By Fr. Vito Scagliuso, SX
Driven out of China, where they had been working in the Honan for over 50 years and had founded the dioceses of Cheng-chow and Loyang, the Xaverian Missionaries had to find new hospitable shores in order to continue the work initiated four centuries before by their patron saint, Francis Xavier. On the way to the Indies, Francis Xavier had made a stop in the land of the Temnes and Sherbros of Sierra Leone, whose villages, scattered along the estuary of the Rokel river, provided to the European ships a refuge, abundant drinking water and other goods (often even slaves), before continuing their voyage towards the Cape of Good Hope.
|The founders of the Xaverian Mission in Sierra Leone, Bishop
Azzolini, Fr. Calza, Fr. Olivani, and Fr. Stefani.
In the summer of 1950, the four pioneers of the first xaverian adventure in Africa retraced the atlantic route of Francis Xavier. A merchant ship discharged the missionaries Calza, Olivani, Stefani and the dean of the group Azzolini on the pier of the Freetown port, where two Irish missionaries were waiting for them. Soon they left for the Northern Province of Sierra Leone, where they had been previously assigned by the Roman authorities, to plough a territory as large as Lombardy, almost entirely Islamized.
At Lunsar, a mine centre of the Region and in Makeni, an important base of the English colony, the Italian missionaries found a minute group of Christians and many school projects to be realized. They had been sent to the North, not too open to external ethical and cultural influences – so much so that several people had commented: “They only go to waste time!” – to answer the appeal of local chiefs, educated in the missionary schools of Bo and Freetown, who were keen to extend the benefit of education also to their villages.
They wasted no time. Within a few years they built schools, dispensaries, hospitals and professional centres. Groups of catechumens, too, sprouted as well as parish centres and a seminary, to welcome the first vocations to the priesthood. Other Xaverians came to help them and more institutions dedicated to education, to the care of the disabled, to the assistance of the poor and needy of society and to the promotion of women.
When in the spring of 1987 Bishop Azzolini handed over the responsibility of the diocese to Bishop
George Biguzzi, who had been a teacher in St Francis’ secondary, Makeni, for several years and then Regional Superior of the Xaverians in Sierra Leone, the diocese already numbered 30,000 Catholics, distributed in 10 parish centres and many outstations. More than 35,000 students were attending his primary and secondary schools and the Makeni Teachers’ College. The Lunsar hospital and the dispensaries of Makeni, Kambia and Kalamba were among the most appreciated in the country, together with an efficient network of mobile clinics for the local service to leprosy patients, polio children and other sick people. Rightly the President of Sierra Leone, Dr Shiaka Stevens, when conferring on him the highest honour of the state, the Rokel of the illustrious benefactors, stated: “You and your missionaries have worked miracles in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone”.
In the autumn of 1985 the octogenarian Pa Shiaki, as he was called by the people, handed over power to the former Chief of staff of the army, Joseph Momoh, who would reveal himself unable to solve the problems of the country. The situation became more and more unmanageable to the point of provoking a coup d’etat, improvised and corrupt military governments, rebellions in the army and guerilla warfare. All this precipitated the country into the gulf of the civil war and into the savagery, to which the whole world looked with horror.
In 1987 the new Bishop G. Biguzzi inherited a church that was well organized and lively in its manifold realities, but also conditioned by a history that looked to new things with mistrust. The pioneers who had introduced in the Northern Province considerable innovative contributions in the educational, social and religious fields, were still present and active: honoured and esteemed both by christians and muslims. Makeni diocese already had 7 local priests and about 30 seminarians. By the year 2000 they would have doubled.
Towards these privileged sons of Sierra Leone the new Bishop directed his attention as a shepherd, in order to ensure a future without traumas to his church, threatened by the approaching of a revolution that seemed to put into question all the ethical and cultural values of the past. When the civil war mercilessly erased many works and places of Christian piety, the Bishop supported and encouraged the hidden, yet alive, communities in the villages, in the bush, in the refugee camps. He worked hard to find a safe place for his priests, his young seminarians, the missionaries, the religious men and women, who had often given witness by imprisonment, by physical and moral sufferings and by life itself, to their faithfulness to Christ and to their service to the brethren.
Through the radio and by all other means, he tried to convince those who were fighting on various fronts to desist from unreasonable plans. He managed to set up and lead a delegation of religious leaders to convince the combatants to accept a truce, to facilitate negotiations of peace and to promote reconciliation in the country. He appealed even to the United Nations that they might not forget Sierra Leone, in need of urgent political and humanitarian interventions, of specific help to safeguard its own natural and civil resources, to make it possible for this small country of W. Africa to rise from the ruins and to look to the future with serenity.
When accompanying to Rome a delegation of former child soldiers for the Jubilee 2000 and on the occasion of international acknowledgements and prizes for his commitment in favor of minors, particularly hit by civil war, he called the attention of the world to the thousands of the young victims of hatred and violence that needed rescuing, re-education and re-union with their families, so that they might return to a normal life, to a childhood of playing, of dreams and of the school in their villages of the hinterland.
On 7th January 2012 Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation of the Bishop of Makeni, Bishop George Biguzzi, for having reached the age limit.
In the Northern Province of Sierra Leone, for some time both the clergy and the people had been waiting as his successor a local Bishop from their own Province. They felt that the time had come for a priest of the Northern Province to be consecrated Bishop. The procedure for the appointment of the new Bishop in a diocese as large as half of Sierra Leone came to be entangled and divisive. After several consultations, Fr Henry Aruna, a priest of the diocese of Kenema, in the South East of Sierra Leone, was chosen as Bishop. He was a lecturer of philosophy in the St Paul’s Major Seminary and also the secretary of the Episcopal Conference.
He was not accepted by many priests, religious and Christian communities and, later, by the population of the Northern Province, Muslims and protestants included. The designated Bishop Henry Aruna has not been able yet to make his entry into the diocese of Makeni. Some journalists have called this crisis of regional pride “tribalism”, a “schism” or a serious “rebellion” to the Pope. An Apostolic Administrator, the Xaverian Fr Natale Paganelli, is still in charge of the diocese, while waiting for the Holy See to make a final decision about the situation.
Almost contemporaneously to this sorrowful religious crisis, Sierra Leone had to face, after the
|Fr. Carlo Di Sopra, Provincial of the Xaverian Missionaries
in Sierra with some friends near Kabala.
disastrous civil war that lasted more than 10 years (1989-2001), more suffering owing to a virus called Ebola, which started in neighboring Guinea and has caused thousands of human victims; it continues to worry all W. Africa.
We are now waiting that this latest trial may definitively cease and wipe away, with Ebola, also the divisions and the grudges in the small and tormented Sierra Leone. May the diocese of Makeni sing again the Alleluia of a newly found unity, under the leadership of a Bishop accepted and loved by the whole population of the Northern Province. We hope and believe that this may come about soon.