Even before Hurricane Katrina resulted in an outpouring of support for New Orleans from “faith-based” organizations, our city has long been involved in religious missionary work. 

In the earliest years, Louisiana was a fertile field for missions. The three canonized Catholic saints who spent time in New Orleans were all missionaries: St. Katherine Drexel, St. Philippine Duchesne and St. Frances Cabrini.

The image of the missionary we get from books and movies varies. In the book Pollyanna the ever-positive main character’s father was a missionary, and she was dependent on the “missionary barrel” for her secondhand clothes. The New England couples in James Michener’s Hawaii devoted themselves to the people of Polynesia. In the film The Mission, the early Jesuits in Paraguay heroically stood up for the indigenous people. There is a little truth still in all those stories.

That picture “of missionaries with barrels and boxes around them waiting for the ship to come up and take them around the world” is often in the mind of Jack Fong, owner and operator of Missionary Expeditors on Tchoupitoulas Street.

The humble barrel, says Fong, was simply a container – the ancestor of today’s huge shipping containers that his company takes care of forwarding to addresses all over the world.

In his prior career, Fong had worked in shipping for the United Fruit Company. When Missionary Expeditors needed help, “I was encouraged to take over this company by one of my customers who wanted to see to it that this kind of freight forwarding agency is around for our kind of customer,” he says. Before he launched his Web site (www.solvenet.com), his services were advertised solely by word of mouth.

Fong is a forwarder for the Operation Christmas Child “shoe box” program of Samaritan’s Purse (a missionary and aid outreach program of the Billy Graham Ministries). “Thousands of families get together Christmas presents and put them in shoe boxes – for different age brackets and for boys and girls,” he says.

(Samaritan’s Purse also has programs in Louisiana, rebuilding homes after Hurricane Katrina and building a chapel on the grounds of Angola Penitentiary.)

Missionary families must prepare to ship their goods and deal with life at their chosen site.

Dr. Joyce Mathison and her husband, the late Dr. Jerrell Mathison, met at Huntingdon College, a Methodist-affiliated school in Alabama. They both wanted to become physicians and do missionary work. “We were attracted to Tulane Medical School for its parasitology and tropical medicine programs, both a good basis for missionary work,” she explains. While in New Orleans they joined Rayne Memorial Methodist Church, and after they both finished medical school (she started two years after he did), and he finished his military service, they went to Nigeria.

“My husband and I spent about 15 years in northern Nigeria,” she says. “For the first half of our time we were at a little 100-bed hospital in Bambur – there were between one and four doctors serving a cachement area of about half a million people.”  Much of Mathison’s time was devoted to “training and supervising medical auxiliaries, young men who were trained in basic anatomy and physiology. They worked in village dispensaries where there were no doctors of hospitals,” she says.

The Mathisons and their daughter Laura joined the local Methodist Church. The family lived in a bungalow, and had a kerosene refrigerator and an electrical generator, which they used at night. Mathison and another missionary taught Laura until she went to United Methodist Missions School, a boarding school elsewhere in Nigeria. Then when Laura reached high school age the family returned to the U.S.

Life included occasional encounters with wildlife. “Elephants and lions were native to the area, but the population density where we were was too great for wild animals to be seen very frequently. Once there was a hyena that came through the local village and it was a great sensation, and a group that went walking in the nearby mountains encountered gorillas,” says Mathison.

Her work continued outside the hospital. “By and large we had very good relationships with the government. And actually, we did public health work in the Nigerian state government where we were living, and with the approval of the church that we were related to there.”  The couple’s service was varied, and Mathison quotes her husband:  “Well, it hasn’t been boring.”

Getting along with the local government was more of a problem in the past for Father Charles Thibodeaux, S.J. whose service as a Jesuit missionary has been in Paraguay, once ruled by the dictator Alfredo Stroessner.  Fr. Thibodeaux was on leave in Louisiana until he returned last month.

One of nine children in a Carencro family, Fr. Thibodeaux taught Latin at Jesuit High School in New Orleans in the 1950s. 

In Paraguay, he is now at St. Ignacio, where people are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the parish, part of an original Jesuit “Reduction” (self-sustaining native community) in the 17th century. “There is a museum right next to us, built in 1609, walls about 3 feet thick.  That’s where they have some of the beautiful original wooden statues – the church is not an original building but there are still some columns standing.”

Fr. Thibodeaux remembers the difficult years under former dictator Alfredo Stroessner. “There was a lot of fear in the people,” he says.  Although he’s fluent in Guarani, the local native language, he admits that television has made Spanish use more widespread. With the local schools and community service, he says, “there is so much that needs to be done.”

He spent his time at home in Louisiana “doing a bit of begging here and there – and also asking for prayers – without God’s Grace we don’t get anywhere.”

The New Orleans Province (www.norprov.org) has sent Jesuits around the globe.  Fr. Harry Miller, currently home on leave, has been in Sri Lanka since 1948 – and his trustworthiness led both the former Tamil revolutionaries and the government to talk to him. He is also the former rector of St. Michael’s College in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka. Fr. Dave Andrus, S.J., serves in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia; Fr. A. Girard Fineran, S.J., is in Brazil; and Fr. Anthony Corcoran, S.J., is in Russia, where he has encountered people who remained devout without having seen a priest in decades.

In some ways the relationship between local churches and missions has changed: At Trinity Episcopal Church the “Prayers of the People” includes “our prayer partners in Lango, Uganda; and Tohoku, Japan.” Whereas these were once places where missionaries might go (Georgiana Suthon of New Orleans served at Tohoku for 35 years, beginning in 1887 and was followed by Rev. William Draper and his wife, Nonie, who are buried there), today they’re partners in prayer and exchange visits and service. There is now a missionary presence in Honduras, also.

Jack Fong reflects on his calling: “These people are the world’s greatest adventurers. Their bravery is astounding to me, yet they are as humble as can be.  I feel very privileged to do this work.”