Let your servants go in peace: The story of the SMB Missionaries in Zimbabwe

By Br. Alfonce Kugwa

Bondolfi Mission in Masvingo Diocese, one of the first and most renowned missions in the diocese because of its reputation in education and spiritual formation was named in memory of the spiritual guru, Msgr. Pietro Bondolfi who founded the Bethlehem Mission Society in 1921.

The missionary journey of the Bethlehem Mission Society commonly known as the SMBs to Zimbabwe resonates with the association’s founder who nurtured its missionary spirit of service and commitment to follow Jesus Christ. It was in 1921 that the Society was born in Immensee, Switzerland through the inspiration of Msgr. Pietro Bondolfi.

The SMBs’ coming to Zimbabwe was not only an adventure but it was at the request of the late Bishop Chichester who invited them to come to Southern Rhodesia as his diocese was vast with few priests. It is in response to Bishop Chichester’s call that the Congregation of the Propagation of Faith in Rome asked the SMB to take up missionary work in Africa.

Taking the lead of the expedition to establish the local Church was Fr. Bernard Boehi and Fr. Waldisbuehl who came in 1938 and started the gradual process of taking over Fort Victoria Prefecture from the Jesuits in 1946. Upon arrival, the SMBs engaged, full throttle in the spiritual and social development of local people by setting up mission stations, schools and hospitals. The first superior of the Society in the then Rhodesia was Fr. Alois Gut.

The Regional Superior for the SMBs in Zimbabwe, Fr. Anton Wey stressed that establishment of missions entailed serious evangelization.

“Such missions as Silveira, Gokomere, a chapel in Masvingo urban, St. Joseph’s Hama, Holy Cross and Driefontein were taken over from the Jesuits. These missions became the hub of spiritual formation and centers of evangelization in the Prefecture of Fort Victoria,” said Fr. Wey.

The same missions continued as sources of Christian influence in the Midlands and Masvingo resulting in the domination of the Catholic faith in the two Provinces. The SMBs’ presence and hard work initiated the founding of many missions such as Mukaro and Sts. Peter and Paul in 1944, Moyo Musande, St. Antony’s (Zaka), Serima and Zvishavane in 1948, and Bondolfi, Berejena, Mutero, Rupiri and Gobo (St. Alois) between 1950 and 1960.

1953 saw the drawing of boundaries of the Diocese of Gwelo and more work lay ahead with the creation of more missions to satisfy the people’s quest for spiritual edification and general civilization. The SMB Fathers and Brothers tried by all means to reduce the distance that people walked to the nearest centers of worship. 1961-1970 realized the founding of Matibi, Mapiravana, Bangala, Selukwe, Zhombe, Chireddzi, Triangle, Donbosco. From 1971 onwards Mashava, Madangombe, Chivi, Donga, Beitbridge, Redcliff, Ngundu, St. Kizito (Sitakeni), Nyika, Rutenga, Neshuro, Chikuku, Mvuma came to being while in Gweru and Kwekwe St. Michael’s Ascot formerly St. Elisabeth, Chikwingwiza, Senga, St. Paul’s, St. Luke’s, St. Peter’s, Amaveni, St. John and St. Barnabas followed after 1960. In order to equip people with adequate knowledge and faith, the SMB founded Mambo Press as a means of propagating the Gospel message. They also founded many vocational training centers to equip local people with different artisanal skills while they were on the academic front by building schools that produced leaders in various sectors.

According to Fr. Wey, a Catholic Mission is defined by a Church building and a resident priest. The presence of Sisters and Brothers also complement the running of the mission. The fact that most Missions have more than one priest, also Sisters and Brothers, primary and secondary schools, hospitals or at least a clinic testifies to the SMBs achievement in their mission of establishing the local, self-ministering and vibrant Church. In order to rid people of ignorance innumerable out-schools were built and later handed over to the local Councils in 1971.

Fr. Wey acknowledged that things were not easy but the job had to be done. Despite learning the local languages, the missionaries had to bear more weight on their shoulders.

“In the beginning we had to try to learn the local languages and to get used to the different cultures. The managing of all the schools was quite a burden for many priests. The building of all the churches, Mission stations and hospitals was mainly done by our Brothers. Although we enjoyed the pleasant atmosphere of working with the local people, the work of sourcing funding, establishing missions and ensuring that evangelization goes on required a lot of determination,” he said.

The year 1966 saw the number of SMB missionaries working in Zimbabwe ballooning to 131. Today, only seven are left within Zimbabwe in a Society of 62 members around the world. Interestingly, of those in the country, one aged 90 is still serving as a parish priest for Chaka Parish, two are working as chaplains to the sisters while one is still engaged in active pastoral work in parishes and the rest are retired.

Truly, working in Zimbabwe was not always rosy as the Society lost Fr. George Joerger, Fr. Martin Holenstein, Fr. Kilian Huesser during the war of liberation and this compromised operation as most of the fathers and brothers feared for their life. However, they did not surrender but soldiered on until all was accomplished.

The SMB missionaries did not limit themselves to spiritual motivation and evangelization but ventured into humanitarian and development work with Fr. Joseph Stocker building 50 dams and ran different livelihood projects that sustained people in their different needs. They also paid school fees for many children from disadvantaged families while they clothed the young and old with second hand clothing before even mabhero became a hit in the contemporary situation.

Their work did not come to naught as the fruits of their sweat and blood bear testimony to the job well done. The spiritual forefathers appreciate the strides made in the local Church with the formation of Small Christian Communities as key in spiritual growth. They however lamented absence of the flavor of other religious congregations in the two dioceses.

“There was steady progress in the Diocese of Gweru that the local leadership took over in 1977 when Bishop Aloysius Haene resigned while the creation of Masvingo Diocese in 1999 was a good sign of the growth of the local Church. There is still close cooperation between the SMB and the local clergy. In spiritual aspects, the Church is better off, as the local priests understand the mentality of the people better than we did,” Fr. Wey said.

The SMBs established the diocesan priesthood, brotherhood and sisterhood in Gweru Diocese. It was the great aim of Bishop Aloysius Haene and the SMB to promote local vocations. In 1948 the Minor Seminary was started at St. Joseph’s Hama, transferred to Gokomere and later in 1962 moved to Chikwingwizha. In 1963 Walter Beale was ordained at Ascot, Gweru. In 1964, Frs. Kizito Mavima, Francis Xavier Mugadzi and Augustine Urayai were ordained at Gokomere Mission. Since that time the vocations to the priesthood has been multiplying and this has been a great success. Bishop Aloysius Haene founded the Sisters of the Child Jesus (SJI) in 1950 after Fr. Alois Gut had done good preparation work by gathering candidates at Silveira Mission.

As the SMBs in Zimbabwe fold up due to advanced age, they hope that the local church continues in a missionary spirit of bringing the Good News to people not yet evangelized and to be missionaries to other countries.

What will become of the SMB Society in Zimbabwe?

SMB became a household name that many people in Gweru and Masvingo identified with because of their innumerable good works. As the SMB members gradually vanished from the missions and slowly from the diocese what many people ask is what will become of the Society? Are there young SMBs coming to continue their mission?

At some point, the Society decided to recruit young blood to carry on with the mission in the new era. Unfortunately, it was rather too late. Fr. Wey pointed out that although their General Chapter of 2013 had allowed the Zimbabwe Region to recruit new members. A few young people showed interest. Bishop Xavier Munyongani was very supportive of the idea. A kind of a novitiate was started by Fr. Frank Wirz. The constitutions of the Bethlehem Mission Society were translated into English for that purpose.

“At the visitation of the General Council in 2015, it was realized that those interested to join us were mainly candidates who had been sent away for different reasons from other congregations or dioceses. That is why they stopped the whole enterprise. However, on the advice of the General Council some of them tried to start their own missionary Society. They did this and call themselves ‘Mission Society of Southern Africa’ (MSSA) which is yet to be recognized by the Bishop. It will be up to the new Bishop and the Bishops’ Conference to pursue the idea. At present there are three left who have terminated their theological studies,” stated Fr. Wey.

It is an undeniable fact that the SMB fathers and Brothers will be greatly missed in the local missions because of their spiritual motivation and financial strength to support the local Church’s initiatives. The few remaining at the SMB Regional House and the foundations of many missions have left an indelible mark on our land, in the local Church and in the minds of local people.

Compiled with the help of Frs. Joseph Haag, Hugo Dietsche, Antony Wey.

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