First Missions amongst the Africans

We have seen how the OMI missionaries began their apostolate at Pietermaritzburg and Durban amongst the Europeans and Indians. It behoves us now to see their first missionary work with the Africans. Bishop de Mazenod (founder of the OMI), constantly reminded his priests that their main work was not with the whites but to the Zulu peoples. But in fairness to Bishop Allard, it must have been extremely difficult to do this straight away, when one considers that of the four missionaries that originally came with him in 1852, 2 would go back to Europe within the year and another would apostasize in 1856. The extent of the Natal Vicariate was enormous and one can only do so much with the limited resources and manpower at hand.

Still, within 2 years of their arrival, the OMI’s were attempting their first contacts with the Zulu’s. In December 1854, Frs Barrett and Gerard would walk 144km from Pietermaritzburg to Umzinto to visit Chief Dumisa. They were well received at they would name the first Mission St Michael’s. The mission was officially opened on September 2nd 1855 with about 100 people present. Brother Bernard was the builder of the chapel and other buildings. The priests were assiduous in their catechism classes and instructions to the Africans. – However when torrential rains hit the mission in February 1856 damaging the chapel it was decided that a new site would have to be found as the whole area was swampy. But the whole area would be abandoned by the Missionaries and the mission was closed in July 1856 as there was much quarrelling over the land issue between the Chief and his subchiefs.

A year later Bishop Allard applied for land near the first St Michael’s which was granted him and after many hardships the chapel was opened on July 17th 1859. However within a year the local people were coming less and less to the Chapel. Bishop Allard had to build and staff a school; this had been one of the conditions for the granting of the land from the authorities. Here too he had to abandon this as Bishop de Mazenod was unable to send the four lay brothers that Allard had requested for the task of teaching. The number attending Mass slowly increased to 130 by December 1860. To try and help the people Father Gerard, who spoke the best Zulu, “prepared with great care the sermons and instructions on subjects chosen by the Bishop. These included attacks on diviners and sorcerers as well as death and the fires of hell, but so unpopular were these topics that the regular church goers threatened to stop coming if the subject were repeated. As months passed it became obvious that attendance might be steady but there was no interest in conversion to Christianity and the missionaries were convinced that the people were hard hearted, had no interest in Catholicism, and were refusing to give up polygamy”. (The Catholic Church in Natal over 150 years, by J.Brian).

In February 1860 Bishop Allard, not happy with the progress on the Mission set out with Fr Gerard to visit the Amacele on the banks of the Umzinkulu river. Here they were warmly received by the people but their chief was somewhat more restrained, allowing them however not without difficulties to set up a Mission. Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Mission was established, but had consequences like the previous two St Michaels’ missions. A Chapel was built, people came to the Masses, the Missionaries visited the homes, but conversions did not follow. Here too, polygamy proved to be an obstacle that the locals were not willing to discuss and the mission became a great disappointment to the Bishop and his priests who had worked so hard for so long. The Vicar Apostolic decided that after these unsuccessful attempts in the south of the Natal Vicariate where the people “have refused the Divine seed we wished to sow in their hearts” it was time to seek other places outside Natal.

Providence put Lesotho (then known as Basutoland) before the Bishop. Bishop Allard and Fr Gerard entered Lesotho in early 1862, visiting the Chief, Moshoeshoe. The Bishop was pleasantly surprised when he received permission to open a mission on a site shown to them by Mosheshoe himself. Leaving Natal in August 1862, after many trials and tribulations they arrived at Lesotho on October 11th 1862 and set up camp in the valley which became known as “Motse-oa M’a-Jesu, Village of the Mother of God: now usually known as Roma.

There were many advantages about the new foundation, not least being the friendliness of Moshoeshoe, his encouragement to the people to attend services and his own visits from time to time. He was genuinely interested in Christianity, but unfortunately died never having embraced the Faith. The Mission opened officially on 1st November 1863 and after this the missionaries set out to visit the people in their homes. They found here too that the weaknesses of the people were drunkenness, polygamy and magical practices. Magic, witchcraft and ritual medicine were pagan practices prohibited by King Moshoeshoe, but they still existed amongst the people. The priests hoped that these would disappear when the people were better educated.

To help them in this task, one saw the arrival o he Holy Family Sisters. They began work immediately preparing the cathecumens for baptism and on October 8th 1865, the first Baptisms of seven adults took place in the presence of Moshoeshoe. These good sisters served as educators, both in schools and in the catechumenate, they taught practical skills, they looked after the old, destitute, sick and orphans. Missionaries of today have all modern appliances at their disposal, means of transport are at hand and life is made so much easier. Credit must be given to these sisters and all early missionaries who had to adapt to harsh living conditions, primitive accommodation, and food that was quite different to what they were used to.

During the Boer-Basuto war the Sisters helped to look after the wounded Basutos. Fr Gerard gathered up the old and sick who had been abandoned by fleeing families and carried them to the mission. On one occasion when on the back of a wagon, a bullet passed through the tent and lodged in his breviary at his feet, leaving him unharmed.

At the end of 1865 Lesotho was consecrated to Our Lady and soon afterwards Fr Gerard introduced the custom of Christian greeting which was to set the Christians apart from other Basuto while drawing them together as a community. The first greeting was “Ho rorisoe Jesu Kriste” (May Jesus Christ be praised) to which the reply was “Le Maria ea se nang sekoli” (And Mary Immaculate too).

Fr Gerard (now Blessed) was in Lesotho from 1863 until his death in 1914. His answer to those who questions his work among the Basuto was: “There is a secret to win someone’s love, it is to love. It is the same with the pagans. When we see them we are saddened, wondering what to do to convert them. The answer is to be found in every page of the Gospel. We have to love them, love them in spite of everything, love them always”.

Here Bishop Allards missionary endeavours were a success. Under difficult circumstances he had done his best, and he had suffered much at the hand of some of his priests who had complained about him Fr Martinet, one of the assistant generals came to the Vicariate on a canonical visitation. In February 1872 Fr Martinet presented his report and Bishop Allard went toEurope to defend his case. He resigned as Vicar Apostolic in 1874 and would die in Rome in 1889.- It was this Bishop and his priests who sowed the seeds of the Faith in difficult and trying times. Future generations of Missionaries would reap the crop..