Divine Word Missionaries
Fr. Frank Mihalic, SVD
The son of a Pennsylvania farmer-railway man, Frank was born November 24, 1916, in the small mining and railroad town of Renovo. His father, after whom he was named, was a man of Croatian descent, with a flair for languages, while his mother's family was Slovakian. The Mihalics successfully raised a family of four boys and six girls in the tough years before the Depression. The family lived in a Polish neighborhood and Frank growing up bombarded with different nationalities quickly acquired the skill of learning languages.
Much of Franks childhood was spent avidly reading the Little Missionary magazine, and its pages, filled with the experiences of missionaries in exotic countries, fired him with a zeal to follow in their footsteps. After completing high school and two years of college, Frank entered the Society of the Divine Word in Techny, Illinois. His mother was delighted that he was to become a priest, but his father accepted the decision reluctantly and felt shortchanged by the Lord.
Training in philosophy and theology followed as well as Greek and Latin and Frank also found time for additional studies at the Chicago College of Medical Technology in serology, histology and bacteriology. Ordained in 1944, he seemed fated to forego missionary life because of the uncertainties of the Second World War. Most of his classmates were given overseas appointments but Frank was asked to remain in the United States and to teach physiology and geology in the seminary at Techny.
Unexpectedly, a letter from Rome arrived in August, 1947, appointing him to New Guinea, and he set sail within a few months. After his arrival in early 1948  he was based in a mission headquartered at Alexishafen which had been reduced to rubble by American bombers who mistook the place for a Japanese holdout. He wrote: "Our homes are like our Lord's tomb: close to the ground. They are ramshackle lean-to's of termited timber holding aloft a tin roof- for the time being. We have gunny sack walls and rainwater for drinking and washing. The work most of us priests did here over the past weeks was anything but clerical: overhauling Jeeps, servicing diesel boat motors, hauling supplies by air and land and sea, setting up leftover army machinery and building."
Within weeks he was appointed parish priest at Marienberg in the East Sepik area. Here one of his parishioners was a young boy named Michael Somare, who later became the first Prime Minister of the newly independent Papua New Guinea. After a few months in the village, Bishop-elect Leo Arkfeld arrived in a Sepik River canoe and said: "Frank, we need you. Go over and rebuild the catechist school on Kairiru Island."
By then Frank was fluent in Tok Pism, which was the only language used in schools in the area but he had to develop all the course materials. He also obtained a license as a medical assistant on the basis of his Chicago studies, and did what he could for the local population in an area rife with disease, especially tuberculosis. He caught the disease himself in 1954 and was promptly sent to the United States for treatment. He spent 22 months in bed in a California sanatorium, and then had to spend a long time learning to walk again.
It was during those long sanatorium months that, by way of occupational therapy, he turned to linguistics. He first started to translate the New Testament into Tok Pisin but abandoned the project after learning that the Lutheran Church had already started their own translation. Instead he started collecting a Tok Pisin lexicon, which was to grow into his famous dictionary and grammar.
As Frank recovered from his illness, he worked for some time as hospital chaplain, and then in 1957, he took the Norman, Oklahoma, Summer Institute of Linguistics course, feeling the need for a more formal training in linguistics. Still on sick leave, he enrolled in the University of Michigan Graduate School, and was given a teaching assistantship. In the meantime he published his dictionary and started work on his M.A. thesis.
Then Frank was suddenly recalled to Papua New Guinea. The Kairiru Catechetical School was on the verge of collapse. He left the United States immediately, his studies unfinished. However, medical problems forced him to transfer to Enga, as a parish priest. Then in October 1959, Father Superior General Schuette landed on a mountain airstrip at Par in the interior of New Guinea, came up to him and said: "Father, we need you. Get over to Rome and help us get the Tertiate renewal program started in Nemi."

St. John's

He remained in charge of the new institute for eight years. Then, in mid 1967 the Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea cabled SVD headquarters in Rome, saying they needed Frank to start a Pidgin newspaper in Papua New Guinea.
Frank began his newspaper in 1969 with no focus, no printing equipment and no media experience. He gained all three, within a year. Bishop Arkfeld agreed to print the new newspaper on the Wirui Press. The offices were set up in Wewak. Frank trained the staff for the first issue himself, and his aim was always to have the paper in the hands of nationals. At the time he explained: "Wantok is a typical Pidgin word which literally means someone speaking the same language. The word also implies being a friend, a chum, a confidant. We want the paper to be all those things to its readers."
He added: "One of the things we are going to have to settle before we even start printing is the smokeability of the paper we are using. That will help to sell papers. People here have the custom of rolling their home-grown tobacco into cigarettes with newsprint. They don't like the usual thin tissue paper for roll-your-owns. It burns too fast. They like newsprint-but not every kind-it must bum a certain way and produce a white ash. So we are experimenting among our staff with various samples from the paper manufacturers. We want to make sure that we have the best smoking paper in the country. Then we can advertise it that way. And well have to print a warning on the front page stating: PLEASE READ THIS PAPER BEFORE YOU SMOKE IT. Maybe someday we'll get into the Guinness Book of Records as the most smoked newspaper in the world."
The first issue of Wantok appeared on August 5, 1970, in an attractive layout, reprotyped, offset produced and containing good pictures. When the enterprise moved to Port Moresby in 1976, Wantok had become a weekly with a circulation of 9,000. Today it has circulation of 30,000 with an average of eight people reading each copy. In 1979 Frank resigned as editor and spent a few years traveling through Papua New Guinea writing feature articles for Wantok. Publishing had in the meantime gone to Word Publishing, a press sponsored by Divine Word Missionaries.
In the meantime Frank had revised his grammar and dictionary for the new Jacaranda publication, which appeared in 1971 and was reprinted many times until 1983. He also found time to translate the PNG Constitution into Tok Pisin, and in 1981 he was awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for "services rendered to Pidgin in Papua New Guinea." Recognition also came from the University of Papua New Guinea which gave him an honorary doctorate of linguistics.
Fifteen years later Frank gave his final lesson, and on August 7, 1997, he told journalism students: 'This is where my teaching career ends." He had been teaching for 52 years and had written almost 30 books. Journalism students were sad to see him leave their classroom and one of them wrote: "For anyone who has come across this person, I can only say that we were fortunate enough to have met him. For those who have been taught by him, the knowledge he has passed on to us can only be put to good use to make our lives more meaningful."
In 1994 Frank was in a reflective mood when wrote modestly about his many achievements. He wrote: "Playing second fiddle, doing ancillary or supportive work has been the story of my life. It has meant being a stopgap to fill some temporary need, or being a spare part that either helps to start something or keeps it going. The euphoria of being continually needed could easily have inflated my ego had I not luckily chanced upon a very sobering biblical text. One day I looked up the word 'need' in my concordance and was shocked to find out that only once in the entire New Testament had the Lord ever said that he had need of anything. It was the time he was going up to Jerusalem. He said he had need of a jackass!
I took the hint. And ever since, Luke 19:34 has become my text. You will find it on my desk, scrawled across a snapshot of a genuine donkey patiently standing at the Damascus Gate.
I have always admired the supportive staff of any organization, the players who run interference for the ball-carrying football star, the mechanics who keep planes flying, the ground crew who nurse the space shuttle.
At age 80 plus, I have no regrets. I feel quite fulfilled in having played a secondary role. Given the chance, I would gladly do it all over again-only better."
Fr. Frank currently resides in our Mission House in Riverside. We are all grateful for his presence, his enjoyable stories and wise homilies.
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