Papua New Guinea
Peter To Rot (pronounced toe rote) was born in 1912 in Rakunai, a village near Rabaul, the capital of New Britain. To Rot’s father was Angelo To Puia, a respected chief and local leader, and his mother was Maria Ja Tumul. Peter was the third of six children. Peter’s childhood was like that of most boys his age. He served Mass, participated in sports, helped at home with daily chores, and joined in occasional practical jokes and the usual boyhood mischief. What stood out was his leadership among the boys. Even though he was the chief’s son, he was neither arrogant nor bossy.
When Peter was 18, the parish priest of the village spoke to his father about the possibility of To Rot becoming a priest. The Chief replied that he thought it was not yet time for one of their generation to become a priest. However he agreed that Peter could become a catechist. And so in the fall of 1930, Peter went to study at the Catechist School in Taliligap, staffed by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
Before the end of his third year at school, he was called back to Rakunai and, at 21 years of age, became the youngest catechist. His main work was teaching in the parish school; but he also visited and prayed with the sick.
In 1936 Peter married Paula Ja Varpit at the Rakunai church. Their marriage was a happy one, and their first child was born in 1939.
In January 1942, the war came to Rabaul. The Japanese sent all the white missionaries to a prison camp and To Rot took on the care of the faith community. To those who were frightened by the events of the war, he would say, “This is a very bad time for us, and we are all afraid. But God our Father is with us and looking after us. We must pray and ask him to stay with us always.”
Early on, the Japanese paid no attention to the people’s prayer and Sunday worship. But when they started losing the war, they called in the village leaders and commanded them, “You people must not pray to your God. You cannot meet on Sundays for service, and you must not pray in the villages either. Anyone who disobeys this law will go to jail.”
Peter To Rot who spoke up, “The Japanese cannot stop us loving God and obeying his laws! We must be strong and we must refuse to give in to them.” And so he continued to teach the people and gather them for prayer.
The Japanese authorities arrested To Rot. They searched the caves where he held prayer services, and searched his home as well as the houses of his two brothers, Tatamai and Telo. They confiscated his books: a Bible, a catechism, a song-book, some notebooks and two crucifixes. From Tatamai’s house they took a raincoat. And in Telo’s suitcases they found an Australian bank-book. All three brothers were arrested.
Telo, the youngest, was accused of being an Australian spy because of the bank-book. He was hung on a papaya tree and beaten till he lost consciousness. In the days following, Tatamai and To Rot were sent into forced labor; Telo had been too severely beaten to work.
Telo was released after two weeks because of his health after the beating; Tatamai was released after a month; but To Rot was kept in prison.
To Rot had many visits from relatives and friends, especially his mother and his wife. They came every day and brought him food. He would encourage them and assure them that he was not afraid because he was in prison for God. To the village chief who came to see him, Peter said, “I am ready to die. But you must take care of the people.” To another friend, Peter added, “If it is God’s will, I’ll be murdered for the faith. I am a child of the church and therefore for the church I will die.”
One day he asked his wife Paula to bring his shaving kit, a white laplap, his rosary and his catechist’s cross. The next day, a Friday, she brought these along with some food. She also brought their two children, and she was pregnant with their third child. When Paula noticed that Peter ate very little, she became anxious and upset. To Rot calmed her and said that it was his duty to die for his people and for the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The family stayed together for a long time, until Peter urged her to take the children and go home.
Around 7.00pm, all the prisoners—except To Rot—were taken to a nearby farm for a party. They were surprised since this had never happened before. At about 10.00pm, the Japanese guard told them to go to sleep. Not returning to the prison for the night was also very unusual. Because security was very light, three prisoners crept back to the prison in the darkness. There they found Peter To Rot dead on the porch of the prison house. They knew he had been murdered, but fearing for their own lives, they hid and said nothing.
The villagers and relatives removed Peter’s body. He was given a chief’s burial at the new cemetery next to the church where he had ministered. Even though many people came, the funeral was held in silence, fearing what the Japanese might do if the people prayed aloud and in public. From that day on he was revered as a martyr for his faith. Blessed Peter To Rot
was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1995.