The Forgotten Men of the Centenary

(Impact, February 1992, pp.8-9)


In 1991, the Church in Zambia celebrated her centenary. But we seem to have forgotten that before 1891 there were Catholic missionaries in Zambia who gave their lives for the gospel of Jesus Christ. The least we owe them is to remember them for the ultimate sacrifice they made in spreading the faith.

On June 15, 1880, a group of six Jesuit missionaries under the leadership of Fr. Depelchin arrived at Pandamatenga in Botswana from South Africa. There they set up a house which would serve as a base for their mission north of the Zambezi.

For a few weeks they had to wait as there was war in Barotseland. Rather than remain inactive, they set out on July 29th for the territory of an nduna called Moemba who lived close to the Zambezi in the country of the Tonga. Before long, illness became a serious problem. They contracted dysentery and malaria and one of them, Fr. Terorde, died on the night of 16 September. When others arrived from Pandamatenga in response to a call for help they found Fr. Vervenne delirious with fever.

Despite these setbacks Fr. Depelchin decided to go to Barotseland on November 5th. However, he was refused permission to cross the river and was told by Lewanika, the Lozi King, to wait until the following year. While waiting he arranged for supplies to be sent up from the south.

On June 6th, 1881, Frs. Depelchin and Berghegge and Brother de Vylder set out for Barotseland, after receiving a message that Lewanika would welcome them. On arrival at Sesheke they had to wait another two months before they were allowed to move further. Eventually they arrived at Lialui, the Lozi capital, on September 10th. Lewanika welcomed them warmly, gave them land for missions on the Barotse Plain and at Sesheke, and promised to send canoes to Sesheke to collect their goods. So elated was Fr. Depelchin that he wrote to South Africa asking for 12 priests and 6 brothers to be sent without delay.

In order to see to the delivery of supplies for the construction of the new mission in Barotseland, Fr. Depelchin and his confreres decided to return to Pandamatenga with the intention of going back to Barotseland the following year.

It was probably a mistake on his part not to have left some men behind in Lialui as their departure may have given Liwanika the wrong impression.

Once again the mission faced serious problems: between 1880 and 1882, four of the Jesuits died of disease, another drowned on his way from South Africa, another was killed when thrown from a horse, and Fr. Depelchin suffered a broken leg when a wagon overturned on him. In addition, war had broken out in the south between the British and the Boers, making it impossible to get new men or supplies.

In Barotseland there was war in 1882, and Lewanika sent them a message urging them to wait. When he finally game them clearance, the rainy season had begun, making travel with waggons very difficult. So they decided to wait until 1883. Despite all these delays they were encouraged by a message from Lewanika saying that he wanted them in preference to others.

On March 14th 1883, Fr. Berghegge and Brothers de Vylder and Simonis set off for Barotseland by canoe. By April 29th they had reached the rapids at Lusu, north of Sesheke, and there they ran into trouble. Brother de Vylder’s paddlers lost control of their canoe in the fast and swollen river. They jumped out and reached the shore safely. He was swept away and drowned. A few days later, Brother Simonis had a narrow escape when his canoe capsized in a whirlpool.

When Fr. Berghegge and Bro. Simonis finally arrived in Lialui on May 16th, Lewanika gave them a cold reception. He asked them if they had come to settle or just to visit them. When they replied that they had come to settle, he said he would have to consult the people about it. He then began to demand presents, saying, ‘If you do not give me all the things I ask for, what use are you to me?’ Fr. Berghegge wrote about the changed atmosphere, ‘We have been cheated and deceived on all sides; all our goods have been stolen, and if this treatment is continued we shall be empty-handed prisoners in Barotseland. How and when we shall be able to get away I do not know.’ He added, ‘There was no possibility of saying Holy Mass, watched as we were all day and night.’

When Lewanika consulted his kuta on the question of the Jesuits, they unanimously said that he should order them to leave. It seems likely, though it cannot be proven, that the kuta was influenced in its decision by the advice of George Westbeech, an ivory hunter, and Frederick Stanley Arnot, a missionary of the Plymouth Brethren, who each had his own reasons for wanting them to leave. The Jesuits believed that Westbeech was a Freemason and hostile to them on that account, while Arnot made his own feeling clear by writing to a friend asking him to pray ‘that God would continue to check their [the Jesuits’] activity and frustrate their counsel.’ When they finally left he wrote, ‘The Jesuits are gone at last, thank God.’

Berghegge and Simonis returned to Pandamatenga but retained the hope of making a fresh effort at a later date. However, in 1884 and 1885, Barotseland was once again at war and there was no possibility of returning there.

Furthermore, Fr. Weisskopf died on July 1st 1883 and Bro. Alfred Allen on February 2nd, 1885. Another man became mentally unbalanced and had to return to Europe where he died in a mental hospital in 1915.

It was a sad end to a heroic effort made with great courage and perseverance in the face of crippling blows. In this year, as the Church in Zambia recalls its past, surely these men’s sufferings should not be forgotten. They gave their years, their health and their lives. What more could anyone ask?