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Courageous Catechist in Papua New Guinea
By Sister Barbara Leonhard


Teacher and Martyr
Model of Fidelity and Courage
'Leading Those Who Preach'
Blessed Peter To Rot

Two years ago, I had the privilege of returning to Papua New Guinea (PNG) to offer retreats. After 12 years away, one of the first things I noticed in Mendi was the visible reminder that this country now had one of its own as a model of faith and courage.

Since Pope John Paul II beatified Peter To Rot in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, his statue has been prominently displayed in the cathedral in Mendi. Their Catechist Training Center is named after To Rot, and his picture is painted on the building.


Teacher and Martyr

As a young man, Peter To Rot ministered as a catechist for eight years with the parish priest in Rakunai, his island village. When the Japanese invaded in 1942, priests were imprisoned. Peter saw that the responsibility for the parish was now in his hands. He continued to teach the Catholic faith. He led Sunday lotu (prayer), and preached to the people about the Scriptures. He officiated at baptisms, witnessed marriages, visited the sick and conducted burial services.

To Rot was, by this time, married and father of two. He was particularly concerned that married couples develop relationships strengthened by faith and by the Sacrament of Marriage. He spoke out adamantly against the practice of polygamy, which was encouraged by the Japanese.

By 1944 the Japanese forbade all religious ceremonies. To Rot refused to comply. Despite warnings that he would be imprisoned, he continued secretly to gather groups for prayer. The following year he was arrested. At no time did he ever deny his Christian faith or the ministry he led. Even when his family begged him to give up his catechetical work in order to save his life, he remained firm. He died by lethal injection given by a prison doctor on July 17, 1945. Despite the presence of police, an immense crowd attended his burial.

Born in Rakunai, Papua New Guinea

Began ministry as a catechist in Rakunai

November 11, 1936
Married Paula la Varpit and had three daughters, the last born after his death

July 17, 1945
Died in prison, a martyr for his faith

January 17, 1995
Beatified by Pope John Paul II

The story and example of Peter To Rot has had a powerful impact on the Church in PNG. Franciscan Sister Martine Mayborg, who ministers in Mendi, helped me learn about his importance to numerous PNG catechists and religious. Their written responses to my questions came in envelopes with Peter To Rot postage stamps on the envelopes!

The catechists, in particular, look to Peter as a model. They pray to him for help in their ministry, for courage in difficult times, for safety in travel and for better health. “I have great hope and trust that Peter To Rot will help me be strong.” They admire him for his courage in speaking out about his faith. “His example helps me not to give up when there is discouragement, division and struggle.”

Many said he reminds them of the importance of prayer and the sacraments. Several people noted the significance of his being one of their own: “It is a touching point that someone who is like us, a layperson and foremost a married man, is with the family of the saints.” His life challenges them to live their own lives with integrity: “If a simple catechist carried out his duties with love and great reverence, then why not me?”

This is the final column in this series.


“I want you to remember Peter To Rot always. You must think always of his faith, you must think always of his life in the family; you must think always of his work as a catechist. Because Peter To Rot shows us the way. He shows the way to all of us, but especially to the families here in Papua New Guinea and to the youth and to all those men and women who preach the word of God to the people.”

—Homily from the Mass of beatification


Franciscan Sister Barbara Leonhard is a spiritual director, teacher and author. She taught in PNG in 1993-4 and returned to lead retreats in 2005.

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