Veronica Ruiz ‘23
On Monday, November 11, anthropologist Juliana Flinn delivered a fascinating presentation in Rehm Library on Mother Mary’s influence in Micronesia. Flinn first visited Micronesia as a peace corps volunteer, and continued her research as a professor of Anthropology in Gender Studies at the University of Arkansas, where she’s taught for thirty years. She focused her presentation specifically on Pulap, a “tiny tropical island in the South Pacific” that was converted to Catholicism in the 1940’s. From Flinn’s perspective, the islanders’ conversion was “not very long ago, but today Catholicism is an integral part of their identity.”
Flinn mentioned how the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is one of the most important events in Pulap. The feast day is celebrated differently in Pulap than how most people are used to celebrating it here in the U.S. The women use taro plants as an offering to Mary so she can take care of the people and protect them from storms. The women also make very eloquent prayers during the feast and tease and taunt the men with taro plants. The women then go home and take care of the feast—they sing and do skits. In many ways, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates motherhood in an empowering way. Flinn was a bit surprised to find this image of Mary, because a lot of the anthropological work she’s looked at “talked about a decline in women’s status when people were converted to Catholicism, and that women were confined to the home.” However, instead the women have a very special image of Mary who serves as a role-model for them. Although Mary was “brought to the island from the outside…local women have made Mary their own.”
Pulapol women regard Mary as the image of a mother, protector from storms, provider of food and taro, and someone who takes care of her community and kin. In the eyes of the Pulapol women, what it means to be a mother is revealed through a woman’s work. The women’s work is to grow taro plants, weave mats, cultivate and prepare food, take care of the sick and elderly, and maintain good relationships throughout the community. Flinn mentioned how Mary is the ultimate nurturing figure for Pulapol women. The women offer Mary taro plants to show that they will follow in her footsteps.
Not only did Flinn speak about Mother Mary and her influence on the Pulapol women, but also about how Catholicism as a whole influenced Pulap. Catholicism strengthened Pulapol tradition and kept them from fighting against other islanders as they would before the Pulapol were converted. It also opened up opportunities for them to travel and learn. The Pulapol found it important to travel because they felt obligated to “advise on public speaking” and to “spread the word of Mary.” Flinn’s presentation was captivating and informative, and opened up the audience to a whole new perception of Catholicism.