Just Five Days to Ghana
Inscrutable • country
By • MARIAN CURD
ON a Sunday morning In January, 1482 — before Columbus had even thought of setting out for the New World —the first Mass was said on the Cold Coast, Africans watching from a few steps away felt that something sacred had taken place. But just what they did not know.
The celebrant was a chaplain serving the Portuguese Fleet which
had put in to build a fortified settlement — the first in the land. More than 500 years before the Birth of Christ. Phoenician navigators had sailed by in the first recorded circumnavigation of Africa. In the 15th century Prince Henry the Navigator chose the title "Our Lady of Africa " for the first church opened by the Portuguese on African soil.
In those days too it was that sailors offered their goods in exchange fOr fresh water and wood—and to their utter astonishment were offered also gold — honest to geodness gold—an inci
dent which led through the centuries to the golden guineas of
England and a current yearly export of L9,800.000 worth, most of it to Britain.
KINGS TO THE RESCUE
RUT those early days in West
Africa were a tremendoue problem to the Church, a great problem for the Pope who knew not where to get funds to build churches and schools needed in a world which was rapidly becoming larger.
It was the devoted Kings of Portugal and of Spain who came to the rescue. Portugal's share of the New World was the East Indies and the West and East coasts of Africa. To Africa they sent ships and missionaries. The Pope gave a plenary indulgence to anyone who died while serving in Portuguese forts.
But history does not move smoothly fol. long. In a book called " Gold Coast Mission History. 1471-1880." published by the Divine Word Fathers and written by the Rev. Dr. Ralph Wiltgen. S.V.D., at the request of Bishop Joseph Bowers, S.V.D., Bishop of Accra, there is given the result of long and patient research on one of the most inscrutable areas of the world.
Fr. Wiltgen at 35 is Public Relations Director and Professor of Missiology at the Divine Word ' Seminary in suburban Chicago. He has received the Bene Merenti Medal from the Holy Father.
H IS book — instructive, inspire' tional and entertaining -is as learned as a thesis for a doctorate and simultaneously more thrilling than fiction can possibly be.
He shows clearly the role of West African missionaries — Capuchins, Holy Ghost Fathers, Dominicans, and secular priests — in the abolition of slavery. Sometimes more than 35,000 a year were taken off. Sometimes the missionaries themselves were sent home in chains for opposing slavery.
Fr. Wiltgen tells how the statue of St. Anthony of Lisbon became — and still is — a Gold Coast fetish; how Accra, the capital, had its first Negro priest in 1679; how missionaries were wiped out steadily, one by one. by the strange Guinea worm—sometimes a foot long which could only be got rid of by rolling them out of their veins on little sticks —an operation sometimes taking a month.
He tells of the chief who stood his coat of arms. the skull of a cow, on the top of a pile of Mass requisities to ensure that no one should steal them.
He tells of the missionaries who died in twos and threes even on the journey to their new mission stations.
THEN comes the long period of occupation by Dutch. Danish and English Protestantism. A period when remnants of Catholic rites and customs lingered on. handed down from generation to generation.
The long march back started as a trickle early in the 19th century. But 40 years were to pass before an actual mission station was reestablished.
In 1833 Bishop England, of Charleston, South Carolina, asked the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda if Catholic missionaries could be sent to work among slaves being liberated from America and emigrating to West Africa. These ex-slaees settled in small communities which, eventually united to form the Republic of Liberia.
The march gained momentum greatly, through the efforts of Fr. Francois Marie Paul Libermann founder of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, later to become the Holy Ghost Fathers. He was an Alsatian convert from Judaism who had just previously opened near Amiens a novitiate to train missionaries exclusively for the Negro apostolate.
He presented to the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda a carefully thought out plan for a vast vicariate divided into five parts and with the building emphasis based on schools. He carefully planned the arrival date of missionaries so that they could become acclimatised during the best season of the year, thereby cutting the dreadful death rate.
THE PLAN OF FR. LIBERMANN
THE missions grew, after many setbacks, from this plan.
In 1880 newly arrived missionaries found some startling things. There were "devotions" to "Santa Mariafo," processions, shrines with candles and vases of flowers but with a fetish; rosaries, baptismal and burial rites. Ali this in a place which had had no contact withlatholicism for over 200 years.
In 1679 there was one Negro priest. Today. on the eve of Independence, when the Gold Coast, Ashanti. the Northern Territories and Togoland will become the Sovereign independent State of Ghana, there are at least 34, with a Negro Bishop in Accra. the capital city.
Today, this State has 1,149 Catholic schools with more than 97,400 students and there are seven training colleges. Catholics among the 5,000,000 population number some 527,600.
DAY llllll ,..,... THE Society of African Missions, the White Fathers and the Divine Word Society missionaries have about 215 priests and 25 hrothers in the country. Many congregations of sisters have been established and in 1952 the Medical Mission Sisters opened the first Catholic hospital in the Gold Coast.
The Hierarchy was established in 1950 with five dioceses.
Looking back over the period 1471 to 1880 and comparing the results of those years with the past 70, there appears a shocking sense of disproportion.
But, Fr. Wiltgen reminds us, the Church " and all her wellintentioned sons from the Kings of Portugal down to the most unimportant individual were striving for the goal that has been reached today."
On Ash Wednesday, Independence Day, the Queen will be represented by the Duchess of Kent. Many other parts of the Commonwealth and other nations will be represented.
And the quickening tempo will, like a jungle drum, sound a glorious " Te Deum " not just for inherited battles but for the reaping in joy of what wasso long ago sown in tears.
Gold Coast Mission History 1471-1880, by the Rev. Dr. Ralph M. Wiltgen, S.V.D. (obtainable from St. Richard's College, Hadzor. broil-slick Worcestershire, 175. 6d.).