THE FIRST ZULU PRIESTS
On the 5th of September 1889 Abbot Francis Pfanner blessed a little chapel at the first outstation of Mariannhill, St. Wendelin. On that occasion he preached to the small congregation of Catholics a sermon in which he said: ” We have built this chapel for you, and we provide a priest for you. But a real church will have to be built by you yourself, and what is more, you will also have to provide your own priest !. Take note and understand what it means that there is need for good Christian mothers and fathers who educate their children in such a way that God can turn them into celibate priests and dedicated teachers.” (St. Joseph Magazine Sept. 1889 Nr. 4)
KECE EDWARD MULLER MNGANGA
From the Shozi Reserve at Umhlathuzane, a friendly, cheerful boy of 12 years, was baptized on the 2nd of February 1885, and receive First Holy Communion two years later,(Muller was the name of his godfather in Germany).
Abbot Francis had asked the teachers to look out for boys who might have a vocation to the priesthood. Young Edward showed showed zeal for prayers and great devotion at Mass. In the morning he attended school, and in the afternoon he worked and learned in the blacksmith shop.
In 1887 he was sent by Abbot Francis to Rome, together with David Bryant to study first Latin, and then philosophy and theology at the College of Propaganda Fide. He was ordained a priest in 1898 and returned in November of that year as a Doctor of Philosophy to South Africa, accompanied by Abbot Amandus Scholzig.
It is of crucial importance to note that Abbot Francis who had promoted this vocation, had been silenced and been put out of action.
In the story of Edward Mnganga the person of David A.T. Bryant turns up in an absolutely puzzling way. Bryant had been recruited by Abbot Francis in London and followed him to Mariannhill where he became a Trappist and the first head master of the school for boys. After the visitatiion of 1892, when Abbot Francis was suspended from office, Fr. David had to repeat his noviciate, as this was considered invalid, but he decided to leave Trappist Order and work as a priest in Zululand under Bishop Jolivet.
In 1897 Fr. Bryant wrote a 12 page article in the South African Catholic Magazine (vol. VII), published in Cape Town, in which he stated from his experiences as a teacher that African children, given a chance to education, show the same degree of intelligence as white children.
He even detected a stronger gift of memorizing. “The black child is endowed with a remarkably keen perception of sense, imbued with an inherited instinct of observation, and impelled by an unabating curiosity to see all, feel all, hear all; in a word, to know all that happens to turn up in his daily experience of life”.
Bryant who accompanied young Edward Mnganga on the boat that would take them to Europe (November 1887) reports the following incident. Some passengers wanted to chase Edward from the dining room table, but Bryant protested, whereupon all passengers ostentatiously left the table.
A similar experience had Fr. Othmar, who took two boys to Europe to study in Rome in 1899. On the boat he protested vehemently, because “the same fare has been paid for them as for every white passenger”. The administration gave in and straightened out the affair.
In 1889 Abbot Francis lashed out in a fierce article in the Forget-Me-Not Magazine (Nr. 5-7, April 1889): ” Will the time finally dawn in South Africa when people will renounce this deeply ingrained and radically evil prejudice? As long as people are not willing to do this, they will indeed tame the black man but not convert him”.
What happened to the vision that Abbot Francis had and also his successor Abbot Amandus ?
Amandus Scholzig was a learned, saintky man who died of cancer in 1900. He had, in 1894, sent two more candidates to Rome. They were Aloysius Mncadi and Charles Bengane.
Five years later two more bright promising young men were sent to Rome: Andreas Ngidi from Centocow and Julius Mbhele from Lourdes.
What happened to these four Zulu priests after their return from Rome in respectively 1898, 1903 and 1907 ?
They were not Trappist monks, they were “secular” priests, and the question was raised : what is their position in relation to the institute that had promoted them and had sponsored their studies?
This question came up in the Monastrey Council meeting on the 25th September 1888.
Abbot Francis made enquiries with his former professor of Canon Law, then bishop of Brixen (Bressanone).”The propagandists” i.e. the priests who studied at the College of Propaganda Fide, must work for the missions. This they must solemnly pledge before higher ordination. They are at the disposal of their local ardinary.”
The crux of the matter is that the Trappists had worked towards the realization of local priests, but as “secular” priests they were put at the door of the local ordinary of the Vicariate of Natal, who had not asked for them :
Bishop Charles Jolivet was not unfavourably disposed towards them, but his successor, Bishop Henri Delalle, after the death of Jolivet in 1903 certainly was ….
The Trappists and later the Religious Missionaries of Mariannhill (RMM) failed to grasp that “secular priests were not members of a religious community; that they were entitled to own property for their material support; that they kept close ties with their relatives and that they had the provisions of Canon Law to guide them.
Besides this lack of understanding there came to the surface some deeply human vices in some members of the institute, particularly jealously.
These Zulu priests were far better educated and advanced in theology than the average missionary, since they had studied in Rome. The most tragic conflict, however, occured in the form of power struggle.
Here a great enigma presents the gifted priest Alfred Thomas Bryant. After his ordination in 1898 Bishop Jolivet assigned Fr. Mnganga to work together with Fr. A.T. Bryant, the former Father David, in Zululand, near Emoyeni, where Mnganga was in charge of the boarding school.
In her book, ‘The History of FMM (Franciscan Missionaries of Mary) in South Africa’, Sister Alice Cox of St Anne in Umzinto clearly states that ‘whilst in Rome, Fr Mnganga had presumably met Mother Mary of the Passion.’ and that ‘the correspondence shows that Father Mnganga wrote to Mother Foundress on the 28th June 1901 asking for missionaries. Father Bryant followed this up on the 9th July, reiterating the request. Both letters were from Emoyeni. Eventually on the 19th October 1901, Bishop Jolivet wrote to the Procurator General of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate Congregation, Fr Lemius, and asked him to go and see Mother Mary of the Passion at 12 Via Guisti, Rome.’ Although the process dragged on, Mother Foundress agreed to send Sisters to Ebuhlani in Zululand. This was a dream come true for Fr Mnganga who initiated the official request in June 1901.
This famous Zulu linguist and ethnologist who had been so protective of the boy Mnganga on their journey and during their stay in Rome, now saw in the adult Mnganga a rival who had to be eliminated by ruthless means.
After the quarrel Bryant had Mnganga institutionalized as a “mad man” in the Government Asylum for seventeen years :
IS it a piece of historical irony that Abott Francis Pfanner who had promoted the priesthood of Mnganga, suffered a fate similar to that of his protege? Pfanner wa removed from the office and sent into exile in Emaus where he spent the last 15 years of his life in isolation.
Or does their fate illustrate the Gospel truth about the fate of the Master and the Disciples ? (Mt. 10:24)
Very little is known about Mnganga’s condition as a “patient” during his stay in the Natal Government Asylum in Pietermaritzburg, except that he worked in the blacksmith shop of the Institution.
It must have become clear to the authorities that Fr. Mnganga was not insane, and he was declared a “free patient” in 1911, which seems to mean that he was allowed to leave the Institution.
Fr. Aloysius Mncadi told Fr. Joseph Biegner of Emaus that Fr. Mnganga wanted those who had committed him to the mental institution to come and collect him themselves. He wanted Bryant and Bishop Delalle to declare that he was sane. But they would not do it….
In the end it was thanks to a priest, Fr. Jerome Lyssy, who had left the Trappist order, that Fr. Mnganga came out of the Asylum in 1922.
From then on until his death Fr. Mnganga worked most zealously and fruitfully in various places, chiefly at Mariathal Mission, Ixopo, where he established a catechetical school. He lectured to priest candidates from Europe who were studying at Mariathal. Later on he taught at the first Seminary for Africans, Saint Mary’s, Ixopo, and in between did pastoral work in a place called Maria Ratschitz near Ladysmith. During those years he bought a farm near Wasbank and erected there a chapel and a school.
When Fr. Mnganga became sick he was admitted to Christ the King Hospital in Ixopo where he died on the 7th of April 1945.
The funeral rites were held at St. Mary’s Seminary and he was buried in the cemetery of Mariathal, in the same grave as Fr. Aloysius Majonga Mncadi, on which the C.A.U. erected a modest monument.
In his will Fr. Mnganga left a considerable amount of money to three institutions which Bishop Fleischer had established: that is St. Mary’s Seminary in 1928. Also the Familiar Franciscans of St. Joseph (F.F.J. now T.O.R), and to the sisters, the Daughters of St. Francis of Assisi F.S.F.
All this shows the deep concern for local vocations and loyalty to the Church of this saintly first African priest who was highly respected, indeed, venerated by the faithful people.
ALOYSIUS MANTSHONGA MNCADI
In the Mariannhill Mission Calendar of 1927 Sr. Ignatia CPS writes a long story (p 50 – 61) about MGUGU, THE BLACK PRIEST. She narrates what old sister Innocentia Kolb CPS of Mariathal Mission had told her about a young Mgugu (Precious Stone). His family lived about three hours walk from the mission (St. Ottilia ?). One day Mgugu who had heard about the missionaries and their schools came to the mission, wearing only a loin cloth, and asked to be admitted as a pupil.
Mgugu was an excellent learner, in every respect an example for other boys and eagerly helped young Sister Innocentia with her work.
Easter of 1893 was a great day at Mariathal, when the first catechumens were baptized : 50 boys and girls, elderly men and women, among them was a 16 year old Mgugu Mantshonga who receved the baptismal name of Aloysius.
In the afternoon of the same day the newly-baptized visited Sr. Innocentia and told her ” Mother, I want to serve the Lord. I want to become a priest”. Fr. Hyacinth Solomon, the priest in charge, however , told him rather to become a catechist and teach religion in the area.
Aloysius did this with great zeal, learning all the time more about the faith.
One day Abbot Amandus visited Mariathal Mission, and Aloysius was introduced to him by Fr. Hyacinth.
To the letter’s surprise, Aloysius was said quite frankly” Nkosi, ngicela ukufunda ubupriste” : My Lord, I want to become a priest. The Abbot believed he saw a genuine vocation and decided to send him to Rome. But first he had to go home and ask his father’s permission. Accompanied by Sister Innocentia and a group of fellow pupils Aloysius went to his father’s kraal.
They were well received by old Mantshonga, he allowed his son to go overseas and …”to come back with a lot of money”. Now he had to take leave of his mother Mamncadi. “Your sorrows will turn into joy”, he told his mother.
Soon after his departure for Rome his mother became seriously ill, she was baptized and died very peacefully.
We do not hear anything about the years of study and preparation for the priesthood in Rome. In fact we only know that his companion, CHARLES MBENGANE, also of Mariathal, got ill in ARome ; he went to the Trappist Agency in Wuerzburg, Germany, and died there. It must have been very tough for young Aloysius.
In 1903 Fr. Aloysius Majonga Mncadi was ordained a priest in Rome. The story recounts the jubilant reception of the newly ordained priest, but also that he felt sad that his father who had allowed his relatives to become Christians, would not accept baptism himself. At last, in June 1909, a long procession with Fr. Solanus Peterek, Fr. Aloysius Mncadi, 8 catechists, alter servers, Sister Innocentia leading 50 schoolboys, and Sister Valentine with 70 schoolgirls, walked the long distance to Mantshonga’s kraal. There the old man was baptized, he had chosen the of Paulus…At the end of the ceremony Fr. Aloysius intoned SIKUTUSA BABA WETHU, Te Deum Laudamus.
The old man was intensely happy when his son would bring hiom holy communion, and so he could die in peace.
Sister Innocentia concludes the story, telling that her “MGUGU – Precious stone” confided to her that he had made three vows while in Rome ; namely, once back in Africa, not to eat anything outside meals, not to drink beer, and not to eat meat on Saturdays…..”so as to protect myself against dangers to my soul”.
Sr. Innocentia expresses her happiness to hear very good reports about the priestly work of her “son”.
Now we leave the idyllic scenery of Mariathal and follow the young priest in his ministry. After his ordination in 1903 Fr. Aloysius Majonga Mncadi worked at various mission stations in the Vicariate of Natal, as far as Maria Linden (now Diocese of Mthatha), at Lourdes and Centocow (both in the Diocese of Umzimkhulu) but also nearer home at St. Michael’s, Himmelberg, St. John’s Umgodi (now Mhlabashane) and at Mariatrost. It was at Mariatrost that he clashed with Fr. Florian Rauch. A daughter of his brother was staying with Fr. Aloysius as his housekeeper and cook. Several letters were exchanged which testify to the climate of no understanding of African life style on the part of some missionaries.
In 1921 the Vicariate of Mariannhill was cut out from the huge Vicariate of Natal, and Adalbero Fleischer became the first Vicar Apostolic. Bishop Fleischer ordered Fr. Mncadi to dispose of the farm he bought ….”otherwise you risk eternal damnation :” Together with two fellow priests Fr. Mncadi put his case before the Apostolic Delegate van Gijlswijk, but the Delegate backed the standpoint of Bishop Fleischer.
Some time before Julius Mbhele and Andrew Ngidi were to be ordained in Rome (1909), Bishop Henri Delalle of Natal requested the Cardinal Prefect Propaganda Fide to send these two candidates back home, where … “They would be ordained at a later date !”. The Cardinal simply ignored the request.
Around the same time Fr. Aloysius Mncadi turned up in Emaus and wanted to speak to old Abbot Francis.
He called out “Majonga. It’s Father Majonga”. Fr. Joseph Biegner, assistant and companion to the old Abbot, asked him “Majonga? Why Majonga, and if not Fr. Aloysius”. “Majonga”, he said, “that is Zulu custom. All Mncadis are called Majonga, the Majongas being their forefathers. We call it “IZITHAKAZELO”. I do not simply call myself Majonga. I AM Majonga”.
He then related the sad story of how Edward Mnganga after a conflict with Bryant had been sent by him to the Government Asylum in Pietermaritzburg, where he was to stay for 17 years.
Fr. Mncadi applied in 1932 to go the Benedictine Monastery of Inkamana in newly-erected (1921) Vicariate of Zululand. When he arrived there in 1933 he was already a sick man. The chronicles of Inkamana Monastery records :
“Father Mncadi was already sickly and weak when he came to us. Nevertheless, he worked hard from the day he arrived. He gave instruction, preached, heard confessions and visited outstations on horseback. Nothing seemed too much for him. From about July his health deteriorated alarmingly. The doctor diagnosed cancer. Fr. Alois had problems with his digestion; he lost weight.
It was only with great effort that he could celebrate Mass … He left us on October 2nd and died on October 28 suffering from cancer of the liver”.
His body was to rest at Mariathal Cemetery.
JULIUS MKOMAZI MBHELE
He was born in East Griqualand in 1879 and grew up at lourdes Mission where he was baptized in 1896. Abbot Amandus of Mariannhill sent him, together with Andreas Ngidi to Rome in 1899. Mbhele was 20 years old at the time. It seems it required courage and determination for such a great step, because two other candidates who had been accepted, withdrew.
Both were ordained in Rome in 1907 and celebrated first Holy Mass in some principal churches in the city. On their way back to Africa they stayed in Wuerzburg, Germany, where they were most cordially received and, as African priests, caused quite a stir, according to a report in Forget-Me_Not 1907, with a title “Ajoyful Occasion”.
His ministry in the Vicariate of Natal is characterized by a number of conflicts with fellow priests and with his superiors. It is useful at this stage to look at organization of the Church in KZN as it was at that time.
There was first the Vicariate Apostolic of Natal, with Bishop Henri Delalle OMI. When the Vicariate of Mariannhill was erected in 1921 Adalbero Fleischer CMM became the Vicar Apostolic. In 1923 the Vicariate of Eshowe in Zululand was erected under Bishop Thomas Spreiter OSB.
When Mbhele left Mariannhill and joined the Vicariate of Zululand in 1933 his problems were not yet over. The root cause was a clash of cultures : Mbhele insisted on his right of ownership of a farm he had bought at Ncalu near Ixopo. His appeal to the Apostolic Delegate was of no avail. He complained about lack of support in this matter from his fellow African priests, hinting that ” an injury to one is an injury to all”. Almost from the beginning of his ministry there must existed deep animosity between the Mariannhill priest Fr. Sixtus Wittekind and Fr. Mbhele, which led to all sorts of manipulation from Fr. Sixtus : spying on him, accusations of immoral behaviour.
Also in Zululand there were problems between Fr. Mbhele and Bishop Spreiter, which caused himto leave the ministry for some time and live on his farm.
Yet he would not give up the priesthood and applied in 1939 to the Vicar Apostolic of Swaziland, a Servite, to work in his vicariate. There he stayed for a number of years until, towards the end of his life, he retired to his farm at Ncalu.
Fr. Mbhele died in Pietermaritzburg in 1956 and was buried at Lourdes Mission.
ANDREAS MDONTSWA NGIDI
We are fortunate to have an autobiography of Fr. Andreas Ngidi, kept in the Archives of Inkamana Monastery, which provides rich material about the background of his family, the social and political situation in the part of Natal, and about the mind and potential of that gifted young boy that was recognized by Fr. Bede Gramsch at Centocow Mission. Unfortunately the autobiography does not deal with his ministry.
After he was baptized in 1894 at the age of 13 he decided from then on “to lead a good life”. A visit of the first African priest Fr. Dr. Edward Mnganga to Centocow stimulated his desire to become a priest. Ngidi and Mbhele went to Rome in 1899 and were very successful in their studies; both recieved Doctorates in Philosophy and Ngidi also in Theology.
They were ordained priests in the Lateran Basilica in 1907 by the Cardinal Vicar of Rome. Fr. Ngidi celebrated his first Mass in the German national church DEL ANIMA, for – as he wrote – he had great love and gratitude for the German missionaries in his country.
At one of his early assignments, Maria Felgte (now Diocese of Kokstad) Ngidi experienced suspicion from the rector, Fr. Albert Schweiger, on account of his frank writings about the way he was treated by white Catholics and fellow priests. He applied to the Vicariate of Zululand and went there in 1921.
Fr. Ngidi’s service to the church in Zululand was highly appreciated by the Benedictines. His activities are recorded in the chronicles of Inkamana Monastery which says “Rev. Fr. Andreas Ngidi is inundated with work of every kind. He is of invaluable help to the administrator. He tries his best to teach perfect Zulu lessons to our sisters who teach in the school”.
Fr. Ngidi was a good and understanding pastor who was well liked by his flock. The chronicles emphasize time and again that, being one of their own priest, it was much easier for Fr. Ngidi to get through to his people. Difficult pastoral cases were therefore frequently left to him to handle.
It was a great occasion for the Catholic Church in Zululand when Fr. Andreas Ngidi and Fr. Julius Mbhele celebrated their silver jubilee as priests on May 25, 1932. Preparations were made weeks in advance. On the feast day itself, Fr. Andreas Ngidi celebrated tthe High Mass, assisted by Bishop Thomas Spreiter. All who prticipated in the Mass were then invited to lunch. The food was provided by the people. They donated a heifer, two goats, a sheep and many loafs of bread, mieliepap and utshwala …….as the chronicle of Inkamana acknowledges. He also did not fail to mention that school had walked all night from Cassino to come to the feast. They arrived at Inkamana just in time for Mass. A member of the Zulu royal family wrote about the feast in the weekly newspaper UMAFRIKA : >> On behalf of all who attended the jubilee celebration of the two black priests, I would like to thank Bishop Thomas Spruiter …. I have seen something at Inkamana which I have never seen before … For the festive lunch we all sat together at one and the same table, the bishop and black and white priests side by side. I cannot talk about race segregation anymore. We were eight black men at the table in addition to the two jubilarians … On that day my heart was filled the same joy that I had experienced when I was received into Catholic Church.<<
Fr. Andreas Ngidi spent 25 years in Zululand. He was of short stature and had a very cheerful character. This gifted priest used his many talents in various ways : preaching missions, writing on Zulu culture, but especially used his energy to improve the quality of life of the rural population. To this end he used the organization of the Catholic African Union (C.A.U.) which had been founded by Fr. Bernard Huss CMM, called “The Apostle of the Zulus”, with its motto BETTER FIELDS, BETTER HOMES, BETTER HEARTS”.
Health problems forced Fr. Ngidi in 1951 to seek medical help in the Benedictine Hospital at Nongoma. But the doctors could not help him any more, as he suffered from diabetes and cancer. He died in 1951.
Bishop Bilgeri and the priests of the Diocese with large crowds of mourners gathered at Inkamana for his funeral, and there he was buried.
The Benedictines owe a great debt of gratitude to this African priest who, for a quarter of a century, had helped to implant the Church in Zululand.
Abbot Francis Pfanner was a pioneer, a visionary, a man ahead of his time when in 1887 he sent Edward Mnganga to Rome to become the first Zulu priest.
As in the case of many pioneers, the implementation of the vision by the successors often falls short of original intuition and intention. They initiate but do not complete.
Abbot Amandus Scholzig, a professor of oriental languages in Vienna before joining Mariannhill, shared the same vision of Abbot Francis, but after him no more priests were ordained till 1936, when Fr. Malachias Mkwane was the first fruit of St. Mary’s Seminary.
In between there stands the MISSION POPE Benedict XV, who in 1919 issued the famous Encyclical MAXIMUM ILLUD, urging the formation of indegenous clergy.
The energetic Cardinal Willem Van Rossum inspired and pushed ahead the pope’s ideas of indigenization.
Clashes between a young assistant priest and his old superior are common in every culture; in the case of our four African priests the clashes were exacerbated by different cultures, and all this happened in the beginning of the twentieth century, more than one hundred years ago.
There is another side of the story : it is not generallyy known, and not well documented, that there were good relationships and friendship between brothers and sisters of Mariannhill and the African priests.
In the situation it is likely that these young priests were inclined to show off their superior knowledge, which would equally likely be resented by German missionaries.
And yet, each of them died as a priest. These four Zulu priests deserve our deep respect and admiration, because against all odds they remained faithful to the Church that had made them suffer, and to their high calling.
May reflecting on their eventful lives lead to healing of memories.
SOURCES consulted and used with permission
Mariannhill Mission Calendar
South African Catholic Magazine
Michael Cawood Green
Sr. Annette Buschgerd CPS
Anton Roos CMM
Godfrey Sieber OSB
Joy B. Brain
John Driessen CMM
Archives of Monastery Mariannhill
Archives of Inkamana Monastery
Archives of the Archdiocese of Durban