Vangeke said he was now ‘a sorcerer for God’ while his nephew, who inherited Louis’s father’s ‘sorcerer’s box’, was there as his ungaunga (protector) to ward off Satan.

In 1976 Vangeke was promoted bishop at Bereina, where he spent the rest of his life. Although he had spoken against early independence for Papua New Guinea, he was appointed OBE in 1974 and KBE in 1980. In 1976 the University of Papua New Guinea conferred on him an honorary LL.D and, that year, five ministers offered to nominate him to be governor-general. He declined because, he said, of ecclesiastical duties but really because, temperamentally, he was neither ambitious nor attracted by secular ostentation. Sir Louis died on 15 December 1982 at Beipa’a and was buried there. A Church spokesman stressed his deep humility and said he was ‘a great man and a great inspiration to Papua New Guinea’.

Select Bibliography

  • Proceedings of the Second Australasian Catholic Congress (1904)
  • A. Dupeyrat, Papouasie: Histoire de la Mission, 1885-1935 (1935)
  • F. West (ed), Selected Letters of Hubert Murray (1970)
  • E. Hau’ofa, Mekeo (1982)
  • G. Delbos, The Mustard Seed (1985)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Oct 1970, p 5, 24 Oct 1970, p 6, 28 Oct 1970, p 8, 4 Dec 1970, p 4
  • Times of Papua New Guinea, 17 Dec 1982, p 4
  • personal knowledge.

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Citation details

James Griffin, 'Vangeke, Sir Louis (1904–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/vangeke-sir-louis-15893/text27094, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 March 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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