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MSC Mission in Southern Africa

In 1950 the Irish MSC established their first mission in the Transvaal area of the very north of South Africa.

missionSA1MSC priests and brother serving in Southern Africa together with Fr. Frank Bray msc (left) who is currently the MSC Regional Leader for the Southern African Region.While initial efforts were focused in that remote part of what is now called Limpopo Province, new ministries were later established in the apartheid townships between Pretoria and Johannesburg, in the mixed race communities of Cape Town and in Namibia.

With the continuous arrival of more MSCs from Ireland, the mission area developed slowly but surely into the present day Dioceses of Tzaneen.

Although they were assisting in the wider MSC mission to New Guinea, by 1948 the Irish MSCs were ready to take on a missionary territory of their own. Following an invitation from Rome and the Belgian Benedictine monks of the Northern Transvaal of South Africa (present day Limpopo Province) Fr. Richard Scriven MSC, the then Superior of the Irish MSCs went to the Northern Transvaal and discussed possible mission areas to be given over to the care of the Irish MSCs.

The Origins of Irish MSC Mission to Southern Africa

missionSA2Mission into the future: local Southern African MSC Priests - Frs Jonas, Julius, Charles and VincentThe Benedictines, who had established two monasteries in the area, kindly gave three established mission stations to the MSCs and of course vast areas that had yet to be developed.

The first group of MSCs came to the Northern Transvaal on 6 July 1950.   They immediately took charge of the town and mission area of Louis Trichardt (now renamed 'Makhado’) and further north in the town of Messina (renamed 'Musina').  By 1953 our Sister congregation, the Daughters of our Lady of the Sacred Heart, had also come to Musina to staff the mine hospital there.

The early MSC spent their first months learning the language of the Northern Sotho people.  Finances were always a problem, however, and the MSCs were greatly encouraged by the generous offer of land and support by the Granville Family at Ofcolaco.

missionSA3Youth catechists’ training dayWithin a year they had built a house and church on the land and established the present day mission station dedicated to the Holy Family.  Holy Family mission is now home to an orphanage for children living with HIV and AIDS.

The MSC also set about reestablishing and developing the mission at Dwars River where the Benedictines had ceased activity shortly after World War II.

With the continuous arrival of more MSCs from Ireland, the mission area developed slowly but surely into the present day Dioceses of Tzaneen.

The Scope of the Mission

Geographically the scope of the mission was immense, covering an area of 26,000 sq. miles and divided into two distinct areas of the Highveld and the Lowveld.

The Highveld is some 4000 feet above sea level and prone to poor rain falls, prolonged periods of drought and harsh winters.  The Lowveld, some 2000 feet above sea level, enjoys a year long subtropical climate, characterized by heavy summer rains, oppressive humidity but mild winters.

missionSA4AIDS orphans at Holy Family Care Centre in OfcolacoCulturally and linguistically the mission area is made up of five distinct groups of people. The languages most commonly spoken are Venda, Northern Sotho, Shangaan, Afrikaans and English.

Socially, due to its political past, traditional groups were denied access to wealth and an unfair distribution of social resources such as educational and health facilities. As such, most of our missions in South Africa were and still are characterized by involvement in education, health, poverty relief and income generating programmes.

Our Hope for the Mission

It is clear from the very outset of our mission endeavor that our purpose was simply to continue the mission tradition of the  church as found in the New Testament and empowered by the vast mission expansion of the church at the end of the 19th century.   The approach to mission was simply to bring people to knowledge of Christ, to offer sacramental life and development of a Christian society with its distinctive characteristics and traditions.

However, over a number of years and through a very serious reflection by the Church throughout the world, missionary attitudes began to change.  The realization and acceptance that “God has revealed himself in various ways and times to different people” and that all that “God has made is good” has helped us to a deeper appreciation of our own culture and the culture of others.  A tremendous swing occurred in the church: instead of seeing culture as a hindrance to evangelization, culture becomes the medium of evangelization.

Several immediate benefits sprung from this new insight.  For the first time the church distinguished between 'Europeanization' and ‘Evangelization’ and began to take on an African identity.  Structures within the church became African-friendly and Africanized.  The church uses the word 'Enculturization'  to characterize this new approach; lay collaboration, transparency and self-sufficiency being the bench marks of development.  Small Christian Communities, prayer groups, Parish Councils, Bible study groups, Catholic Action groups and many more such initiatives are some of the results we have seen from this new approach.

The Current State of the Mission and the Future

In many of our parishes the nature of mission has changed, in that self-regenerative Catholic Communities have developed.  All of our parishes enjoy a sound infrastructure, a variant degree of self-sufficiency, a lively ministerial involvement and a range of other programs that cater for all, from the old to the young.  A great shift from clerical to lay involvement in social issues has been encouraged over the years.  Poverty relief and a response to HIV and Aids are now major social features of all our parishes.

As we look to the future we are conscious of the relatively small number of local MSC vocations and the need to continue our efforts in vocations and formation ministry.   We are thankful and draw hope from the new African missionaries among us and those who will come in the future.  We draw encouragement from the great work done by so few in the early years of our mission to the Northern Transvaal.  Their sacrifices and courage is our living heritage.

Prayer for the Southern African mission

Living God,
We thank you for the work of so many MSCs in South Africa.
May today’s Church with its lay leaders, local priests and religious
continue the strong tradition of selfless service.
May the challenges of today,
especially HIV/AIDS, poverty,
and the current social, political and economic regeneration,
benefit from the prophetic witness and life giving Word
offered by the South African church.
We ask this through Christ, Our Lord.
Amen.