Sons and Daughters of St Benedict Evangelize upper Katanga

Fr Pierre Godenir, OSB


In 1910 there remained one last white patch on the map of the Catholic world, the region of Upper Katanga in the Belgian Congo. The Abbey of Saint-André (Bruges), founded in 1902 by Dom van Caloen, accepted the offer made by the Belgian government and endorsed by the Holy See. The request was specific that ‘in contrast to the method followed in the rest of the Congo a central abbey should be built, whose members would form a group to influence the whole region’.

On 15th August, 2010, Lubumbashi celebrates the centenary of the arrival of a team of five monks, led by the Apostolic Prefect, Dom Jean- Félix de Hemptinne: The cross of foundation was raised on the hill of Nguba, 200km beyond the town. But this area of savannah has little good soil, and its population is very scattered. Mgr de Hemptinne departed again for the capital where a huge crowd of every race and no religion was gathered. In 1910 the Salesians of Don Bosco took charge of the south of Katanga and, in the town, the teaching of children of expatriates. A second team arrived from Saint-André, which enabled Mgr de Hemptinne to establish a parish in the centre of the town and the parish of St John, near the camp of the African labourers.

During the First World War a second mission was established in the bush at Mukabe-Kasari, north of Nguba. There the first Congolese Benedictines began to appear, the origin of the present monastery of Notre-Dame des Sources, located at the gates of Lubumbashi.

According to the mandate received, should the territory of Upper Katanga, entrusted to the monks of Saint-André, be evangelized? An answer was given in time by events. Yes, in 1930 Dom Nève, Abbot of Saint-André, and Mgr de Hemptinne erected the mission of Kapolowe as a monastic priory. Ora et labora. The common prayer gave a rhythm to the work in the fields, the workshops and the many schools. A village of fishermen on the shore of the hydro-electric dam was evangelized. Visits were made to other more distant villages. In conjunction with the central priory they were to form a district nullius.

The missionary monks were to do the same in the other posts of a territory three times the size of Belgium. In each mission there were at least three monks, and twenty in the capital. Mgr Eugene Kabanga, first Congolese Archbishop of Lubumbashi, was to say to us, ‘When we were young, we used to see the missionaries praying, working and living together. Can you help me to knit together my diocesan priests?’ We would not be able to, but the witness remains. Each of the missions was to be a Benedictine ‘reduction’, each with a particular character: pastoral at Kansenia, educational at Lubumbashi, with widespread outreach. The Director of the Institut Saint-Boniface had said to his confrère, the Superior of St John’s, ‘Father, if it were not for the school, your church would be half empty.’ When he became archbishop, the priest did not forget.

This influence was due largely to the presence of religious sisters. The Sisters of Charity have served the hospitals and girls’ schools since 1911. In 1921 Dom Nève founded the Congregation of Benedictine Missionary Sisters. Their first link was to the new town of Likasi, and it made itself felt in all the missions of the interior, their schools and health-centres. One hundred and fifteen of them would come to Katanga, leaving at their departure in 2006 several Congolese communities. One of them was to leave for the mission in Chad. ‘Good blood cannot lie.’

The role of catechists in the spreading the gospel must be stressed. In the absence of a travelling priest they make certain of prayer and prepare for baptism. P. Théophane de Caters was to be the man of the minor seminary. The future would show that many of his pupils would not get as far as the priesthood, but would make excellent members of civil society. In 1932 Rome raised the Prefecture to an Apostolic Vicariate, of which Mgr de Hemptinne became the bishop, being consecrated at the Abbey of Saint-André.

The Sower sowed the seed which germinated all over Upper Katanga. Young people asked for Catholic marriage. Students at the major seminary began their studies for the priesthood under the White Fathers, those masters of formation. A monastic priory was already in existence, but God added his mark to it.

At the mission of Mukabe-Kasari the young men asked and gained from P. Charles van der Straeten permission to pray and work as they saw him doing with his confrère Gabriel Schmalz. Two years later there were twenty aspirants. The Abbot of Saint-André, visiting after the Second World War, clothed them in the monastic habit, and the bishop received their first vows in 1950. The Divine Office was recited in Kisanga, and the brothers worked in the fields. The community moved to Kansenia, where it diversified its activities. A major seminarist from Inongo (Equatorial Guinea), attracted by the Rule of St Benedict, was admitted, and ordained priest in 1956. The following year Mgr de Hemptinne ordained his first three diocesan priests. He died suddenly on 6th February, 1958. Of him one can say as of the Apostle Paul, he received much and he gave much.

His successor, P. Floribert Cornélis, who had been in Katanga for twenty years, received episcopal consecration from Pope John XXIII. He wanted his episcopate to be brief. The coat of arms he chose was a black and white chequer-board. That was a symbol. He brought the institutions of the diocese into canonical form and founded a modern Catholic press, appealing to the Paulist sisters and brothers. The independence of the Congo, announced on 30th June, 1960, did not catch him unawares. He transferred the major seminary of Mpala to Lubumbashi, the archiepiscopal see. He ordained an unbroken series of diocesan priests, sending some for further studies, placing others in parishes. The Church of Spain sent priests and sisters, because Saint-André discontinued its supply in order to concentrate its forces on the priory of Notre-Dame des Sources. Having attended three sessions of the Second Vatican Council, Mgr Cornélis resigned in 1967.

The priest in charge of the cathedral, Eugène Kabanga was consecrated archbishop. He was to give to the Church of Katanga its ‘African status’, wrote his secretary, Fr Achille Mutombo. He knew life in the countryside, where he was born… and also the attraction of the town. In a very fine instruction, which would be quoted at the United Nations, he exactly described the basis of human awareness and the struggle which confronts a Christian in Katanga (and others) every day: ‘I am human’ (1976). He would go so far as to suspend worship in a certain church which had been profaned. The following year the government forbade the teaching of religion, so the archbishop promoted Living Ecclesial Communities. He died, exhausted, in 1999, having the previous year passed on the staff of office to Mgr Floribert Songasonga, Bishop of Kolwezi, a true son of Kapolowe.

At the present time the archbishopric of Lubumbashi numbers eight hundred priests and very many Congregations. The last Benedictines of Saint-André left in 2004. The abbey had sent out one hundred and sixty-five missionaries.

In announcing the celebrations for the centenary of the evangelization of Upper Katanga, Mgr Songasonga wrote in his message, ‘As our faith is not deeply rooted, we easily allow ourselves to be jostled around, and often we continue to undergo at a very deep level the baneful influence of paganism, the evil influence of our ancient practices and ancestral beliefs. These reflections should not discourage us. On the contrary, the recognition of our weakness should lead us on to more authentic prayer and a renewed commitment, based on our faith in the presence of Christ in our life and in our history.’ Of this history the monks and nuns of St Benedict wrote the first page. Duc in altum.

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