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Heroes of the Society

by Nobert Rwodzi NSJ | Source:The Companion - Xavier House Novitiate Newsletter (Zambia - Malawi Province)

They Stayed On: The stories of seven Jesuits martyred in the struggle for ZimbabweDavid Harold-Barry SJ (editor) Mambo Press (2000)

"Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends" is the last line of the summary of this book which chronicles the story of the Jesuits who were persecuted during the liberation struggle ( Second Chimurenga) between 1972 and 1979. It talks of the selfless character of these men who decided to be witnesses to Christ by staying with the people they were serving even unto death despite how hostile and hazardous life in rural missions was becoming during the later part of the war in Rhodesia now Zimbabwe.

"Mhondoro is my home and Zimbabwe is my country" (9). This is the response that Fr Thomas Martin SJ, one of the seven gave to his mother when in England for his six months leave in 1970 four years before his transfer to Musami mission which became his last earthly "home." This is one example David Harold-Barry uses in explaining the love and commitment Fr Martin had for the people entrusted to his care until his death on the 6th of February 1977at Musami mission, four days after professing his final vows at Chishawasha. The answer to the question why Fr Martin and his six colleagues at Musami (two other Jesuits and four Dominican sisters) remained in the mission until their fateful and painful death is what one of the victims, Sr Magdala, had spoken merely four weeks before their killing that Christian witness means "us with the people, all of whom are exposed to the same dangers" (16). Such love and generosity to the people who looked at them as a pillar of strength in these thorny moments of their life could not be expressed without the inspiration from Christ himself who showed us what it is to accomplish the mission by suffering for the good of those around you. Fr Christopher Shepherd-Smith could not be spared by the atrocity as like all his community members he had remained steadfast despite the hotness of the war. His was a prophetic vision when he "insisted" the inclusion of the Uganda Martyrs liturgy during his ordination as he also took the same way on this dark night at Musami. More to that was his self identity of "belonging to Africa" as his mother would speak of him which manifested by him always "thinking of Africa" whenever he was in England (23).

While his superior at Musami, Fr Mark Hacket would say "he did not fit in the community," Mr Chiveso, the catechist who worked with him once said "everyone finds him absolutely impossible" while admitting that his "simple uncomplicated approach" (26) is what was most needed for the rural population he was pasturing as Fr John McCann pointed out that Chris was the only one fully engaged in pastoral work at Musami at that time.

On his card found after his death he had written: "You will not need to fight in this battle; take your position, standstill, and see the victory of the Lord on your behalf" (29). For Brother John Conway SJ who was also killed on the same day at Musami after arriving in Rhodesia in 1954, children were part of his life and he was well known for his love of the poor. His love for children and the welcome that he used to give them was the reason why his stay at Mazowe novitiate in the 1960s came to an "abrupt end" when he had turned the place into the children play ground in the absence of the Director of novices. This was to be the same later when at Musami the community decided to build him his own separate hut (Conway Castle) were he could meet with children at any time a little bit away from the main community house (31). Such value for human relationship would make his work more often interrupted by long chats.

The children he had touched during his lifetime would be seen kneeling in prayer outside his hut where they used to kneel together with Br Conway (37). These are the people he taught, fed and danced for and with, who became orphans over night of this tragic incident. Thus Dennis Adamson said that "Conway never did great things, probably the buildings he helped to construct have fallen down by now, but what still stands is the church he built in the hearts of the young ones and the poor."

This story of persecution could not spare Fr 'Gus' as Desmond Donovan SJ was known by his companions. Having arrived in Rhodesia in 1967, he was appointed Superior of Musami Mission which he left for Makumbi Mission. He could not escape the stress of losing his brothers and fellow sisters who fell victim in the Musami killings in 1977 after he had arrived at Makumbi. "Either for his wellbeing if alive or for the repose of his soul" are words in the letter by the British Provincial after a full year of trying to establish the whereabouts of this dedicated pastoral fellow who had just disappeared one Sunday morning after making pastoral rounds in the outstations of the mission. Only his motorbike could be found with sketchy evidence of his killing by the ZANLA forces (47). This was also a great loss to the Society but mostly to the people of Makumbi he was serving diligently. His chapter is closed with the words of Mark Hackett who described him as a "great man" saying that "he was too intelligent and capable to suffer fools gladly."

The effects of the war on missionaries, Jesuits in particular did not end in areas around Salisbury (Harare) but went as far as 200km away to a remote mission of St Rupert Mayer in (Magondi) as Makonde was referred to in those days. Fr Gregor Richert and Br Bernard Lisson SJ both from the province of North Germany were victims of Guerilla attacks on the 27th of June 1978. This catastrophe which coincided with the visitation of the provincial made the provincial to talk to his brothers at the grave as he officiated the burial ceremony since he was yet to make his way to Makonde at the time of the incident.

The intensification of the war was a stumbling block in Fr Richert's pastoral work especially with outstations as "the worry about the uncertain future" pushed him. Thus in his last letter home just a month before he was to suffer when approaching Pentecost Sunday he asked them to "pray that this Spirit of truth, justice, mutual understanding,
love and peace comes down to this country in a special way this year" (61).

After realizing that Fr Richert had no money to give them, the guerillas shot him and stretched their guns towards Br Lisson who was busy doing some work on a Landrover before going on to empty all the money they found in the hospital. For Fr Gerhard Pieper SJ who was killed on the feast of St Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, death was inevitable but his main concern on the Christmas Eve of 1978 was that "they don't kill me before I've said Christmas Masses." Unfortunately anyone hardly came for mass on Christmas day due to intimidation which came from the fighters. It seems he had foretold that he will die by killing even four months before his death when he said "when I am killed Kangaire (the mission he was at) will be closed" (87). As the guerillas entered the mission and got hold of him, he knew that to be a witness to Christ was to save others by your death and he pleaded with them to let the sisters go and deal with him alone despite efforts by the sisters to remain with him in these tough times.

After hearing several bullets from the convent, Sr Borremea rushed to the body of the priest only to be struck down by one of the killers saying "so you are sorry for a wretched European. Let him lie there and be eaten by dogs."

Reflecting on the life and sufferings of these seven brothers of ours, one clear insight is that they were different from one another but at the heart of their mission were commitment and dedication and the desire to be witnesses to Christ who also suffered at the hands of human beings. All of them were in rural missions where the war was intensifying but that did not alarm them to run away leaving their parishioners who were also in the same danger. Even though they were killed largely by the local guerillas they

suffered the war from both ends and somehow the reason why they were killed was not because they were white but they were missionaries.


"Conway never did great things, probably the buildings he helped to construct have fallen down by now, but what still stands is the church he built in the hearts of the young ones and the poor."

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