After weeks of emitting ash, the underwater volcano Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai in the Kingdom of Tonga erupted violently on 15 January, sending ash up to 20 kilometres into the air and generating a tsunami that hit the country's capital Nuku'alofa. Ashfall from the eruption has engulfed the land and two weeks on, many Tongans remain without power, clean water and communication with the outside world.

Deacon Poukesi Vakauta is the Chaplain for the Tongan Catholic Community in the Archdiocese of Melbourne and recently spoke with Melbourne Catholic about the concerns he and many other locals hold for their loved ones back home.

Deacon Poukesi Vakauta, Chaplain to the Tongan Catholic Community

Deacon Poukesi grew up in the old Tongan capital of Mu’a, where Christianity was first introduced to the country. ‘I have many good memories of my local parish, St Michael’s, where I spent most of my youth.’

He moved to Australia in the 1990s to study Business at Deakin University and in the 2000s joined the Permanent Diaconate program of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. In 2013 he was ordained a Permanent Deacon and has since been based at Good Shepherd Catholic Parish in Gladstone Park.

As Chaplain to the Tongan Catholic Community, Deacon Poukesi assists with baptisms, funerals and marriage preparation programs for those who wish to celebrate in their Tongan language. Before the COVID pandemic hit, Deacon Poukesi said the 2,000-strong Tongan community would come together at the start of each year for a special Mass and to bless the children.

‘And six or seven times a year, we had two Tongan priests who would come down to Melbourne from Sydney for when the whole Tongan community gathers.

‘Before the lockdown, I used to do a Tongan Mass once a month with Fr Peter-Damien [McKinley] at Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, Sunshine. I would do the homily in Tongan and other parts of the liturgy. But COVID stopped this.’

Tongans are well known for their musical talents and have established choirs in several parishes across the Archdiocese of Melbourne and the Diocese of Sale. (In fact, the Tongan choir from Sunshine featured in the 2020 Archdiocesan carols special, Jesus is Christmas.)

‘Music is a huge part of the Tongan culture,’ said Deacon Poukesi. ‘It runs in our bloodstream as Polynesians! Whether accompanied by instruments or not, we love to sing, especially in the Mass. It’s our gift, I would say.’

Community gathers following tsunami

After spending most of last year apart due to COVID, members of the local Tongan community were finally able to gather on Sunday 16 January at Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Sunshine, just a day after Tonga’s natural disaster. Deacon Poukesi said he was grateful for the opportunity to come together at such a poignant moment.

It was amazing to be with the Tongan community after a year; we have not had a chance to come together to celebrate in our own language. And we could feel the tension among the Tongan community. It was very emotional for the people, especially because they didn’t know what was going on.’

Deacon Poukesi has two sisters and one brother back home, and it was only in recent days that he finally received word from one of his sisters confirming their safety. ‘I had not heard from them or their families… or my aunties and uncles and cousins. Thank God they are OK.’

‘When I grew up, there was never a tsunami [like this]. I think the last one affected us further away from the island but this one is shocking. The whole country is affected. I read that one or two of the little outer islands might have even been wiped out. We've experienced a lot of cyclones before and we know what to do and how to prepare for that. But now… they’ve never experienced something like this.’

‘The worst thing is the whole island [of Tongatapu, where Tonga’s capital Nuku'alofa is located] is so flat, so there's nowhere to go higher. It did damage to the coastal front, but if it was something worse, I don’t know what they would have done.

It’s just so frustrating and devastating to see. Thankfully Australia and New Zealand are helping out.’

Australia and New Zealand have now made contactless deliveries of essential supplies including food, water, hygiene kits and tents. Repair equipment for the severed underground fiber-optic cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world has also arrived. Caritas Australia has also launched an appeal to help in the recovery efforts.

In the coming days, Deacon Poukesi will meet with some of the local Tongan community leaders to see how they might assist those back home. ‘We really appreciate any contribution that people can organise,’ he said.

‘And we pray for them back home … that they’ll all be safe during this difficult time.’