The Diocese of Des Moines
Shelby County missionary celebrates 50th anniversary
Divine Word Missionary Vince Ohlinger
Shelby County missionary celebrates 50th anniversary
March 11, 2018
Written By: Anne Marie Cox

A missionary following his uncle’s footsteps left the gentle rolling hills of Shelby County to serve the people in the jungles and mountains of Papua New Guinea in the south Pacific in the 1960s.

Over the years, Divine Word Missionary Vince Ohlinger has been robbed, kidnapped and beaten. He was hospitalized several times and sickened with malaria just about every year he ministered in Papua New Guinea.

Yet when reflecting on his 50 years as a missionary priest, he said, “It’s not nearly as hard as picking corn by hand.”

When he treated people with respect and dignity – people of any tribe, of any language, in any country – they responded with respect and dignity for the most part.

Father Ohlinger will celebrate his 50th anniversary of priestly ordination on April 15 with 10:30 a.m. Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Michael Church in Harlan followed by a meal and reception in the Rosman Parish Center.

Baptized at St. Mary Parish in Panama, Iowa, he heard stories of his famous uncle, Archbishop Leo Arkfeld, dubbed the “Flying Bishop” because he flew a plane over jungles and mountains to serve the people of Papua New Guinea after World War II.

“He was one of the major influences on my vocation,” said Father Ohlinger.

He followed his uncle to Divine Word Missionaries. Father Ohlinger was ordained in 1968 and asked to serve in the country where his uncle lived.

He served a year in a parish in Maprik, where he learned the language would be a little more challenging to navigate than he thought.

“There is a common language, pidgin English, used throughout the entire country. But then each tribe has its own language that’s separate and distinct,” he said.

“I thought, ‘Well, here comes some people, some young men. I will ask how you say good morning and good afternoon in their local language.’ I did,” he said. “The next day or so, here comes an older guy and I used those expressions and he got all upset because those were his enemies’ language. I found out that in that parish itself there were three distinct language so I simply said to myself, ‘I give up trying to learn three of them and I don’t know which one to use when.’”

He stuck with pidgin English or, as it is now called, Tok Pisin.

He ministered to about 5,000 plantation workers in Kokopo. They cared for and harvested cocoa and coconuts.

He taught algebra and physics in New Jersey for a year and then went to the Diocese of Goroka, where he served in youth ministry for a year before becoming the national youth chaplain for Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

“This was a need throughout the country, not just in one place,” he said. “Young people in the rural areas migrate to the urban centers, so you have a large, vast number of young people in the urban areas, many of them unemployed. You provide activities for them and they go through some sort of a cycle. Many go back to the village, settle down and marry.”

In 1983, Father Ohlinger became rector of Divine Word College which is part of the major seminary at Bomana, training men to become priests and Divine Word Missionaries. Working at the seminary was rewarding.

“I think those years were probably the most enjoyable years because you’re working with seminarians, people who are dedicated to becoming missionaries,” he said. Because of his experience around the country, he could relate to the young men at the college.

“It was fulfilling in the sense of seeing the development that was taking place in them as young men,” he said.

Math and technology came easy for him so he was sent to Chicago to study accounting to prepare to go into administration. The first appointment in 1988 was finance officer at Divine Word University in Madang.

“Every time I turned around I was pushed up higher,” he said.

He became finance officer at Word Publishing in Port Moresby in 1991. And later he became general manager producing three weekly newspapers and one monthly.

 His last position, in 1999, was provincial treasurer for all the Divine Word Missionaries working in Papua New Guinea.

“At that time there were more than 300 SVDs working there,” he said.

Twice, he had an opportunity to shake the hand of St. John Paul II. Once was when he was on sabbatical in Rome. The second time was during the late pontiff’s 1984 visit to Papua New Guinea, when Father Ohlinger assisted his uncle, Archbishop Arkfeld, as he greeted the pope.

Father Ohlinger moved to East Troy, Wisconsin in 2001 where he assisted his religious community until his retirement in 2015.


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