The Catholic missionaries first arrived in Malawi in 1889. These were the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) who arrived on shores of Lake Malawi in the territory of Chief Mponda in Mangochi District.
It was not easy for the missionaries to start Mponda Mission Centre, Sickness and difficult living conditions were a problem and they were at the mercy of local inhabitants and colonizers. The Mponda expedition was not allowed to exercise its ministry by the Chief, who had given them permission to settle in his territory with the hope that they could supply him with fire arms. The Chief also saw some value in an alliance with the White Father Missionaries.
Mponda the Muslim Yao Chief who received the Priests was struggling to keep both the British and the Portuguese at bay, and probably hoped that the presence of Europeans in his village would prevent an attack by either power.’
At seeing that the missionaries were not fighters, the Chief kept them in custody and they were like slaves for eighteen months. They did not stay long at Mponda. Thus, “After eighteen months of sickness, loneliness, anxiety, without having administered a single adult baptism, the White Fathers steamed up the Lake enroute for Bembaland in Zambia where they founded Mambwe Mission.”
Arrival of the Montfort Missionaries at Nzama
Even though circumstances forced the missionaries to move out of Mponda, the White Fathers had their heart and soul in Malawi. Thus, while Bishop DuPont, a White Father, was on sick leave in France, he persuaded a friend of his youth, Pierre Bourget of the Montfort Fathers to found a mission on the Shire Highlands. This was a clear manifestation of their love and zeal for missionary work, a fact that cannot go without our acknowledgement. These were sacrificial seeds that have contributed to the establishment and growth of the Catholic Church in Malawi.
On 25th of July 1901, the Montfort Missionaries arrived at Nzama near Ntcheu, welcomed by the Ngoni Njobvuyalema. Nzama is the first permanent Catholic Mission and will be one ot the focal points of the centenary celebrations. These missionaries encountered many problems and difficulties in trying to settle at Nzama and indeed in the whole country. The first three missionaries: …lived in a hut, accepting the privations, fatigue and inconveniences inherent in any life of founders of mission stations. “As soon as they arrived they set to work. They cared for the sick and started a school. They did their best to be with the people. Their work bore fruit when the first catechumens were baptized in 1905 after four years of catechumenate.
The White Fathers later returned and arrived at Mua on 13th of September 1902. They also founded mission stations at Likuni, Kachebere and Nguludi which was handed over to the Montfort Missionaries in 1904. In these entire places one cannot fail to notice the missionaries’ selfless spirit of dedication and commitment.
General Missionary Work in Malawi
Along with the early Montfort and White Father Missionaries there were also the Missionary of Our Lady of Africa, and the Daughters of Wisdom, the Xaverian Brothers and the Marist Broithers and many catechists and other missionary and religious institutes who helped in the establishment of the Church in Malawi. These will be remembered for their heroic self-giving during the first period of evangelization. The early missionaries lived and worked under poor and difficult conditions. They chose to share the life of the local people and because of climate and living conditions they were vulnerable to diseases such as malaria indeed,
Most dangerous of all was the tropical climate and the fevers followed. Although quinine was known, the causes of malaria, black water fever and many other diseases had not been discovered. Few of the missionaries were given any training in the use of medicines.. And poor communication often caused shortage of medical supplies.
The early missionaries also labored under unfavorable and insecure political conditions. Coming from different countries in Europe, where different colonial groups originated, did not assist with their image. Local people found it difficult to trust them and it was not easy to distinguish one group of colonizers from another. We appreciate the heroism of these first missionaries who, like St Paul (2 Cor. 4:8–9), worked in such hard conditions and persevered successfully without giving up.
The missionary work was successful partly because of the great support of many committed catechists who brought the Gospel to the local people at grass roots level. These were Christians of great Faith, and we appreciate their work. We also extend a vote of thanks to the many volunteers who, down through the years, contributed so much to the establishment of the Church in Malawi.
The Christian Teaching and the Traditional Way of Life
The preaching of the Good News brought into –people’s lives new perspectives, attitudes and values such as freedom from various form of slavery. However some difficulties and conflicts arose from this encounter between traditional practices of the people and the teaching of the Church.
Frequently, their teaching practices provoked trouble, for the missionaries were suspicious at some existing customs which appeared to them to conflict with the teaching of Christianity. Volunteers for the mission field were seldom given much preparation for the life that lay ahead. Coming from Europe with no knowledge of tribal societies, they were sometimes shocked by the customs which had they understood them better, might have caused less difficulty.
At that time the Church had little understanding of local custom practice and gave them little credit. Other obstacles which, missionaries faced were due to their religious practices. For instance, the celibate state of the Catholic missionaries aroused great suspicions. Thus: after the local headmen at Nzama were reassured that Priests had not come to steal their wives, the people accepted them and they were allowed to stay.
In spite of many horrific tales about the missionaries, they were never discouraged. Instead they continued selflessly to proclaim the Reign of God with great dedication and zeal. Happily now the Church has a more open and positive approach to the values of tradition cultures. Malawians also have greater appreciation of Christian values and practices some of which are actually not inconsistent with the local culture value systems. The Good News of Christ must continue challenging all peoples and cultures everywhere and at all times, despite setbacks that may be there.
Establishment of the Hierarchy and Local Institutions
Emerging from all this, the local Church began to take root. We can see the evidence of this in the emergence of congregations of local Sisters and Brothers, including the Poor Claire’s’ prayer house in Lilongwe, a witness to the contemplative life. Vocations to the priesthood flourished. And soon instead of sending seminarians for training to Kipalapala in Tanzania, there was a need to build St. Anthony (Kachebere) Seminary followed by St. Peters Seminary in Zomba and later St. John the Baptist a diocesan major seminary, in Mangochi. Today, many young Malawians are joining international religious and missionary congregations, hence the Inter Congregational Seminary (ISC) at Balaka, a sign of growth of the local Church. To help people in theior prayer life, Carmel in Kasungu and St. Theresa in Lilongwe were founded. In 1957, Father Cornelius Chitsulo, the first Malawian Priest became the Bishop of Dedza, the first Malawian Bishop, in 1959 the Holy See established the hierarchy in Malawi, then called Nyasaland, with four dioceses: Blantyre Archdiocese under Archbishop John–Baptist Theunissen, SMM , Lilongwe diocese under Bishop Joseph Faddy, M.Afr, Zomba Diocese under Bishop Lawrence P. Hardman, SMM and Dedza Diocese under Bishop C. Chitsulo.
Achievements by the Church
The missionary efforts were encouraged by the integral approach to evangelization which characterized most church activities. We would like to mention three areas through which the faith that was handed on to us had great impact all of us and the society at large.
The Church will be remembered for its interest and great contribution in education.
Already in February 1902, which was hardly five months after the arrival of the missionaries at Nzama they opened their first school. In such schools, they fulfilled the command of the Lord to go and teach all nations (Mt 28:16 – 20) At Mua, a carpentry shop meant to be training school was also opened.
Schools, training institutions etc, emerged as the Church took root. These schools have helped many in Malawi to enjoy success and contribute to national development. These Church schools will be remembered for satisfactory blending the task of imparting academic information with that of forming and training pupils into responsible citizens with well built up characters and skills that are useful to society. Our education system today may want to learn something fron the past for improvements of its quality. A word of thanks is due to the different missionary congregations. These Brothers and Sisters put all their resources into trying to equip Malawians with good, integral and quality education. Here we recall with gratitude the good works of educators like the Marist Brothers at Zomba Catholic, Likuni, Mtendere and St. John’s Teachers Training College, the White Sisters at Likuni Girls, Nkhamenya Girls and Bembeke Girls Teachers Training College, the Brothers of the Immaculate Conception (F.I.C) at Nguludi (School for the Blind and Deaf) and Likulezi Teachers Training College, The Marianist Brothers at Chaminade (KARONGA) , Banga (Nkhatabay) and Mzuzu Technical College, the Daughters of Wisdom Sisters of Stella Maris (Blantyre ) and St. Mary’s (Zomba) , the Missionaries of the Immaculate Conception Sisters at Mary Mount (Mzuzu) as well as the Xaverian Brothers and the Holy Family Brothers and many others.
Health care and the establishment of clinics and hospitals another important area of the services the Church has always rendered to Malawians. Jesus told the seventy-two disciples to go and cure the sick and tell them that the Kingdom of God is close at hand (Lk 10:9) Thus, many of the missionary Sisters who came to Malawi worked in professional health care among our people. And through their medical services in missionary clinics they gave a clear testimony of God’s love and care for the sick and suffering. In the footsteps of Jesus the compassionate Healer, the Sisters together with many local personnel have brought fullness of life and healing to many (Mk 1:29 – 34)
Other Social Services
Pastoral themes today underscore the fact that God sent His Son to be one of us so that He might liberate His people from Slavery, hunger, misery, oppression and ignorance (Lk. 4:18 – 19; (Jn 6:11 – 14) Hatred and injustice which have roots in selfishness should one day give way to the light of truth and justice. The efforts to abolish the slave trade in Africa were encouraged and upheld by the missionary efforts with their doctrine of respect for human life.
A Significant number of positive elements in Malawi, and indeed in Africa can be attributed to the efforts which the missionaries and the church exerted in many social developments projects. The traditional family spirit of Malawians has been enhanced and broadened to be more inclusive by the Gospel value of communitary and neighborliness (Lk. 11:29 – 37). The spiritual and social values of Small Christian Communities (Acts 4: 32 – 35) can today be witnessed both in rural and urban areas especially at times of sickness, death, disasters, as well as during self-help community development projects. We recall that our Pastoral letter of 1992 contributed to the political change for democracy. The fruits of those events, which are now part of the history of the country, forcefully remain to challenge all of us to play our roles by actively and responsibly participating in the social development issues.
The Memorable Visit of Pope John Paul II to Malawi
As we recall 100 years of the Catholic Church’s evangelization work in Malawi, we cannot but vividly remember the memorable visit of the Holy Father to our Church in May 1989. With the theme “Be converted and live”. He captured our hearts and reminded us of the words of the Savior at the beginning of His Ministry (Mk1:15) which call us to repent and follow Him who is the Way, the Truth and Life (Jn. 14:6) The presence of the universal shepherd among us revived our faith, renewed our bonds of unity and fellowship with other Christian faithful everywhere in the world and spurred our resolve to commit ourselves to Christ and his Church in the task of evangelization. We pray that the memories of a century of Christianity will assist us to live the present faithfully and fruitfully and to face the challenges of the future with courageous hope, aware that Christ is with us always to the end of time (Mt. 28:20)