By Fr. Peter Chimombe
In January 2021 Fr. Pius Baettig (SMB) and Br. Burkart were called to their eternal home while in February we lost yet other two gallant Swiss Missionaries of Bethlehem namely, Frs. Joseph Haag and Alois Graff. The later had been serving in the diocese of Chimoio in Mozambique for 25 years since his retirement in 1996. In Zimbabwe he had saved for 31 years since his arrival from Switzerland in 1965. These men left us an unforgettable and instructive testament of hard work, tenacity and simplicity. Unconfirmed whispers in the corridors of gossip say that there are now less than ten SMB fathers and brothers in Zimbabwe remaining as the “last men standing”. In 2016 Sr. Tendai Makonese (OP) had recorded interviews with some of them on Life Lines video programme to capture their memories and savour their legacy.
This writer, was taught Catechism and baptized in 1982 by Fr. Joseph Weber (SMB) at St. Alois Mission (Silobela), recommended to the seminary by Fr. John Kilchmann (SMB) in 1989 and was privileged to conduct an eight days Canonical retreat with these Missionaries of valor in 2015. Founded in 1907 by Canon Peter Bondolfi, the Swiss Missionaries of Bethlehem were requested by Archbishop Aston Chichester (SJ) of Southern Rhodesia to come and work in the southern part of the Salisbury Vicariate (Dachs & Rea, 1979:145). According to the authors Dachs A. J. & Rea W.F. in their book “The Catholic Church and Zimbabwe – 1879-1979”;
“The Bethlehem Missionaries commitment was prompt and dramatic. Bondolfi had promised 30 priests in fifteen years and when the World War 2 broke out in 1939, he had already gone a long way towards redeeming this pledge”. Earlier on in this southern part of the Vicariate which became “Fort Victoria prefecture” and later the Diocese of Gwelo in 1955; the Jesuits had founded Driefontein mission, Gokomere mission, Silveira mission and SS. Peter and Paul parish. To these, the SMB missionaries had by 1965 added twenty more stations. Certainly the work of the Bethlehem Missionary Society was spectacular in its energy and vigor that even Archbishop Chichester was forced into an unhappy comparison with his own Jesuit Society” (Dachs & Rea, 1979:146).
Most of us in Gweru and Masvingo dioceses are witness to the spirit of the SMB, especially their hard work, simplicity and never say die tenacity of purpose. They tried their best to speak the local languages, to eat the local food and to live among the people. They walked on foot across the hills and valleys of Bikita, Chirumanzu, Lowveld, Zhombe, Silobela, Malipati and other places, and rode on horses, bicycles and motor cycles to evangelize even in the remotest, back of beyond areas. During the war of liberation in Zimbabwe some of them were martyred including Frs. Dober (Driefontein), Holenstein (Berejena), George Wiegel (Bondolfi) and Rubio (Bangala) to mention but a few. They had an option of staying in the comfort of their presbyteries but instead chose to suffer with the people.
To appreciate some of the earlier challenges they faced in their missionary endeavor, one needs to read Fr. Ignatius Zvarevashe’s book entitled “Authentic Inculturation and Reconciliation” (2005:67). The author says that in the 1950s, Fr. John, the parish priest of Driefontein mission once cycled for over 30 kilometres to chief Chirumanzu’s kraal to request for land and permission to build a satellite mission. The chief’s council agreed, provided three conditions were met namely;
- The priest accepts the chief’s daughter as his wife so that he becomes his son in-law,
- The priest agrees to baptize the chief and offer him holy communion together with his 19 wives, and
- That the practices of magic, ancestor veneration and rain-making ceremonies were not to be abolished.
These conditions were impossible to meet, hence the SMB missionaries went further south and built Hama Mission. It was only after the death of Mhazihuru, chief Chirumanzu that Holy Cross Mission was built years later. Chirumanzu today has a larger Catholic population and many priestly and religious vocations than all other districts in the Midlands province combined. Thanks to the efforts of the SMB Missionaries. Their spirit of hard work, simplicity and tenacity will live on, long after they are gone.