Juan Ngiraibuuch: A Life Too Short

Brother Juan Ngiraibuuch, SJ.

The photo of Juan that is unforgettable, at least for me, is the 1987 shot of him seated between his two fellow novices and their novice director, Fr. Felix Yaoch. in the rectory in Palau. They all have beaming smiles on their faces, as well they should. They were making history in an island group that had long been a mission served by other countries. Now Micronesia had its own Jesuit novitiate, its own Palauan novice master, and three island seminarians. It was a key event on the path toward the truly Micronesian church that we had all hoped for.

Juan entered the Society of Jesus 20 years after the death of Cypriano Moses, another Palauan brother and relative of his who had been buried in Chuuk. Juan once told me that he wanted to continue the work of his uncle as a Jesuit brother. He certainly did that–for more than 30 years in a remarkable ministry of service, first in Palau, and then in the Marshalls, the Philippines and Fiji. Everywhere he went, he brought his wide smile, his soft voice, and his warm manner. His personality was welcoming to all–an invitation to share with him anything and everything about yourself. This served him well during his long years as a counselor to high school students and a spiritual director for  seminarians.

Juan’s death on Saipan of a massive stroke came as a shock to all of us. He was a unifying figure in an age that badly needed it. He was the image of selflessness at a time when so many can’t seem to get beyond their own self-image. Why couldn’t he have remained with us as a model of service for many more years? He was only 57 when he passed away, just a year or two older than Wayne Tkel, a fellow Palauan Jesuit who died in 2019. He would have been about the same age as Apollo Thall when he left us several years ago. Perhaps there is something to the old saying that the good die young.

This has been a difficult week for church in Miconesia. Just two days before Juan’s death, we lost a young diocesan seminarian, Anthony Dolan, from pancreatitis. He would have been ordained in another two years time. I only knew him briefly for the few weeks he was here on Guam before his sudden death.

We can only pray that faithful stewards like Br. Juan inspire others to do what Br. Cypriano did for him, Continue the work that they have carried on so well during their all too short lives.

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About the author

Francis X. Hezel, SJ
Francis X. Hezel, SJ

Francis X. Hezel, SJ, is a Jesuit priest who has lived and worked in Micronesia since 1963. At different times he has served as high school teacher, school administrator, pastor, and regional superior to the Jesuits of Micronesia. He spent thirty years directing the Micronesian Seminar, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Pohnpei, Micronesia. He has written and spoken widely about social change and its impact on island societies. He has also written several books on Micronesian history, including The First Taint of Civilization, Strangers in Their Own Land, and The New Shape of Old Island Cultures. His most recent book, Making Sense of Micronesia: The Logic of Pacific Island Culture, is available through University of Hawaii Press.