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Dominicans in Africa

IMG 20170505 WA0005The Dominicans have been in sub‑Saharan Africa since the beginning of the fifteenth century. The Order now has houses and convents in fifteen African countries, not to mention the personal apostolate that some friars are carrying out elsewhere. Portuguese friars intermittently preached in Sao Tome and in the Congo of Antiquity during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

From 1537 to 1835 they established themselves on the coast of Mozambique along the Zambezi River in the heart of the Munhumutapa kingdom.

For a short time they were also on Madagascar, then known as the Island of Saint Laurent. On two occasions French friars attempted to establish a mission in Guinea at the end of the seventeenth century.

If we do not take into account Patrick Griffith, the first Catholic bishop of Cape Town (1837‑1862), and his fellow Irish friars, the Dominican presence in Africa was interrupted to resume only at the beginning of the twentieth century. Until the 1950s there were friars in only two countries: the Congo (1912) and South Africa (1917).

Then followed just before their independence establishments in Nigeria (1951), Senegal (1955),Cameroon (1955), Rwanda (1960) and Kenya (1962). The Dominican presence there was short, but the friars subsequently returned to Eastern Africa in 1991.The last countries to have foundations were Angola (1982), Madagascar and Reunion (1993) and Equatorial Africa (2009).Dominican missionaries came from a variety of countries: Belgium, England, the Netherlands, France, USA, Canada, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and India.

In all these countries the Dominicans worked in difficult conditions. Some crises, such as the one in 1968 with President Senghor of the Senegal, were easily resolved. Others left longer lasting marks. In the Congo in 1964 thirteen friars and nine Dominican sisters of the Congregation of Namur were massacred in Haut‑Uele by rebel Mulelists Two years later the civil war in Nigeria jeopardized the work of the Dominicans. Another traumatic event was the Rwandan genocide in 1994, followed by several years of trouble in the Congo. In Angola, a civil war has been raging for nearly two three decades. In the Republic of the Congo the war forced the friars of the Province of France to shut their house in Brazzaville in 1997. A civil war also affected the friars of Ivory Coast in 2011. Lastly we should mention South Africa which was so long under the regime of apartheid. A number of friars were either jailed or had to go into hiding. The divisions and incomprehension inherited during that period continue to mark society to this day.

In spite of difficulties the friars demonstrated great apostolic creativity: for example in university chaplaincies, radio preaching, agricultural development, the dialogue between Christians and Muslims and looking after street children. It is difficult to count up all the projects that they launched, and with such limited resources. The first generation of Dominicans, as a matter of priority, concentrated on evangelising at the base. As was the tradition at the time, they were given apostolic territories; in the Congo, Haut‑Uele, in South Africa, Kroonstad and in Nigeria, Sokoto. These times are now over, even though a number of friars are still engaged in parish ministry. An important focus is on preaching “at the frontiers, to use the expression of the General Chapter of Avila.

Dominicans in Southern Africa

The Dominican Order has been present in Southern Africa for more than four hundred years. At the peak of its expansion in 1968, when the English and Dutch vicariates amalgamated the friars numbered seventy-four. Most of the time, however, their number was more limited. They ministered in areas as diverse as the Zambezi River, the Mutapa empire, the Cape Colony, the East Rand, the Western Transvaal, the Free State, Johannesburg, Natal, Swaziland and Lesotho.

Writing their history as a continuous narrative is a somewhat artificial exercise, as pointed out in the introduction. Institutionally they belonged to five different entities: the congregation of Portuguese India between 1577 and 1835, a small group of Irish Dominicans in the mid nineteenth century, the South African vicariate of the English province since 1917, its Dutch counterpart since 1932 and the general vicariate of Southern Africa from 1968 to the present day. The Portuguese, Irish, English, Dutch, South African, Basotho and Zimbabwean friars working in Southern Africa wore the same habit and shared the same intellectual tradition. But they can hardly be said to constitute a homogenous group with a shared identity and a common consciousness. It is the methodical gathering of sources, a painstaking and hazardous process, which has allowed me to write their history as a continuum. I have constructed their history. This is not unique for the Dominican friars in Southern Africa of course. All histories are temporary constructs depending on the heuristic and hermeneutical skills of their writers.

What can be said of the Dominican friars achievements in Southern Africa between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries? The first chapter ends with a reflection on the apparent failure of the Portuguese Dominicans missionary enterprises in South-East Africa. Once they passed the age of mass baptisms they hardly made any converts apart from the slaves working on their properties. Their mission stations did not survive the collapse of the Portuguese colonial empire to which they were inseparably linked. In the Cape Colony Bishop Griffith was more successful. He laid solid foundations for the growth of the Catholic Church of South Africa, without however making any progress among the indigenous people. A century later the English and Dutch friars contributed in their respective territories to the numerical and institutional expansion of Catholicism in South Africa, which turned a settler-dominated and culturally isolated church into one of the most important religious groups in the country. By giving full support to the mission-orientated bishops, Archbishop Gijlswijk, the first apostolic delegate in South Africa, played a decisive role in this transformation. The friars primary responsibility was to run parishes and mission stations. On the East Rand they were among the first to work in mine compounds. In the late 1940s they established a strong presence in the Free State Goldfields, to the annoyance of the Dutch Reformed Church dominees. From 1925 to 1940 and from 1945 to 1966 regular supply of young priests from England and Holland helped the two vicariates maintain a high degree of activity in all their parishes, thus contributing to the dynamism of the church.

Cape TownTraditionally the Dominicans describe themselves as preachers. Today they define their task as the mission at the frontiers the frontiers between life and death, humanity and inhumanity, faith and secular ideologies, Christianity and other religious traditions, the Catholic Church and other Christian churches and sects. Much has been said on the Dominican charism. Suffice it to say that it relates to the way in which the gospel is announced and translated into practice in the contemporary world. The Dominicans engage in a wide variety of activities including popular preaching, teaching, writing, student chaplaincy, artistic creation and ministry to the poor and the marginalised.

In South Africa the Dominican friars have devoted and to a large extent still devote the major part of their efforts to parish ministry. This departure from the Dominican tradition was justified at the time of their arrival by the needs of the mission. The church had to be planted before any specialised apostolate could be considered. The entry point into the mission field was the allocation by the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in consultation with the religious congregations already present in the country of a territory. The English Dominicans thus received the East Rand and, for a little more than a decade, the Western Transvaal. Their Dutch confreres were allocated the western part of the Kroonstad prefecture, which eventually became an autonomous diocese.

In most of Africa, the diocesan clergy gradually took over from the religious congregations the responsibility for running the dioceses. With the exception of the Cape region, this has not yet happened in South Africa, one of the reasons being the paucity of local diocesan priests. To date parish ministry remains the main pastoral activity of the Dominicans. But the situation is changing. New ministries like media work, academic teaching, student chaplaincy and conflict resolution are being encouraged. This study shows that this development has precedents. Non-parochial ministries were carried out by the friars long before the amalgamation in 1968. As early as in the 1940s friars like Oliver Clark and Finbar Synnott devoted a significant part of their time to advocacy work for the black workers. During the same period Oswin Magrath studied Reformed theology and initiated ecumenical contacts in Stellenbosch. Equally significant was the Afrikaans apostolate, which was launched in the Kroonstad diocese in 1952 before being transferred to Pretoria in 1958. With the support of the Dutch provincial, the bishop of Kroonstad sent several friars to Afrikaner universities for further studies. In subsequent years, one or two friars were assigned to the project on a full-time basis. Meanwhile, another Dutch Dominican, Norbert Jansen, became the editor of a theology course by correspondence. He carried out this task from 1956 to 1970 while working in a parish. In the English vicariate also attempts

 

 

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