Our History

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The Missionary Society of St. Columban and the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of St Columban were born from the vision of two young priests whom Providence brought together in the years between 1916 and 1920.

Edward Galvin, on loan from Cork to the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, heard from a missionary about the religious situation in China and volunteered to go there himself in 1912.

Four years later he returned to Ireland to seek the support of the Irish Church.

John Blowick, who had recently been appointed to the faculty of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, resigned his chair of theology to go to China as a missionary.

The hopes of the two men converged in the vision of a new missionary family in the Church.


The Society takes its name from St Columban, Ireland’s missionary to Europe in the 6th century. It was first known as the Maynooth Mission to China and was formally launched in 1918 as a missionary society of diocesan priests. This was something unique, as until then all such movements were religious congregations. They found others who embraced their vision and the first Columbans went to China in 1920, to meet the challenges of its language and culture and to share the suffering of its poor. Within a couple of years the Columban Society of priests had spread to England, USA, Australia and New Zealand. The intention was to follow the Irish diaspora to the new world to seek support for the new missionary movement.

To inform people of the new missionary effort and to have the support of the church, a mission magazine was launched, The Far East. This was an instant success. For 90 years it has been the primary means of communication with the Irish and English church. A mission magazine was also launched in the USA and Australia. For a brief period there was an effort to establish the Society in Argentina where there was a sizable Irish diaspora. They even published a magazine. However, they terminated this project after a few years.

At first the focus did not extend beyond China. But gradually the vision widened to the Philippines [1929], Korea [1933], Burma [1936], and Japan [1948]. When mainland China was closed to missionaries in the 1950’s, the Society responded to the urgent call of Latin America [1951] and Columbans went to the poor in the new urban settlements in Peru and Chile. The Society also responded to the missionary needs of the Church in Fiji. Still more recently we have gone to Pakistan, Taiwan, Brazil, Jamaica and Belize. Due to diminishing resources, the Society has since withdrawn its commitment to Belize, Jamaica and Brazil.

The initial vision has also widened in numerous other ways. The Columbans, who originally drew their members from the English-speaking world, now invite to membership young people from all the Churches within which they work. The Columban Lay Mission Program (LM) involving young men and women, has grown with virtually every Region sending and receiving LMs. There are presently 67 LMs in eleven countries. Since 1960 diocesan priests have been invited to join us on mission for a limited period as Associate members. They come from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Britain, Korea and the Philippines. There are presently eighteen Associates ministering in four countries.

In yet other ways the vision has not only expanded, but has deepened. The Church particularly in poor countries is challenging the structural poverty and the spiralling violence with more emphatic insistence on the basic implications of the Gospel. Columbans see this concern for justice and peace as central to their apostolate.

Within the concern for justice and peace, we have come to see that concern for the earth needs to be at the heart of all such issues. Consequently, environmental concerns are crucial to Columban missionary action.

Another vital concern in recent years has been the World International Debt. Poorer nations are so heavily burdened in servicing their debts that they cannot realistically address the problems of development in their countries and Columbans have been highlighting this issue since the 1980’s.

Today, a greater appreciation of Kingdom values in the world’s cultures and religions has led us to an increasing awareness of the need to dialogue with peoples of other religions and to promote an authentic inculturation of the Gospel. This has made ministry in Pakistan and Southern Philippines a priority for the Society.

There are presently 592 Columban missionaries of ten nationalities ministering in 15 countries.


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