Every year in September, Martyrs Memorial Secondary School, in Popondetta, celebrates Martyrs Day. It is an important event marking the establishment of the school after the second world war.
But this year’s celebration was a special one. 2018 marks 70s years of the school’s existence.
For many generations of students, the Martyrs Memorial School, as it used to be known, holds very fond memories. It used to be an all-boys school. Established in 1948, the Anglican Missionaries brought together students from all over the country.
“Students came from Eastern Highlands, From Jimi, Western Highlands, from Milne and New Britain. The whole of Papua New Guinea was here,” says Lindsley Clement, Bishop of Popondetta and former student.
Former NBC Broadcaster, Winterford Suharupa, was one of the early students of Martyrs School. Like many other boys, he arrived straight from a village and received the best education the Anglican Mission School could offer at the time.
“I came here as raw material. And this school gave me so much. It gave me direction and it made me see my future.”
In the 1940s and 50s, bringing together children from all over the country meant taking them away from their communities and parents for 12 months at a time. Although the school was run almost entirely by Australian and British teachers, they encouraged the boys to continue to practice their cultures and speak their languages while gaining an education. They also tried as much as possible to make the transition from village to school as smooth as possible.
“One of the things that was unique about this school was the ‘garden house system,” says former teacher, Phillip So’on. “It allowed students to remain together. Even though they left their villages, they will have a house and a place they could call home.”
Each language group had an allocated portion of land on which they built a garden house. Building a garden house meant, the older boys continued to practice important building and life skills in the absence of their parents and younger boys learned from their older students.
“The older boys took care of the younger boys,” says former student Elijah Sarigari. “The school also encouraged agriculture. It taught us to be self-reliant.”
For their families, sending their children away to school was a difficult decision. But their decisions sowed the fruits of national unity nearly 40 years before Papua New Guineans began talking of political independence and nationhood. Many of the students who came as boys formed lifelong friendships with those of other provinces.
Every year, the number of ‘old boys’ or former students, dwindles as new members are added. For the older former students, every Martyrs day is an emotional reunion as they remember friends who have passed on and celebrate the bond they have.“When we sang the old school song, it brought many of us to tears,” Winterford Suharupa recalls. “ It brought back so many memories.”
The school is a living memory of Australian and Papua New Guinean Anglican missionaries who were either killed by the invading Japanese army or killed for standing up for their faith. They are now known as the ‘Martyrs of New Guinea.’
Some of those who were killed were relatively young men and women. They had come to former colony before the war and refused to leave when the Japanese arrived.
Among them, were four women. But two the names that stand out in history of the province are May Hayman, an Anglican missionary and Mavis Parkinson, a teacher.
Both were captured, starved and later executed. Others were also killed in the same period. The school also honors two Papua New Guinean evangelists – Lesley Gariadi and Lucien Tapiedi – both from the Milne Bay Province. Tapiedi was killed as he defended the Anglican missionaries he was with while Gariadi died when the mission boat was attacked by a Japanese patrol.
What keeps resonating with generations of people whose tribal roots stem from strong warrior cultures, is the sacrifice by the missionaries and the unflinching bravery in the face of death.
Many of the buildings are named after the men and women who gave their lives. Many of the former students are named after the Martyrs of Niugini.
In the 1990s, the school saw some of its biggest developments under Australian Missionary principal, Fr. Donald Johnson. Already close to retirement, Fr. Donald mobilized resources from overseas and brought in Rotary Club volunteers to build new dormitories and renovate the classrooms.
The development also paved way for new changes that were to come later in the decade.
Mr. Phillip So’on, was one of the many influential teachers who taught at Martyrs School. He was part of the team that made a decision to begin enrolling girls for the first time. It was a decision that was met with much resistance but importance because of the need to meet the growing demand for education.
“I am proud to say that I was one of those who made the decision to bring in girls. Criticisms came but at the end of the day girls are being educated.”