The Father of Orchid Island-Alfred Giger 【Parent-Child Reading Guide】
FatherAlfred Giger (Mandarin name Ji Shouchang) was born on March 15, 1919 to a devout Catholic family in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland. His father taught as a catechist in his youth, and later worked as the manager of the post office in Bad Ragaz. His mother raised the children at home and was also a devout Catholic. Fr. Giger had one younger and two older sisters, two older and three younger brothers, making nine sibling altogether.
Fr. Giger from his youth already aspired to the priesthood. After finishing his studies in a high school run by the Bethlehem Mission Society, he joined their order and volunteered to spread the gospel in Asia. “To serve the poor” was the fundamentalvalueof Fr. Giger’s missionary life.
The Bethlehem Mission Society:
Fr. Giger is a member of the Bethlehem Mission Society (SMB) in Switzerland. SMB was one of the missionary orders established abroad by the Catholic Church in 1921. The order uses “Bethlehem” in its name, which refers to the town in which Christ was born. It’s founding mission is aimed towards evangelization and living the gospel spirit in all aspects of life. At the same time, the order also encourages cooperation and the exchange of literary and religious culture between countries, and serves the poor and the marginalized.
High School, Seminary and Ordination
After graduating high school, Fr. Gigerjoined the seminary run by the Bethlehem missionaries at Schöneck ob Beckenried. Studies there included one year of general novitiate, followed by two years of philosophy and four years of theology in preparation for the priesthood. In the midst of these seven years, the outbreak of WWII interrupted his plans for missionary work and he was recruited into the army for a year. However, themilitary servicedid not discourage himbutmade him more determined to pursue a priestly vocation and bring the gospel overseas.
Fr. Giger was ordained into the priesthood on Sunday March 25, 1945. He proceeded to attend the University of Fribourg to study Mandarin Chinese for one year. After having been so eager to preach the gospel in Asia, Fr. Giger was overjoyed whenhis superiortold him he was ready to go. His family and relatives rejoiced and celebrated with him.
In Beijing and Japan:
Fr. Giger arrived with a few companions in China on June 18, 1946, intending to stay in the Qiqihar dioceseof theNortheastern. However, because of the civil war in China, they remained in Beijing. where they continued to practice Mandarin and preach the gospel. At this time, there were many refugees in Beijing who had fled from northern China. Fr. Giger would often walk among the crowded streets and speak of Christ to those whom he met. However, He was expelled from China by the Chinese Communist Party on December 14, 1952. Upon his expulsion, Fr. Giger obtained a visa to Japan through Hong Kong, and transferred to Japan where he began to study Japanese.
Missionary work in Taitung:
During the autumn of 1953, the Bethlehem mission society began missionary and humanitarian work in Taitung, Taiwan. Fr. Giger heard that Japanese language was useful in Taiwan and so applied to the general superior for admission and joined the group of SMB missionaries there.
He arrived on January 29, 1954. Fr. Hilber Jakob, who oversaw missionary work in Taitung, appointed Fr. Giger in charge of education in the Malan and Luye regions, and later also of the evangelization efforts in Yanping, Guashan and Chihshang. Soon after, Fr. Giger began work on Orchid Island which kept him very busy. He established Luye as a center for his missionary work and saw much success, particularly in Heping village at Luye. He was concerned not only with the salvation of souls, but with the improvement of the day to day lives of the locals. In addition to preaching the gospel, he saw to it that their children were educated and that women also received vocational training. To tend to his parishioners, Fr. Giger always ran non-stop ridingon motorcycles between churches that spanned across various towns.
Missionary work in Orchid Island:
In August 1, 1954, Fr. Giger retired form Taitung to Kaoshiung for rest and a two weeks silent retreat. However, he brought six packs of clothes and boarded a ship for Orchid Island where he landed on August 1. From there, he soon developed a deep relationship with the people on the island. Immediately after his arrival he made sure that supplies and aid did not cease to come to Orchid Island. For the distressed islanders who were often hungry and cold, the supplies felt as if they had been sent from God.
Fr. Giger spent sixteen years in total at Orchid Island, during which he developed a great love for the people and spent great efforts to improve their living conditions. He treated them as if they were members of his own family.Fr. Giger particularly opposed marriages between old soldiers and young native girls, as he often realized the young women were married for the sake of use and not love. The tribe members were often more opposed if their daughters married out. One day, a person ran to Fr. Giger: an old soldier wants to marry aTaogirl and bring her to Taiwan. The person asked Fr. Giger to step in. Without a word, Fr. Giger immediately went to find the soldier and was mauled byother soldiers who harassed him all the way to the police station.
The soldiers released their livestock onto the farmland of the tribe, causing great damage to their sweet potato and terra root crops that the locals relied on to survive. The people went to Fr. Giger for help, who went to the command centerand demanded the soldiers to repay the damage they had caused. Unfortunately, the soldiers refused to listen which forced him to use his fists in addition to his words. Fr. Giger was not afraid, and the sergeant eventually told his men to bring grain from the kitchen and to give it to those who had lost their crops.
Many Tao men at eighteen still could not speak Mandarin. That and the racial difference, caused many of them to be bullied in the military service. Mr. Shin-Yu Lin, who was once Fr Giger’s catechist, later was elected county council member. Out of concern for the Tao men’s difficulty in the military service, he went to appeal to the government to try to postpone the military obligation for Tao men. However, Mr. Lin was sentenced to death as a traitor and thrown into prison. Fr. Giger rushed to Taipei during the night and saved him right before he was to be executed.
Fr. Gigerhadtold his family: for the Tao people, he would be willing to give up his life. The Tao people were very moved by his love for them.
Religion and Culture:
Fr. Giger saw that theTao ritualmipazosworshippedakey do langaraenwho was “master of heaven and earth,” which he saw as a concept consistent with the Catholicfaith. As a result, he often joined them in their traditional rituals and encouraged the catechists to respect and pass ontheir traditional culture. Although the times when Fr. Giger would visit Orchid Island were never certain, He was always sure to join them in traditional celebrations when he happened to be there. One day, Fr. Giger was confused because often people came to him for medicine but no one had shown up that day. He found the men at the seashore celebratingmilipes*.When the tribe saw him, they were happy to welcome Fr. Giger to join in their celebration and asked him to bless them as well.
During his missionary work at Orchid Island, Fr. Giger would also join their funerals. He did not insist that they change their funeral practices, but encouraged that they merge Catholic belief with their own culture and traditions.
*Milipes, theblessing day, where they blessed all the member in the family and their livestock.
Fr. Giger envisioned a future where the tribes had access to good education. He wished that women could receive a vocational training, and made one of the emphases of his work at Orchid Island be the cultivation of the people’s talents and skills.
He helped the people there receive an education regardless of their religious beliefs. If a student was among the top three of anelementaryschool’s graduating class, Fr. Giger would try to convince the parents to allow their child to go to Taitung and continue their studies there. In those years, the parents in Orchid Island would never let their children leave the hometown. At that time the mandatory education was only six years. In order to enter middle school, one had to study on their own to pass entrance exams. Because of this, none of the Tao people’s children who newly arrived Taitung were able pass the entrance exams for middle school. Fr. Giger found instructors to tutor the children for a year, upon which they were then able to pass. Fr. Giger himself paid for their living costs and tutoring fees.
However, every time he went to Orchid Island he was be reprimanded by the parents who missed their children. They thought that he had deceived them, and were not satisfied with his explanations. Fr. Giger then found a solution by buying a recorder to record the students’ voices for their parents could hear them when he returned to OrchidIsland. He would also record the parents’ voices for their children. On the summerand wintervacations, Fr. Giger would always worry that the students might not return to school. As a result, he asked his secretary to buy gifts for the children to bring back to their parents. With this, the students always returned on time for the start of school. On occasion, he would bring the students to help the farmers with the harvest and earn some spending money during holidays. Besides caring for their day to day lives, he also kept an eye on their grades, and would at times visit the schools to check on them. If they failed at exams or were caught smoking, he would punish them with a spanking. Mr. Huang, the first student to be brought to Taitung, recounted how he injured his hand in an accident during the harvest. “Fr. Giger heard from my school teacher that my grades were not satisfactory and called me out to spank me. I blocked my hide with my hand and the stick just so happened to hit the wound, causing it to bleed heavily. When seeing it,Fr. Gigertold me to apply medicine; he loved us but was strict with us as well.”
Fr. Giger’s hard work was not in vain; Orchid Island’s first graduate of teacher training programs was one whom Fr. Giger had looked after from childhood. There were of course many more who graduated from agriculture, business, nursing and other schools. They all returned to Orchid Island bringing back their talents to improve their homes. Some taught, some supervised farming and others worked for the local government.
The bad news:
During the evening on March 9, 1970, Fr. Giger was bringing three girls from the Luye and Haituancommunityto Taipei to study homemaking at a Catholiccharity center run by theHelpers ofThe Holy Souls. They planned to take the bus from Taitung to Kaohsiung, and the train to Tainan and then a taxi to Taipei. Unfortunately, they had a car accident on the state route to the north while passing Xinying on the 10th. Rushing him to the hospital did not help and Fr. Giger died there.
The news of his death was a huge shock to the people in Orchid Island who were in disbelief.
After three days, Fr. Giger’s body was brought back to Taitung for his funeral at the Catholic church in Malan. For the Catholic, a funeral is the last time the congregation participates in the Mass with one who has died. The priests and the parishioners offer the Mass for the deceased, praying to God that the person may join the community of Saints. After the Mass the funeral procession to the cemetery extended for hundreds of meters in Taitung City. When the coffin passed by, many people knelt down to pay their respects. It is hard to imagine just how many lives were touched by Fr. Giger during his life. Even those who are not Christiansmiss and honor him.
Fr. Giger is was originally buried in the third public cemetery at Bao Song. However, in 1992, his grave was removed for city planning reasons.Aftera bone collecting ritual,he was reburied in asmall cemetery run by the Bethlehem Mission Society, which is at the back of theHsiaoma, St. Nicolaus Catholic Church. He now restsinthe land which he greatly loved, and continues to watch over the people there.
The soldiers who had viewed Fr. Giger as a troublesome obstacle, were shocked at the news of his death. Only at this point did they understand that Fr. Giger had loved the people of Orchid Island with his life. The day his body was removed from the hospital, all flags were flown at half-staff to mourn and respect him.
Jesus said “Amen, Amen I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” John 12:24.
Fr. Giger’s accidental death was in some ways a wakeup call for the Tao people. Those whose lives had been touched by him, believed that he had died young. His dreams for Orchid Island were not yet complete, and they volunteered to found the“Si-sasagazoMemorial CulturalFoundation” in order to continue his great love for the people of Orchid Island, and to let the love of God be manifested forever.