No journey too treacherous for missionary who introduced Catholicism to people in the Papua New Guinea highlands
Father Arnold Steffen, 1929-2021
Divine Word Father Arnold Steffen, 91, who served as provincial superior of Papua New Guinea, died on Friday, March 12, at Techny, Ill.
During Father Steffen’s 59 years in Papua New Guinea, he witnessed many economic and social changes on the island nation that gained independence in 1975. When he first arrived in 1957, roads in the mountainous Mount Hagen area were few, and missionaries tended to travel by airplane, on horseback and by foot.
According to Brother Aloysius Aisi Oa SVD, who grew up in Papua New Guinea and currently serves at Sts. Anselm and Elizabeth parishes in Chicago, Father Steffen was so attuned to the land and its people that he was affectionately called the Mountain Goat.
“People know him well in Papua New Guinea,” said Brother Aloysius. “Many people tell stories about him. He could communicate well with the people through Pidgin, and he walked everywhere. He was very energetic and strong.”
Father Steffen set out for New Guinea a few months after ordination. During his first decade as a missionary, he was assigned to Mount Hagen. At times, he was the first missionary to travel into mountainous regions of the Enga Province, where the residents had never seen someone from outside their village.
For his first assignment, his religious superiors asked him to establish a mission in Mun in the central highlands of New Guinea. The mission encompassed 500 square miles and about 45 mission stations. He visited each station three times a year, providing pastoral care, medicine and education for the Kanaka, indigenous people of New Guinea. He also founded mission outstations and parishes in Kuruk, Kumdi and Mabulga.
Father Steffen learned the language of the Kanaka people from Father William Ross SVD, who in turn learned the language from the tribesmen by pointing to objects and then phonetically writing their responses.
In 1972, Father Steffen was called upon to serve as acting superior. The following year, he became president of Holy Spirit Regional Seminary, which consisted of three colleges, in Bomana. Holy Spirit served as the primary major seminary of Papua New Guinea and the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. During Father Steffen’s time as president, the school had a student body of more than 70 seminarians from 13 dioceses and three religious congregations.
In 1975, Papua New Guinea became a sovereign nation. Father Steffen was elected regional superior in 1976. When the territory became a province a year later, he and the Provincial Council decided to move the headquarters from Alexishafen on the northern coast to the centrally located Mount Hagen.
In 1981, he completed his administrative work and return to parish ministry at Banz parish and later served Monoitu parish in Bougainville.
In 1990, Father Steffen devoted himself to the Better Word Movement and created Christian Community Retreat, programs to educate Catholics about the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. He served as director of the Better Word Movement and spent almost two decades with the organization.
Arnold Steffen was born in 1929 in Dunkerton, Iowa, the seventh of Joseph, an immigrant from Luxemburg, and Mathilda (nee Meier) Steffen’s ten children. In 1943 at age 14, he entered the Divine Word high school seminary at Epworth, Iowa. He professed religious vows in 1949 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1957.
In 2016, Father Steffen moved from Papua New Guinea to Techny for retirement. He is survived by one brother, Ralph Steffen, and many nieces and nephews.
Father Steffen’s wake and funeral will take place in the chapel of the Divine Word Residence at Techny on Thursday, March 18, beginning at 9 a.m. Attendance will be strictly limited because of COVID-19 precautions. He will be buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery at Techny. The funeral Mass will be live streamed at: https://youtu.be/bjvAIruUlgg.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations in the name of Father Arnold Steffen can be made for the care of elderly and infirmed missionaries and sent to The Rector, Divine Word Residence, 1901 Waukegan Road, P.O. Box 6000, Techny, IL 60082-6000.
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