Father Callistus Lopinot. Micronesian Seminar collection.

German Capuchin

Father Callistus Lopinot (1876 – 1996) was a German Capuchin missionary in the Marianas at the beginning of the 20th century. Although he never served on Guam, Lopinot was assigned to the island but was prevented from working on Guam by the American Naval Government.

He did much to promote the use of the CHamoru language.

Catholics reorganize to regroup islands

He was born in 1876 in the Alsatian town of Geispolsheim, Germany. Alsace, at the time, was part of Germany and Lopinot joined the Rhine-Westphalia Province, a German province of the Capuchin Order. In 1899, he was ordained a priest.

Young and fluent in several languages, Lopinot was destined for the Micronesian missions assigned to the Rhine-Westphalia Province in 1904. Lopinot arrived in Yap that very year.

In 1907, Rome decided to group all the Marianas, including American Guam and the German Northern Marianas, into one ecclesiastical entity called an Apostolic Prefecture. The Rhine-Westphalia friars were to be in charge of this Prefecture with headquarters in Saipan. This arrangement was to prove problematic for the American Naval Government on Guam, which did not favor German religious control over Guam. Father Paulus Fischer was appointed Prefect. Fischer made a few trips to Guam and tried to prepare the Spanish Capuchins working on Guam, Padre Don Jose Bernardo Palomo y Torres, the only CHamoru priest at that time, and the people at large for the eventual arrival of German friars.

When Saipan and Rota came under the care of the German Capuchins in 1907, Lopinot was immediately assigned to Saipan. He set out to learn the CHamoru language. His time in Saipan was not the first time Lopinot became acquainted with CHamorus; there had been a small community of CHamorus in Yap since the time the Spaniards actively colonized that island in the 1880s.

At the time Lopinot was sent to Saipan, Georg Fritz was District Officer of Saipan in the German colonial government. Fritz did not have smooth relations with Lopinot and, although Fritz was eventually transferred elsewhere in 1907, he would have an impact on Lopinot’s life in the future.

The Guam controversy

In 1909, Lopinot was sent to Palau, but not for long. In 1910, Fischer tried to install Lopinot as pastor of the Hagåtña parish. It was not the first time Fischer attempted to replace a Spanish friar with a German one on Guam. Previously, in 1909, Fischer tried to place Father Basilius Graf, in Hagåtña as pastor. Fischer had to rescind this decision when 89 prominent Guam residents signed a petition protesting Graf’s assignment.

When both Fischer and Lopinot arrived on Guam on 10 June 1910 to place the latter at Hagåtña, the two German friars were not even permitted to leave their ship in Apra Harbor. The Naval Governor at the time, Edward John Dorn, wrote to Fischer that he was denying Fischer permission to land because of the agitation caused among the people the last time the Prefect tried to replace a Spanish friar with a German.

In his letter, Dorn also alluded to a high German government official who had warned Dorn that Lopinot was a politically hostile person. The German friars were convinced that Dorn’s informant was Georg Fritz.

Private letters among the friars and Palomo reveal that, while many CHamorus still maintained a sense of loyalty to the Spanish missionaries they had known for hundreds of years, the American Naval Government was also a major player in this drama. The U.S. Navy opposed the German friars and did all they could to encourage local opposition to them as well. It was also alleged that Palomo did not favor a German presence since the German government in Saipan had not allowed him to confirm in Saipan (Palomo had that power for a time) and, prevented Palomo from retaining his land holdings in Saipan in absentia.

Subsequent assignments

Since the ship that carried them away from Guam was bound for Manila, Lopinot was able to meet the American Archbishop of Manila, Jeremiah Harty. Harty asked Lopinot to remain in the Philippines as inspector of the Catholic schools in the Manila Archdiocese. Lopinot agreed to this proposal and also eventually worked in the parish of Las Pinas, south of Manila.

In 1913, Lopinot was back in Palau, but received a new assignment within a year’s time. In 1914, Father Salvator Walleser, German Prefect of the Carolines, purchased a coconut plantation in Gayaba in the German part of Papua New Guinea. The income from the sale of copra from this plantation was to financially support the Micronesian missions. Lopinot was sent to Gayaba to manage the plantation.

The outbreak of World War I, however, impeded the work of the plantation and the economic potential of the project was not fully realized. When the war ended, the Micronesian missions were taken out of the hands of the Rhine-Westphalia Province, and both missions and plantation were then taken over by the Spanish Jesuits. Lopinot left Gayaba in 1921.

The end of the war also had political consequences for Lopinot as well. Alsace was separated from Germany and restored to France. The Alsatian friars now had to form a new Capuchin jurisdiction, which eventually became the Strasbourg Province, to which Lopinot belonged until his death.

From 1922 until 1932, Lopinot worked in the General Curia (headquarters) of the Capuchin Order in Rome as Vice Secretary of the Missions. In 1932, the Vatican appointed Lopinot Apostolic Prefect of Mayotte, Nossy Be and the Comoros, islands off the coast of Madagascar. This Prefecture was later suppressed in 1937 and Lopinot was then made a consultor on the staff of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide, the Vatican’s missionary agency. At this post, Lopinot was to exert some influence over the same Pacific missions where he had previously served. His reports and opinions helped shaped the Vatican’s decisions over the Guam mission.

Lopinot remained in Rome until his death on Christmas day, in 1966.

Promotion of the CHamoru language

Although the German Capuchins worked for only 11 years in the Marianas, they produced the largest number of printed works in CHamoru until that time. The German friars usually did not credit one friar with these publications but named the German Friars as a whole, instead, as the authors of these works. The letters and writings of the friars at the time, however, generally concede that Lopinot was the author, or at least a major contributor, of these publications.

In 1910, a book of Bible stories in CHamoru, the Historia Sagrada, was published, although permission for its printing was given by the German church authorities earlier in 1907. It is possible that Lopinot, who had only arrived in Saipan in 1907, was able to translate D.I. Schuster’s original stories from German to CHamoru with the help of a CHamoru assistant conversant.

Also in 1910, several other publications appeared including a CHamoru catechism, the Catesismon i Dottrina Cristiana; a shorter treatise on the sacrament of confession entitled I Sacramenton Cumonfesat (Lopinot is here named as translator), and a prayer book called the Debosionario. Later, in 1915, a CHamoru hymnal, Kanta Siha para I Gima Yuus, was published.

Father Roman Maria de Vera, who produced an abundant number of his own CHamoru works, used much of this material published by the German friars, although he differed from them in orthography and vocabulary. Lopinot, fluent in Spanish, often used a Spanish term while Maria de Vera preferred to use an indigenous word for the same term. The influence of Lopinot in Saipan and Maria de Vera on Guam helps explain the slight differences in the prayer form between both places.

Lopinot and the German friars also preserved two Spanish hymns composed by Palomo that would have otherwise been lost.

Finally, in 1910 Lopinot published a CHamoru-German word list, the Chamorro-Wörterbuch. This book also preserves some archaic CHamoru words and phrases. In this book, Lopinot calls himself an “Apostolic Missionary in Guam” though he was never allowed to even land on the island.

By Eric Forbes, OFM Cap.

For further reading

Hezel, Francis X., SJ. “German Catholic Missions in Micronesia.” Micronesian Seminar. Last modified 8 May 2019.

–––. The Catholic Church in Micronesia. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1991.

–––. “The Catholic Missions in the Caroline and Marshall Islands.” Journal of Pacific History 5, no. 1 (1970): 213-227.

Lopinot, Callistus, OFM Cap. Die Karolinenmission der spanischen und deutschen Kapuziner 1886-1919. Rome, 1964.