Chronology of Catholic Dioceses:Oceania - an overview

Oceania - an overview

Oceania (Australia and the states and territories of the Pacific islands) covers almost half of the globe, and it is difficult to get an overview over the development Catholic ecclesial jurisdictions by merely studying the different countries and territories separately. This page is an attempt to provide that overview.

16th Century (1500-1600)

The division of the world between Portugal and Spain (the Papal line of demarcation 1493, the Tordesillas line 1494) at the outset of the era of the great discoverers, also affected ecclesial matters. The ecclesial aspect of the conquests are known as the Patronado / Padroado system. The two countries were entrusted with developing the ecclesial structures in the areas discorered, or yet to be discovered, or claimed for their respective thrones. The division lines defined the Pacific Ocean as under Spain, and upon the Spanish conquest of the Philippines and erection of the diocese of Manila, this became somewhat more than mere theory. The Spanish outreach to the Philippines did not extend the shortest route (around Africa, across the Indian Ocean), but went across the Atlantic to Mexico, and from there, from the west, across the Pacific Ocean.

The Portuguese, even if they were able to introduce Catholicism in present-day East Timor and many parts of Indonesia, and establish dioceses in Malacca and Macao (China), never really pushed into the Pacific from the east.

In a theoretical way, one might contend that the Pacific in this period was under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Mexico, and later in part under the Diocese of Manila. Since 1595, the islands east of the Philippines were formally defined as under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Cebu. But no missions were established.

Spanish missions in the Pacific in the 17th Century

It was only in the 17th Century that Spanish missionary work commenced in the Pacific proper, in the islands closest to the Philippines. In 1668, the Blessed Diego de Sanvitores SJ, working out of the Philippines, established the first Catholic missions in the Marianas, including Guam. The diocese of Cebu exercised ecclesial jurisdiction over the missions on these islands, and thus, the first time any part what we today understand as Oceania was really under any Catholic jurisdiction, was the latter part of the 17th Century.

Spanish missions in the Pacific in the 18th Century

In the early 1700's, the Jesuits attempted to extend their Pacific missions (1710 - Sonsorol Island, in today's Palau; 1731 - Ulithi, in today's Carolines). But both these missions were shortlived. After the Jesuits were expelled from the Philippines in 1768, the Augustinian Recollects were entrusted with the missions in the Marianas.

There was also an attempt from the other side of the Pacific. Franciscans from Peru failed in their attempt to establish a mission in the Society Islands in 1774-1775.

A failed attempt 1798

Although it was not until the 19th Century before the Spanish "monopoly" on Catholic missions was broken, it appears that the thought of enthrusting Non-Spanish with missionary work in the Pacific region was somewhat older. In 1798, the Vatican Congregation for the missions, the "Propaganda Fide" decided to erect a missionary structure covering the areas from Cape of Good Hope (southern tip of Africa) to Japan, including New Holland and "adjacent islands". Whether this was merely a project, or if an attempt was made to make it happen, we do not know. In fact, nothing came of it.

New Holland / Australia 1818, 1819, 1834

New Holland, as Australia was then called, was in 1818 already under the British, and the Catholic jurisdiction based in London, an Apostolic Vicariate, had at least theoretically jurisdiction over many of the new territories falling under the British Empire. In 1818, an attempt to erect an Apostolic Prefecture for New Holland, detaching it from the Ap. Vic. of London, was made. But it failed, and New Holland was shortly thereafter (1819) atteched to the recently erected Apostolic Vicariate of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

For some years, the responsibilities of the Vicar of Mauritius included an area arching from the South Atlantic (Saint Helena), South Africa, Madagascar (very briefly), Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Australia including Tasmania. But New Zealand seems never to have been considered part of this jurisdiction.

In 1834, New Holland was detached from Mauritius, and made into an Apostolic Vicariate of its own.

Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) 1825

In 1825 (24 October), the "Propaganda Fide" established an Apostolic Prefecture for the Sandwich Islands (today: Hawaii), and entrusted the missions there to the Picpus Fathers (Sacred Hearts Fathers, SS.CC.), a newly founded French congregation. This is the first time that Rome established Pacific jurisdiction that had nothing to do with Spain. It is likely that it was intended to develop into a Prefecture for the entire Pacific area (except the Marianas, which were part of Cebu). After the arrival, the Picpus Fathers even made an attempt to extend their work to the Carolines, not far from the Marianas, but failed.

South Seas Islands, Islands of the Great Ocean, or Oceania 1830

In 1829, the Irish sea captain Peter Dillon who had visited the Pacific, met Father Henri Jerome de Solages, who was Prefect Apostolic of Bourbon (Reunion) in the Indian Ocean. As a result of this meeting, the priest was also appointed Apostolic Prefect of the South Seas. It seems that this new Apostolic Prefecture (erected 10 January 1830), again erected quite independently of Spain and depending upon the French church, also went under the name of the South Seas Islands, Islands of the Great Ocean, Oceania, or Oceanica.

It was determined that is should encompass all island territories in the Pacific south of the Equator, from Easter island to and including New Zealand. Because of the Treaty of the Tordesillas of 1494, all of this vast area may be considered part of the Portuguese Padroado, nothwithstanding the tendency of Rome at this time to disregard the claims of Portugal to have a hand in the organization of the ecclesial arrangements especially in the more far-flung areas. The Prefecture Apostolic of Bourbon (Reunion) in the Indian Ocean was in a theoretical way the jurisdiction which was enthrusted with these islands, although it since the establishment of the Prefecture Apostolic of Batavia (Indonesia) in 1826 no longer had any "natural" connection to the Pacific.

Situation in 1830

The confirmation of the 1829 appointment of Fr. de Solages to his new post was dated 16 January 1830. In 1830, thus, the area under consideration was under four jurisdictions.

  1. In the part of the area north of the Equator closest to the Philippines were the Marianas, which were part of the Diocese of Cebu.
  2. Australia was still part of the Apostolic Vicariate of Mauritius.
  3. In the Pacific, south of the Equator, was the Apostolic Prefecture of Oceania (South Seas, Islands of the Great Ocean).
  4. North of the Equator (except the Marianas) was the Apostolic Prefecture of the Sandwich Islands.

This leaves only the Caroline and Marshall Islands, east of the Marianas and west of the Sandwich Islands. It seems from the failed attempt of the Picpus Fathers that the Islands were tentatively considered part of the Sandwich island sphere rather than the Cebu sphere.

Rearrangement of the Pacific in 1833

Of the above four jurisdictions, the two first had their Sees outside the area (in Cebu on the Philippine Islands, and in Port Louis on Mauritius). The prefect of the third, resided in his other prefecture (on Reunion in the Indian Ocean), the French plan to send missionaries into the South Pacific came to nothing because of the June 1830 revolution.

This leaves only the prefect of the Sandwich Islands. Things were not going so well there, so in 1831, he had to flee to California.

In France, the founder of the Sacred Hearts Fathers realized that the first piecemeal approach to the Sandwich Islands had been a debacle. So did the Congregation of the Propaganda of Faith, and upon their advice, pope Gregory XIV decreed the following adjustments on 8 June 1833:

  1. the creation of Apostolic Prefecture of Southern Oceania, detached from the Apostolic Prefecture of Oceania / South Seas Islands, encompassing Easter Island, Pitcairn, Tuamotu Islands, Marquesas, Society Islands, Tubuai Islands, and the Roggenwein Islands (Northern Cooks);

  2. the extension of the jurisdiction of the Apostolic Prefecture of the Sandwich Islands southwards, to the Equator;

  3. the creation of Apostolic Vicariate of Eastern Oceania, by joining the Apostolic Prefecture of the Sandwich Islands, and the new Apostolic Prefecture of Southern Oceania, keeping them distinct from one another but making them integral parts of the new Apostolic Vicariate and subject to it.

This arrangement - subjecting two distinct Prefectures under a Vicariate - is unusual, but not unique in the history of the development of Catholic ecclesial jurisdictions. Another example of the same is known e.g. from Iraq.

1836 - Continuation of the 1833 rearrangement

The remainder of the Apostolic Prefecture of Oceania / South Seas Islands was intended to become a new jurisdiction for the Western Pacific. But due to the problem of finding a Religious Congregation to take upon themselves this demanding missionary effort, it was not possible to make this change in 1833.

Some years later, in 1836, the Marist Fathers (S.M.) were put in charge of this western part of the old South Sea Islands prefecture. So, although desired for some years already, it was only in 1836 that the Apostolic Vicariate of Western Oceania became a reality, by a decree of erection dated 10 January 1836.

Western Oceania was given a vast area - basically all of the Western Pacific with the exception of the Marianas. A source describes it in this way: "New Zealand, the Friendly Islands, the Navigator Islands, the Solomons, the New Hebrides, and the islands of Ralik and Ratak in the Marshalls. It extends west and north until it reaches the Dutch, Spanish or Portuguese missions". That is, more completely: The southern Cook Islands, Friendly Islands (Tonga), Samoa, Tokelau Islands, Phoenix Islands, Kermadec Islands, Fiji Islands, Wallis Islands, Ellice Islands, Kingsmill Islands, Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands, Loyalty Islands, New Zealand, New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Santa Cruz Islands, Louisiade Archipelago, Trobriand Islands, Solomon Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, New Guinea, parts of Molucca, and the Carolines.

As missionary work by the Marist Fathers (in Western Oceania) and the Picpus Fathers (in Eastern Oceania) came underway, it soon became a necessity to further subdivide these enormous territories.

Later divisions of Western Oceania

The further division of Western Oceania happened already in 1842, only six years after the Marists had arrived and taken up their work.

In 1842, a major part was detached as the Apostolic Vicariate of Central Oceania, including New Caledonia, Tonga, Samoa and Fiji. The delineation between this new Vicariate and the remainder of Western Oceania followed the Tropic of Capricorn.

1844 saw the erections of

  • Melanesia (Apostolic Vicariate), encompassing New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Bismarck Archipelago, and
  • Micronesia (Apostolic Vicariate), for the Carolines, Marshalls, and Gilbert Islands.

The Apostolic Vicariate of Western Oceania continued for New Zealand only - although only until 1848, when the first two dioceses were erected there. The official name for the Apostolic Vicariate 1844-1848 was still Western Oceania, but it is and was often referred to as the Apostolic Vicariate of New Zealand.

Later divisions of Eastern Oceania

In 1844, the Apostolic Prefecture of Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) was detached from the overall jurisdiction of Eastern Oceania, and again became autonomous.

In 1848, the name "Eastern Oceania" disappeared with the division of the Apostolic Vicariate in two new Ap. Vicariates:

  1. the Tahiti Islands (including Papeete, the See of the Ap. Vic. of Eastern Oceania),
  2. the Marquesas Islands.

In 1888, Chile laid claim to Easter Island (Isla de Pascua). The island formally remained part of the Apostolic Vicariate of the Tahiti Islands until 1911, when it was transferred to the Archdiocese of Chile. It seems that the (non-territorial) Military Ordinariate of Chile was in charge of the little pastoral care there was: There is no mention of any priests except the visitation of Bishop Rafael Edwards (Salas) who visited in 1916. Then, on 24 October 1934 Easter Island was transferred from Santiago and assigned to the Apostolic Vicariate of Araucania under the care of the Capuchin Fathers. On 5 January 2002, Isla de Pascua was transferred from Araucania to the Archdiocese of Valparaíso.

Thus, today's Archdiocese of Valparaíso has the distinction of comprising of jurisdictions which can trace their lineage in opposite directions around the would, all due to the consequences of the Tortillas line of 1494. The Isla de Pascua part of the Archdiocese is to be traced back across the Pacific and Indian Ocean and around Africa to Portugal, through the jurisdictions of Tahiti, South Seas Islands, Bourbon (Réunion), Malacca, and Goa, to Funchal on the island of Madeira in Portugal. The main, continental, part of the Archdiocese of Valparaíso can be traced back across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain, through Santiago de Chile, La Plata and Cuzco to Seville in Spain.

Central Oceania 1842-1937

Whereas Western and Eastern Oceania only existed as names some few years, the Apostolic Vicariate of Central Oceania kept its name for almost a century. But throughout this period, new territories were regularly detached from it, until in 1935 only Tonga was left. In 1937 followed the change of name, into Tonga Islands.

The divisions of Central Oceania were these:

1847 - New Caledonia (Apostolic Vicariate), which also included the New Hebridies.

1850 - Navigators' Islands (Apostolic Vicariate), for the Samoas and Tokelau.

1863 - Fiji Islands (Apostolic Prefecture).

1935 - Wallis and Futuna (Apostolic Prefecture).

After this last detachment, only the Tonga Islands remained of the once huge Apostolic Vicariate of Central Oceania. In 1937, its name was changed into Tonga Islands.

Further divisions in the Western Pacific area 1886-

Especially the two Apostolic Vicariates of Melanesia and of Micronesia, erected in 1844, were huge. This geographical fact, together with some other important factors necessitated further divisions and realignments in this area.

One factor was that the first attempts to establish missions there, failed. The first bishop, msgr. Jean Baptiste Epalle SM, killed in a massacre in 1845, his successor, msgr. Jean Georges Collomb SM, suddenly died in 1848, from fever. So whereas both Melanesia and Micronesia existed on paper, they were de facto under the care of Central Oceania - and there was little or no missionary work there for a long time. Eventually other religious congregations were involved, and they got their own smaller, and easier to handle, jurisdictions to look after.

Another factor was the changing political conditions due to the appearance of new colonial powers. The Church readjusted the ecclesial borders to these new facts, and also had to replace the missionaries with new mnissionaries with the powers that be.

The need for further divisions had been apparent from early on. Bishop Jean Baptiste Francois Pompallier, the Apostolic Vicar of Western Oceania 1836-1848, on 8 December 1846 submitted to the Propaganda a plan for a province of Western Oceania with several dioceses. These were (1) the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Kororareka in New Zealand north of 37 degrees - this included Kermedec Islands and also Tonga; (2) Tauranga in New Zealand for the area south of 37 degrees and north of 39 degrees; (3) Port Nicholson in New Zealand for area south of 39 degrees; (4) Wallis diocese for Wallis, Futuna, Rotuma, and Samoa; (5) Lakemba diocese for Fiji, (5) Port Balade diocese for New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Santa Cruz Islands; (6) San Cristobal diocese for Solomons, New Guinea, Bismarck Archipelago. The Cook Islands would be given to Eastern Oceania.

The Superior General of the Society of Mary (SM), Fr. Colin, submitted his own plan in 1 May 1847. This included: (1) Auckland archdiocese for New Zealand north of 39 degrees; (2) Port Nicholson diocese for New Zealand south of 39 degrees; (3) Wallis diocese for Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji; (4) New Caledonia diocese for New Caledonia, New Hebrides, and the Santa Cruz Islands; and (5) Melanesia & Micronesia he wanted should remain a Vicariate Apostolic, but divided as soon as another congregation could take over Micronesia.

Neither plan was carried out, although some elements of the 1847 plan were indeed realized.

What happened in the end?

In 1886, after the Spanish had laid claim to the Caroline Islands and sent governors to the islands of Yap and Ponape, two Missions were carved out of Micronesia: One for the Western Carolines (including today's independent state of Palau, and the islands around Yap), the other for the Eastern Carolines (including the islands around Truk and Ponape). What remained of the Apostolic Prefecture of Micronesia, were the Marshall Islands, the Gilbert Islands, and the Ellice Islands.

In 1889, the two Apostolic Vicariates of Melanesia and Micronesia were totally reorganized. The Apostolic Prefecture New Guinea was detached from Melanesia, for British New Guinea. The remainder of Melanesia, and all of what was left of Micronesia, was made into the new Apostolic Vicariate of New Britain.

In 1890, the Apostolic Vicariate of New Britain was renamed into New Pomerania (Neu-Pommern).

In 1896, the Apostolic Prefecture of Kaiser Wilhelmsland was detached from New Pomerania, for German New Guinea.

In 1897, two more Apostolic Prefectures were detached from New Pomerania, that of the Gilbert Islands (including also the Ellice Islands and Nauru), and that of the British Solomons.

In 1898, the Apostolic Prefecture of German Solomon Islands was detached from New Pomerania.

In 1905, the Apostolic Prefecture of the Marshall Islands was detached from New Pomerania.

For further divisions, elevations and changes of name, please refer to the more detailed lists in the chronologies.

(Compiled from notes provided by Gerard Lovell, Charles N. Bransom, and Bob Hilkens, culled from many sources).

- CT
av Webmaster publisert 08.09.2004, sist endret 08.09.2004 - 12:11