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Archives ‘May the Sacred Heart be loved everywhere’

Jan. 13, 2021

By Mary Beth Bracy
Contributing Writer

WATERTOWN – “My parish was vast, half of the Diocese of Ogdensburg area. I worked alone. Nineteen villages, 100% Catholic. I sailed in canoes, sitting and feeling uneasy for weeks, with additional cargo. Tired of being tired, sleeping in a canoe or in a muddy beach/river hut that happened to be encountered, unprotected from rain and scorching heat, mosquitos, snakes, crocodiles, the risk of drinking unhealthy water, and eating minimally for days,” shared Father Herman Pongantung, a Missionary of the Sacred Heart (MSC), about his first mission south of West Papua Island.

“I decided to become a priest and missionary,” in 1976 at the age of 12 years old, he said. “I said: ‘I would like to be a priest and how wonderful to die as a missionary.’ So, I entered Minor Seminary at North Celebes, Indonesia, then continued in the Major Seminary in the same area. Ordained in January 1993, my motto is ‘I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’” (Gal 2:20).

Father Pongantung’s parents converted to Catholicism before he and his siblings were born. His father was a Protestant and his mother was a Muslim.

“Indonesia is my homeland,” he explained. “It is composed of 17,000 islands and the largest archipelago on our planet. It is like pearls on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. I was born on Celebes Island. Fishing and the windy sea were our daily life. On a day of fortune, we had large tunas. But, after a couple of days without a fish, life was ‘salao’ (the worst form of unlucky). Yet, we did not give up, and certainly did not want to be a ‘prey’ of a shark.

“Indonesia is also known as the biggest Muslim country in the world. A Muslim is treated as ‘the son of Government.’ The mosques are everywhere, every two or three hundred yards. You don’t need to look for them; their amplifiers are very loud.”

For three and a half centuries Indonesia was occupied by the Dutch, and Catholic missionaries were not allowed.
“But, after Napoleon Bonaparte, conquered Holland and Europe, the Dutch became more tolerant,” Father Pongantung said. “Many missionaries came from Holland. They were young, with noble hearts, and taught us about Western Civilization and the Catholic faith. People respected them. One day, in 1920, the MSC came to my home town. They built churches, schools, hospitals, and seminaries.”

After his ordination, Father Pongantung was assigned to south of West Papua Island.

“This is a remote land with a huge jungle,” he said. “It is a land of promise for many missionaries! For 10 years, I lived in a wonderful land with a fascinating people, the tribes of Awuys, Asmat, Uwijagar and Yaghay.

“Being alone in such an unsafe, unhealthy, insane territory is cause for stress. Yet, I am grateful: precisely because of that trip, I became increasingly close and intimate with the people. What a deep friendship there was with a number of friends among us. After two or three years, they still remember many little events that happened between us, which are still a joke for them. Though they are quite stubborn! In recent years, eight villages fought, and there were murders in the vast area that surrounds the Assue River, Gondo River, Mappi River and Digul River. They are headhunters.”

In August 2003, Father Pongantung was transferred to France.

“How wonderful to be a missionary,” he said. “Our motto is ‘May the Sacred Heart be loved everywhere.’ This is inspired by the message of Jesus: ‘Go therefore and teach all nations’ (Matt 28:19-20). The Apostles travelled to all parts of the unknown world to spread Christianity. James stayed in Jerusalem, but Peter and Paul first went to Antioch (Gal 2:11). Peter then went to Rome, while Paul made three missionary journeys from Antioch (Acts), visiting many places, ‘as far found as Illyricum’” (Rom 15:19).

Father Pongantung worked at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart from 2003-08, in the Diocese of Bourges, and at parishes in the Diocese of Orleans from 2010-17.

“The only problem is what we call ‘culture shock’: the majority of people stay at home,” Father Pongantung said. “So, how can I meet them? Secularism and anti-clericalism are the two problems of the Catholic Church in France, famous as the Eldest Daughter of the Church.”

After 14 years, Father Pongantung moved to the United States. Growing up, Father Pongantung thought of it as a “country of cowboys and cactus trees.” The MSC first came to the USA in 1876.

“On August 2, 2018, after 28 hours of travelling from Jakarta across the globe, on the path of the Pacific Ocean, I landed in Syracuse,” he said. “On the road to Watertown, a billboard caught my attention, ‘Welcome to 1000 Islands.’ Indonesia is composed of many islands, so I feel at home here!”

“Watertown is calm. Ah! Perhaps some people still remember a song by Frank Sinatra: ‘Old Watertown, nothing much happened down on main ‘cept a little rain. Old Watertown, everyone knows, the perfect crime!’ No, I say. Watertown gives my mind and heart rest and peace. Those who served here said how much they liked this area and—most importantly—how friendly, welcoming, and genuine the people are here. And they say calmly: “It snows a little bit here!”

Father Pongantung said the weather in the North Country has been a bit of a challenge.

“Fishing is my old hobby,” he said. “I tried to join fishing groups and do ice fishing. People in my country many times talk about monkeys who fish for some crabs using their tails. Certainly, my big challenge is the cold. We are close to the North Pole! During my first year, there was a long period of snow. I can’t support the minus Fahrenheit weather. Someone tried to comfort me saying: ‘We have four seasons here: beginning of winter, winter, late winter, and next winter!’ What the heck!”

“I like diving too. A diver goes down into the deep of the open water to contemplate and protect the eco-ocean. Someone who does it must be a noble person.

The language barrier has also been a challenge.

“I remember my first Mass in English at St. Patrick’s Church,” Father Pongantung said. “It was totally strange for me. I studied English at senior high school, more than 30 years ago. But, I enjoy my life here. Lakes and God’s people give me perspective and gratitude. During the winter, rains and creeks metamorphose to white snow—beautiful. And people go out to help their neighbor plowing the snow—wonderful. In the summertime, people are busy, cutting the grass on their lawn; nature is charming as the green, green grass of home!”

Father Pongantung noted that serving in Watertown, he has watched the Catholic community there change.

“Today, the parishes of deaneries are expanding,” he said. “I serve at St. Anthony’s, St. Patrick’s, and Holy Family Church with Father John M. Demo and Father Deepak Baru. Thanks to the successive restructuring of increasingly large geographic areas, there is more of a demand for the faithful and priests to travel.”

Father Pongantung reflected that one reason he was sent to Watertown is the lack of priestly vocations. “‘No priest, no Mass.’ In Indonesia, the MSC have a lot of vocations (133 seminarians and aspirants). I understand what the Vatican II document on the Church insisted to all of us: ‘We are the Church.’ All of us are asked to participate in the mission of the Church. But, the mission of the priest is still essential.”

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