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Our History - Page 7

  • The African Mission

    A curious factor in the Mill Hill Missionaries’ assignments to Africa is the influence that politics and diplomacy had on them.  This is evident in the Uganda assignment which came in 1895.  Previous to the arrival of the Mill Hill Missionaries, Catholic missions in Uganda had been pioneered by the French White Fathers (known today as the Missionaries of Africa).  Both the catholic and the Protestant missions had flourished.  There was little love lost between them.  In the popular mind, the Protestants were of the British mission (Bangareza).  The Catholic missions were seen as the French mission (Bafransa).  Such was the rivalry between these two groups that, in the early 1890s, civil war broke out between them. 

    By the end of the civil war, the Church had begun to realize that something must be done to prevent such political misconceptions.  The Catholic Church must cease to be seen as an instrument of White equatorial African interests. The Mill Hill missionaries, as a British Society, was invited to correct the balance in Uganda.  The first team arrived in 1895.  It was tacitly agreed that the Missionaries of Africa should concentrate on missions to the west of Kampala and that the Mill Hill Missionaries direct their attentions to the east.  That is why over the years, the Mill Hill Missions expanded towards Nairobi in Kenya.

    This movement was a slow process.  Eventually the territories stretching from Uganda to the African coast at Mombasa were seen as three sections.  West of Kampala was the territory of the Missionaries of Africa.  Nairobi to the east coast was the responsibility of the Holy Ghost Fathers (now known as the Spiritans).  The territory from Kampala to the Nairobi escarpment was considered a Mill Hill sphere of influence.  The arrival of the Italian Consolata Missionaries in the 1920s altered this balance somewhat.

    The next political upheaval came at the turn of the 20th century and concerned the Belgian territory of Congo.  Belgian colonial administration was more than draconian.  Indeed it is likely that no African territory suffered such a brutal colonial policy as was visited upon the natives of the Congo.  At the turn of the century, the journalist, Morrell, and the Irish diplomat, Roger Casement, instituted a campaign to inform the world of these Belgian brutalities.  Their efforts roused international revulsion.  Belgium had to cave in to international pressure and institute reforms.  Part of the whole set of these reforms was an invitation to the Mill Hill Missionaries to set up missions in the Congo.  The first team arrived in 1905.

    After the First World War Germany was stripped of her African colonies.   They were parceled out to other European nations.  Among those granted to Great Britain was the then Southern Cameroon.  The position of the German missionaries who had staffed the missions in Cameroon became untenable.  The new colonial masters demanded their departure.  This was a result of a wave of anti-German feeling that came in the wake of the war.  To provide a legal basis for the expulsion of the German missionaries, the British government looked at a piece of legislation which had been passed in 1916 by the Government of the Straits Settlements.  This was known as the Alien Missionaries Registration (1916).  The Colonial Office extended this to the whole of the British Empire.  The German missionaries had to go.  In 1922, the Mill Hill Missionaries were sent to replace them in Cameroon.

    The last politically motivated Mill Hill assignment in Africa came in the latter half of the 1930s.  Until that time, the missions in Sudan had been the responsibility of the Italian Comboni Missionaries, formally known as the Verona Fathers. When Mussolini’s forces invaded Somalia and Eritrea, the British administration of the Protectorate of Sudan became very nervous.  They feared that Mussolini had designs also on Sudan.  Contemporary military wisdom was of the view that, if his forces invaded Sudan, they would come through the territory of Kodok and Malakal.  The administration demanded therefore that the Italian missionaries in these areas should be replaced by British.  For this reason, the Mill Hill Missionaries were assigned to Sudan.

    The main areas, therefore, where the Mill Hill Missionaries have been at work are Cameroon, Congo, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda.  Of very recent occurrence is the opening of one mission in Kroonstad, South Africa. This latter mission has no political overtones.  It is a response to a cry for help from a South African township.

    In its East African beginnings, the Mill Hill Missionaries concentrated on four general concerns: training of catechists, catechumenates, care of the sick and elementary schools.  The care of the sick was a special problem.  Current Canon Law forbade priests and religious to engage in medical work other than simple nursing.  There were two approaches to this embargo.  Some missionaries simply ignored Canon Law.  At a practical level, candidates for Mill Hill were given basic training in first aid.  Some were encouraged to become sufficiently skilled to practise homoeopathic medicine.  There was a very sound cultural reason why some sort of position had to be taken on medical care.  Generally, the Asian and African mind sees on essential connection between the holy man and the healer.  To be effective the missionary had to be some sort of healer.  The reforms achieved by Anna Dengel’s group in the 1930s changed all this. It gave the kickstart to an expansion of medical work in Catholic missions throughout the world.

    The elementary schools never, in the early days, had any very general impact.  From the missionaries’ point of view, a basic educational infra-structure was a necessary preparation for the training of catechists and, eventually, the education of local priests.  This approach was to remain predominant until the 1920s.

    The 1920s change in attitudes to education came as a result of a change in British colonial policy.  The government in London realised then that it must look towards self-government in the colonies.  To achieve this, local people must be trained to take up the reins of government.  A number of reports were commissioned.  Almost all of them recommended that the achievement of the required educational standards demanded on alliance with Christian missions.  The Mill Hill and other missions began then to look seriously towards the provision of secondary and tertiary educational facilities.  It is from this time that cadres of missionaries began to take the necessary training to be able to provide such training.

    Similar work was also undertaken in Congo.  Cameroon was a special case.  Between 1920 and 1930, its first priority was the re-opening of the former German stations.  Educational development had to wait, therefore, until the 1930s.  From that time, Cameroon, followed the same pattern as in East Africa.  The resources available to do this were not quite so generous.  Sudan was a special case.  During the first years of Mill Hill involvement, it took on the aspect of a holding mission.  After the achievement of independence by Sudan, tensions between the north and south of the country made any sort of organized educational and medical work very difficult.

    After the Second World War, there was a great expansion of missionary work in East and West Africa.  The old areas of influence changed. New missionary societies and congregations began to share the work.  Development of the diocesan clergy proceeded apace and soon the role of the missionaries was to change fundamentally.  This released missionaries to become involved in wholly new sets of concerns.

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