The Development of the SMA Mission in Liberia
The American Province of the SMA was formally established in 1941. The Second World War was in progress. Nevertheless, the Society pursued its goal, taking all the steps necessary to make the Province a viable reality. A theological seminary was established in Silver Springs, Maryland, in 1943.
It was subsequently moved to the District of Columbia at 4000 13th Street NE. A philosophical seminary and novitiate was set up in Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1946. By 1948 the Province was in position to acquit its missionary responsibility in Africa.
Three newly-ordained priests, Fathers John Breslin, Daniel Cullen and John Sheehan were assigned to Liberia, where they arrived on December 23, 1948. This re-entry of the Church in America into the missions in Liberia synchronized with a forward-looking optimism already affecting Liberian life in general. In 1947, the Centenary of Liberian Independence had just been celebrated and the postwar era envisaged a bright economic future based on the recently discovered iron-ore. With the American Province of the SMA coming on stream, the Church in Liberia enjoyed an optimism all its own. New resources as to personnel and material means had become available. For a foundation already superbly well laid and a growth already achieved, continuity and healthy progress was foreseeable. Father Stephen Harrington, SMA, then Superior General wrote: “As the youngest Province of our Society, America enters into its rich heritage of achievement and proposes to add a glorious chapter of her own to our records of creative work. To our army of missioners, already over a thousand strong, we want to add a large and vigorous contingent from the great Church in America. Already a field of labor awaits them in the gallant little Republic of Liberia, which was called into existence by the philanthropy and Christian vision of America.” The high expectations held forth at that time may not have been realized a hundred percent. But a great impetus was applied, a renewed and infectious enthusiasm took hold, and with the grace of God, a significant increase has come about.
SMA and Liberia
The Society, particularly the Irish Province, has been working in Liberia since 1906. For the past 53 years, the American Province has participated in and contributed to the flourishing of the Church there. The actual number of Catholics is still not very large, not yet a significant percent of the total population. Nevertheless, there exists a remarkably viable Church poised for a glorious future.
The entry of the American Province initiated the idea of dividing the country into multiple jurisdictions, a plan with possibilities for greater intensification of effort. Today, there are three ecclesiastical jurisdictions in Liberia: The Archdiocese of Monrovia, the Diocese of Cape Palmas and the Diocese of Gbarnga. Each is presided over by an indigenous Liberian bishop who is assisted by local priests and religious as well as by SMA missioners. Very noteworthy is the number vocations in proportion to the number of Catholics, far ahead of statistics in other areas of the world. Even more remarkable is the vitality of the laity. Liberian laypersons are not merely passive churchgoers. They seek active participation in all areas of church activity and particularly in liturgical celebrations.
Influence of the Church
An outstanding feature of the Church in Liberia is the extent and quality of its educational program and its health services. It operates a network of kindergartens, primary schools, high schools and third level institutions. It provides secretarial and vocational training facilities. It operates one large modern hospital, a most efficient leprosarium and many clinics, some with small hospital accommodations. Through its educational and medical services, the Church contributes heavily to the life and welfare of the nation. In return, the Church has garnered much gratitude and respect. The influence of the Church in educational, medical, moral and ethical issues far exceeds its numerical strength. Thus, the Church is enabled to bear Christian witness to a high degree, gaining profound appreciation for itself and its message, throughout the entire nation.
Pre-evangelization is an accomplished fact; the groundwork for the evangelization of the whole society and its culture is well in place. Furthermore, the Church is in a position to raise its voice for the promotion of Christian norms and values in the areas of social justice, human rights and political rectitude. It is heard and listened to sympathetically. In the beginning of the new century in Liberia, the Church’s accomplishments are very real and solid. It has become very much a part of the people and their lives. It is thoroughly indigenized. The stage is all set for a natural, spontaneous and sound inculturation under the guidance of its own native hierarchy. This augurs well for a future Church that will be solidly Catholic and recognizably Liberian.
As growth took place, especially since the arrival of the American Province on the scene, the SMA Fathers have been joined by many other missionaries. The Salesian Fathers, the Holy Ghost Fathers and individual priests from other communities have come along. Most recently missionaries from the Nigeria Foreign Mission Society of St. Paul have taken up work in Liberia. A great variety of congregations of Brothers and Sisters have come to provide their expertise. Among them are the Holy Cross Brothers, the St. Louis Brothers, the Christian Brothers and the Brothers of St. John of God. The Sisters are even more numerous. They include the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, the Bernardine Sisters, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Sisters of the Holy Child, the Adorers of the Precious Blood, the Consolata Sisters, the Medical Missionaries of Mary, the Dominican Sisters, the Hospitaller Sisters of St. John of God, and an Indian congregation.
This multiplicity of all nationalities bespeaks the extension of the Church in Liberia and emphasizes a wholesome Christian universality. Most commendable are the harmonious relationships among all the missionaries and, of special importance, the mutual love and respect between them and the local clergy and religious. Most assuredly the absence of a colonial past has contributed to this felicitous state of affairs. But it is not too farfetched to see an influence coming from the charism of the SMA founder, Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac, through the SMA pioneers of the missions in Liberia. The harmony and unity among the priests and religious, expatriate and local, between the clergy and the hierarchy, and among priests, religious and laity is a unique trait of the Church in Liberia. It is a unity in truth and love such as Our Lord spoke of at the Last Supper—a unity that identifies the disciples of Christ.
Planting of the Seed
A brief historical perspective illustrates the emergence of the Liberian Church. It was a difficult, slow and very gradual process. There were no striking or unusual programs, policies or techniques. There are no instances of dramatic breakthroughs, no overnight transformations. The planting of the seed has been painstaking, the cultivation and nurturing tortuous and tenuous. At times the burgeoning plant seemed mortally fragile.
Success from a worldly point of view was never glaringly obvious. Perhaps this was providential, calling for greater reliance on faith conviction, and greater dependence on the grace of God. It constrained the missionary to see his task in the perspective of the mustard seed and thereby forced upon him or her a greater authenticity in evangelizing both as to process and end result.
In 1906, Rome confided Liberia to the Society of African Missions. Father Stephen Kyne was nominated Prefect Apostolic on February 6 of that year. He arrived in Monrovia on October 8,1906, accompanied by Father Eugene Peter and Father David Faessler. By June 10, 1907 they had established their first mission at a place called Kekru, among the Gola people. They called it the Sacred Heart Mission.
From Father Kyne’s correspondence we discover the extraordinary knowledge these pioneers accumulated about Liberia and its people. We are impressed by the extent and by the seriousness and orderliness with which they planned to reach out to them all. They proposed to open stations in Lofa County and in Grand Bassa the following year. After that they would proceed to set up missions among the Kpelle, in the heart of the country, and among the Grebos at the eastern end. They set their sights on the whole country and all its tribes.
In 1909, for very practical reasons, Father Kyne opened a mission in the capital city of Monrovia on Ashmun St. He had plans to travel by steamer to investigate the possibilities at Cape Palmas and Sinoe, and at Sasstown and Nifu on the Kru Coast. By August 1910, he had placed a resident priest in Kakata among the Kpelle. He had spent all of 1910 organizing and strengthening these missions. In October 1910, he was recalled to Ireland to become the first Provincial of the newly established Irish Province. He was replaced by Monsignor Jean Ogé, SMA. The anticipated number of missionaries did not materialize. Sickness and death depleted the ranks of the missionaries already in Liberia, and Monsignor Ogé was faced with difficult decisions. The prospects for success seemed more promising on the Kru Coast, so in November 1911, Monsignor Ogé selected Old Sasstown to be the mission center and headquarters. At this time, the Kru Coast towns were much larger than they are today and, relatively speaking, they enjoyed a more prosperous, though subsistent standard of living.
In February 1912, Monsignor Ogé withdrew Father Pierre Garcia from the Kekru mission and closed it down. By December of that year, he was constrained to abandon the missions in Monrovia and move to his new headquarters in Sasstown. There, he proceeded immediately to open a second mission in Betu, a village close by Sasstown. /p>
During 1915 and 1916 he dispatched Father Peter Harrington to open a mission at Grand Cess. These missions flourished after some initial difficulties and setbacks, and Sasstown, Betu and Grand Cess have become the cradle of the Church in Liberia. Large numbers of Liberians became Catholics, and these converts from the Kru Coast exhibited a remarkable commitment and loyalty to the faith, even to the0 present day. Their serious commitment to their religion and unwavering devotion to the Church reflects very well on the intensive instruction imparted by the early missionaries. Those missionaries did not hesitate to set the Church at the center of village life, integrating it into the activities of the tribes and clans. Christian devotions were made pivotal points in the cycle of events. Training in liturgy was strongly featured. To this day, the old timers very much relish chanting the Gregorian melodies with their Latin texts. Thus the lex orandi effectively functioned as the lex credendi.
Attendance at Mass and other church services became an intimate part of the lives of the people. The sacraments were much appreciated, and the loss of the privilege of receiving them was deemed great misfortune. Catholicism and its practice became deeply embedded in the consciousness of whole families as well individuals.
Naturally, then, expansion continued on the Kru Coast. Nifu was established from Betu in 1916 and the following year, Nonokya became an outstation from Sasstown. In 1921, Cinckale (Picnicess) was opened as a principal station. That same year, Monsignor Ogé returned to Monrovia to reopen the mission there. He set up on Ashmun St. again, but this time at the site presently occupied by Sacred Heart Cathedral. In 1925 he sent Fathers Anthony McAndrew, Robert O’Leary and Dennis Manning to explore the interior. As a result, a new mission was established at Saclapea in Nimba County. The year 1929 saw the foundation at Bassa (Buchanan), and in 1930, Cape Palmas and Pleebo in Maryland County were the beneficiaries of new foundations.
Then in 1931, Monsignor Ogé became ill and returned home. The leadership fell to Father John Collins, SMA, who became Prefect Apostolic. A year later, Monsignor Collins transferred the mission from Saclapea to the new cure administrative center at Gbarnga in Bong County. This reinstituted the opening of interior missions, which had been neglected since the abandonment of Kekru in 1911. A plateau in the history of the Church in Liberia had been reached.
There were principal stations spread across the entire country, with clusters of outstations attached to each one. A school and some clinical services completed the concept of a principal station.
Father Kyne had already noted the absence of large population centers, thereby necessitating the above arrangements. He always recognized the need for the prudent use of personnel. He noted that it would not be by…”throwing ourselves headlong into the forests of Liberia that we will convert the country.” He had no taste for histrionics or dramatic heroics. “Rather,” he said, “it is by acting prudently, slowly and systematically that we shall obtain serious and lasting results.”
Dignity of Women
In 1934 Liberia was raised to the status of a Vicariate Apostolic. Monsignor John Collins was ordained Bishop in September of that year and designated the Vicar Apostolic of Liberia. He immediately proceeded to accomplish what he rightfully regarded as the next and very essential step to be taken:
The evangelization of women and of society in regard to women, placing emphasis on the dignity and role of women in society. The presence and activity of women religious missionaries were needed to address this issue, but a serious lack in the mission program was felt in the absence of such women and the professionalism, expertise and efficiency they could have brought to such a program.
In 1936 the Bishop obtained the commitment of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) who made their their debut in Monrovia in December of that year. A new and significant milestone had been reached. Though a follow-up was slow in coming, the arrival of the FMM Sisters heralded an influx of congregations of Sisters. Their work transformed the effectiveness of missionary effort immeasurably, and in ways too numerous to elaborate.
Education and medical services were enhanced, and the dignity and role of woman were exemplified. While the Church authorities were highly appreciative, the people themselves surpassed them in their gratitude, admiration and praise for the dedication of the Sisters.
To establish a local clergy was another development pursued by Bishop Collins. He received candidates and sent them to seminaries in Ghana for their training and education. On December 29, 1946, he ordained the first indigenous Liberian priest, Father Patrick Juwle from Grand Cess. Eventually Father Juwle became the first Liberian bishop, ordained to be Vicar Apostolic of Cape Palmas when Bishop Nicholas Grimley, SMA, retired in 1973.
Bishop Collins was always severely hampered in his work by lack of funds and personnel. Then, World War II intervened, creating enormous difficulties for the mission in Liberia. There were never more than 20 priests, and finances were insufficient to support them, let alone to provide for expansion. Bishop Collins always took his case to the Church in the United States. Thus, it was expected that the future field of work for the newly-established American Province of SMA would be Liberia.
From 1947 onwards, preparations were afoot for the American Province to come to the aid of Bishop Collins. The preparations included plans for a future division of Liberia into two ecclesiastical jurisdictions. In January 1949 the first American Province missionaries arrived in Monrovia. At the outset, Father John Breslin was assigned to Monrovia, Father Daniel Cullen to Sasstown and Father John Sheehan to Cape Palmas. In 1950 the anticipated division took place. Bishop Collins became Vicar Apostolic of Monrovia and Monsignor Francis Carroll, SMA was named Prefect Apostolic of Cape Palmas. The Irish Province of the Society retained responsibilities for the Monrovia Vicariate while Cape Palmas was entrusted to the American Province.
This division did not occasion any dramatic breakthrough. Its overall impact was to step up the existing programs and policies on both sides of the line of demarcation. It enabled a more intense deployment of personnel and material resources and stimulated a greater ingenuity to discover and tap sources of additional personnel and financial assistance. Existing projects could be enhanced and some expansion could be undertaken.
During this period, a great variety of congregations of brothers and sisters arrived on the scene. Schools multiplied and were upgraded and improved. A modern Catholic hospital was established and local clinics multiplied and became more professional. The drive toward indigenous clergy and sisterhood gained momentum. The Bernardine Sisters and the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary Sisters began recruiting local candidates for their communities. More and more priestly candidates were sent to seminaries in Ghana and Nigeria.
On March 3, 1961, Bishop Collins died. Monsignor Carroll was transferred to the Vicariate of Monrovia and ordained Bishop. Father Nicholas Grimley of the American Province was ordained Bishop and designated Vicar-Apostolic of the newly-erected Vicariate of Cape Palmas.
The Church continued to consolidate and improve its existing structures and activities. A major seminary was created in Gbarnga and a minor seminary in Philadelphia, just outside Cape Palmas. Educational and health facilities continued to grow and improve. Efforts were undertaken in the socio-economic sphere: Credit unions were sponsored and encouraged; some small self-help agricultural projects in were introduced. New mission stations were established in Voinjama, Tappita, Yekapa, Lac, Zwedru, Barrakeh, Barclayville and Zlehtown. In 1973, Bishop Patrick Juwle became the first native-born Liberian Bishop and Vicar Apostolic of Cape Palmas on the retirement of Bishop Nicholas Grimley, S.M.A. This event marked a decisive step in the indigenization of the Church in Liberia.
Unfortunately. Bishop Juwle did not survive even one full year. He died in August 1974 and was succeeded by another Liberian, Most Rev. Boniface Nyema Dalieh. When Archbishop Carroll retired as Vicar Apostolic of Monrovia in 1976, he was also succeeded by a Liberian, Most Rev. Michael Kpakala Francis. In a short time, the two vicariates were erected into the Diocese of Cape Palmas and the Archdiocese of Monrovia respectively, and their Vicars Apostolic became the first Ordinaries of their territories. Thereby, the hierarchy and the independent local church of Liberia became a reality.
By 1986 the Archdiocese of Monrovia was further divided. Three interior counties: Bong, Lola and Nimba were separated to constitute the Diocese of Gbarnga. Bishop Benedict Dotu Sekey was appointed its first Bishop. Bishop Sekey hailed from Grand Cess, one of the oldest missions, and was the second native bishop from that cradle of Catholicism in Liberia. He passed away in December 13, 2000.
The Church in Liberia Today
Under the direction and supervision of her own indigenous hierarchy, the Church in Liberia has embarked on an accelerated program of extension and intensification. The city of Monrovia typifies this development. The degree of development is not matched point for point through rural areas. Nevertheless the vitality of the Church in Monrovia, is a good index of what is happening throughout the country as a whole. When Archbishop Michael Francis took over in 1976, there were only a few churches and parishes in the city. Today there are nine, and all are self-supporting. The churches are filled to capacity for all the Masses. There are as many more in the immediate pipeline for Monrovia and its immediate environs.
The reception of the sacraments and participation in all aspects of parish life are at the same level. Even with regard to marriage — there is a remarkable increase in the number of Christian marriages, and these are taking place between couples at a normal youthful age. Admittedly, Christian marriage and Christian family life are among the weakest elements of the Church in Liberia, but the signs are there that significant improvement is emerging. With the greater indigenization of the Church, through the local hierarchy, clergy and religious, it is expected that this weakness will be more rigorously and effectively tackled. With the assistance of divine grace it will be brought to its desirable resolution.
A Distinct Honor
It is now 95 years since the SMA started in Liberia and 53 years since the American Province entered the fray. Success always seemed elusive, if not at times downright unattainable. The story of the Liberian mission is full of ups and downs, lights and shadows. At times there seemed to be more downs and shadows. But from our vantage point, looking back, we can observe a very steady upward movement, a genuine growth of a strong and vibrant Church. What is lacking in spectacular manifestation is more than compensated for in inner purity and lasting strength.
Today its hierarchy is among the most respected on the Continent of Africa. Lofa County farmer Its influence for good for all Liberians is unique among the Churches in Africa. The genuine respect and affection it is afforded by the whole nation is unrivalled. The richness of Catholic life among its members is second to none. The generosity and charity of Liberian Catholics is a glowing example of the supernaturalization by grace of a natural, spontaneous, cultural etiquette of hospitality based on an appreciation of human dignity and brotherhood. As in all human situations, there may be flaws in Liberian Catholicism, but they are outweighed by a greater number of attractive and enviable traits To the SMA and its members, Almighty God has granted a distinct honor to have played a part in fashioning this jewel.
Written by Fr. James C. Hickey, S.M.A