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Roman Catholic Missions in Sierra Leone 1900-1961


Seán Farren



In a previous article (JSLS, 2, 2013) the history of Roman Catholic missions to Sierra Leone during the nineteenth century was outlined and discussed. By the close of the century after a sustained presence of over forty years the mission in Sierra Leone had developed firm roots in the colony at Freetown and in its suburbs of Ascensiontown and Murraytown, and beyond the peninsula at Bonthe and Mobe. In the first decade of the new century the mission would see its presence expand further, especially in the Protectorate to include stations at Moyamba in 1901, Gerihun and Blama in 1904, and at Serabu in 1905, at all of which primary schools, some with a trade section attached, were opened.


By 1905 the Catholic mission’s personnel consisted of eleven priests, four brothers and eleven sisters caring for a total Catholic population of nearly 3,000 with 900 children enrolled in their schools and cared for in their orphanages. Most of these missionaries were either French or Irish, the men from the Holy Ghost congregation (nowadays known as Spiritans) and the women from the St Joseph of Cluny congregation. As yet there were no indigenous clergy, male or female.


Despite this expansion the Catholic mission still viewed itself as labouring in a mostchallenging situation. One missionary described their challenge as follows: ‘noussommes ici en plein pays protestant, et c’est pour nous, au point de vue de l’évangélisation, une très grande difficulté (We are in an essentially Protestant country which from the point of view of evangelisation is a great difficulty).[1] Nevertheless the mission persisted and, however slowly continued its expansion throughout the early decades of the new century.

This article continues discussion of the Catholic mission covering the period 1900 to the country’s independence in the 1961.


Sierra Leone’s First Catholic Bishop


Following the death in 1903 of Vicar-Apostolic Mgr James Brown who had led the mission over the preceding decade and who had guided its expansion beyond the Colony, three names were submitted to Rome as possible successors. One of these was a Fr Joseph Shanahan from Ireland who was later to win considerable renown as a missionary in Nigeria. However, in 1903 Shanahan was judged as still lacking in experience. Instead, Browne’s successor was Fr John O’Gorman who was described in the assessment of his qualities for the post as a ‘good theologian’. O’Gorman was Irish and before his appointment to Freetown had spent some years in Philadelphia in the US, and had also taught at the congregation’s mother house in Paris. Fr O’Gorman was nominated the first full Catholic bishop of Sierra Leone in 1904 and was consecrated into the office in Philadelphia. He was to spend a remarkable thirty years in the country and was to witness considerable further growth in the number of missionaries and in the number of locations at which they operated.  Alongside the building of churches and the work of evangelisation, the provision of schools remained a key focus of the mission's expansion. Most of the schools were still at primary level, the main exceptions being at Mobe where the mission conducted an industrial school, mainly instruction in woodwork with some engineering. Much later, a small number of secondary schools would be established. In addition to their focus on education, there were also some particularly critical customary practices that missionaries felt obligated to address.




Among these practices was the persistence of slavery in parts of the Protectorate. Although the practice of wholesale slavery had been legally abolished by the Protectorate Ordinances of 1895-6, the ordinances did not prohibit domestic slavery with the result that a local trade continued with men, women and children being sold particularly into this form of slavery. The practice existed for the most part outside of the peninsula area, with Sherbro Island allegedly one its main centres.


Although several of popes had condemned slavery, ambivalence towards the practice had existed within the Catholic Church rendering it slow to campaign with any vigour against its persistence.[1] Catholic voices were notable by their absence in the leadership of the various anti-slavery campaigns of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


However, with the development of the Church’s missionary activity in Africa strong opposition began to be expressed by members of missionary congregations. Mother Jahouvey, founder of the Congregation of St Joseph of Cluny who had visited Freetown to reorganise the hospital in 1824, had been a strong opponent of slavery in the 1820s. Letters from missionaries in Sierra Leone reflected concern about the persistence of slavery, and the cruelties accompanying it and later in the nineteenth century the Church established a central fund to support anti-slavery initiatives.[2]


One of the French missionaries in Sierra Leone, Fr Augustine Lorbor wrote to Paris of slaves being ‘des bêtes de somme que l’on ne tient à céder a nul prix, d’où il suit que le prix du rachat d’un esclave est absolument exorbitant’ (are beasts with a price that won’t be easily ceded the result of which is that the price of repurchase is absolutely exorbitant).[3] Fr Lobor was speaking from direct experience since some missionaries were purchasing the freedom of slaves, but had to pay extravagant prices to do so.


The same missionary wrote of the delight and gratitude of one family of three whom he had purchased into freedom. In Bonthe and Moyamba, many of the boys and girls in the mission’s schools were in fact purchased or otherwise released from slavery and having no one to look after them were taken into the care of the missionaries. Bishop O’Gorman appealed to the Vatican’s anti-slavery fund for support for the relief of former slaves and decried the restrictions under which those in domestic slavery were forced to live, especially restrictions with respect to whom they could marry.[4] Despite the Catholic Church’s efforts and those of other agencies, it was not until 1928 that a clear legal prohibition on domestic slavery was enacted for the Protectorate.[5]

As well as campaigning against slavery O’Gorman condemned the practice of cannibalism which also still occurred in some parts of the Protectorate where it was associated with secret societies, notably the Leopard Society. On one of his visits to the US, in 1911, O'Gorman was quoted in the New York Times commenting about the practice and commending the efforts of the British government to stamp out cannibalism by putting those arrested on trial and executing those convicted of the practice.[1] He talked about the Leopard secret society whose members believed they gained magical charms by killing men and eating their flesh and of the difficulty in eliminating the practice. The Church was generally opposed to such secret societies whose influence was described as menacing both ‘la réligion et l‘ordre public’.[2]  


Schools under Threat


Another early issue that Bishop O’Gorman had to address was a proposal to amalgamate all of the Colony’s schools into one system under government control.[3] Because such a system would be non-denominational Bishop O’Gorman opposed it, and he campaigned hard to safeguard the small subsidies Catholic schools received from the government. It was an issue not unfamiliar to an Irish churchman. In Ireland similar controversies had frequently arisen with regards to the control of schools with the Church there firmly in favour of a government subsidised denominational system. O’Gorman succeeded in getting a written promise from the governor that their schools would continue to receive a share of the government’s grant for educational purposes and not be forced to amalgamate with others.[4] One of the beneficial side effects for the Church from O’Gorman’s stand was the offer he received from a number of prominent citizens to subscribe to a fund for the building of a school to be named in memory of his predecessor, Fr Brown.[5] Despite the success of his stand, the official assistance provided to schools remained quite meagre and it was not until 1929 that a more satisfactory arrangement was determined. In return for handing over all fees to the government the latter undertook responsibility for the payment of teachers’ salaries, the supply of books and equipment to schools, while a loan scheme provided support for capital projects.[6]


O’Gorman’s financial difficulties were not just with the government. He also felt obliged to complain to the Office for the Propagation of the Faith at the Vatican at the low amount of financial support the office was providing.[7] The bishop argued that the grant awarded by the office had been reduced to 9,500 francs, but that since he had been obliged to pay for nineteen journeys to and from Europe at 625 francs each, some for clergy being sent home for health reasons, he had very little left for the mission itself. There is no evidence to show that O’Gorman got any immediate satisfaction to his pleas. To increase his missions funds Bishop O’Gorman undertook several trips to the United States where he had many connections as result of his many years teaching there. His fund raising efforts helped, for example, in meeting the purchase price of 11,500 francs for land at St Anthony’s in Ascensiontown, as well as for the on-going development of the mission.


Visiting Out- Stations

Bishop O’Gorman conducted regular visitations to missionary stations in the Protectorate where many missionaries lived on their own, less by design than because companions were often forced to take sick leave. In one period of two years the station in Gerihun, for example, witnessed five missionaries come and go, some serving as short a period as three months, all obliged to leave due to ill-health.[8]  Nonetheless, overall the number of missionaries slowly increased and by 1921 the bishop was able to report that the Catholic mission in Sierra Leone consisted of twenty-one priests, six brothers, fifteen religious sisters and sixty local catechists. The missionaries were located in more than ten stations across the Colony and the Protectorate and were caring for sixteen chapels, and conducting twenty-one schools, thirteen orphanages, seven farms, eleven workshops and seven medical dispensaries.


In most places in the Protectorate the missionaries were careful to develop positive relations with the local authorities, essentially the chiefs who usually had invited the missionaries to establish schools in their chiefdoms. In Moyamba, for instance, the chief was Mamy Yoko who was very well disposed to the mission and which ‘En toutes circonstances, elle nous honorait de son patronage … Elle nous envoyait son monde au catéchisme, et elle meme venait souvent assister à la sainte messe (in all circumstances she honours us with her patronage … she sends her people to catechism lessons and she frequently attends holy mass).[9] However, despite many approaches Mamy Yoko declined conversion to Christianity saying ‘Moi, je crois à la médicine, je ne connais que cela, et ainsi je veux mourir’ (Me, I believe in the medicine, I only know that and so I wish to die).[10]


Educational Advances

The 1920s witnessed a number of notable educational developments by the mission. In 1923 Sr Augustine Woodnut, originally from Dublin with several years experience in India, arrived to become Mother Provincial in Sierra Leone and immediately undertook initiatives to expand the facilities and curriculum at the girls’ school. In particular, she broadened the curriculum and modernised facilities for domestic science at St Joseph’s by having a special block built. With these initiatives the school quickly gained a strong reputation in the subject.  In order to encourage girls remain at secondary level, they were entered for the Cambridge school examinations from 1927. Enrolments rapidly increased and, by the mid-1920s, there were 350 pupils in the primary and 300 in the secondary school.   A  visitor to Sierra Leone at this time, an associate professor at Columbia  Teachers’ College in the USA, wrote ‘The best mission school seen here and indeed the best primary school in all of West Africa  was St Joseph’s Convent for Girls, under the direction of Irish Catholic sisters’.[11]


In the Protectorate the sisters conducted two secondary schools, one at Bonthe, the other at Moyamba where the aim was to prepare the girls more for marriage than for employment. According to the Sierra Leone Annual Report on Education for 1929, the sisters aim ‘… in the two convent schools is to educate the girls to keep their homes properly … The best proof of the training of these girls is that they are sought in marriage long before the completion of their studies’.[12] Obviously the plan seemed to be to improve standards by training the girls in modern domestic practices thereby increasing their attractiveness as potential brides.  


The provision of secondary education for boys although long planned for was not realised until St Edward’s secondary school in Freetown was established in 1922 under the principalship of Fr Michael O’Connor.  When he was invalided home shortly afterwards, his place was taken by Fr Cornelius Mulcahy whose name would become synonymous with the school until his sudden death in 1941. 


Fr Mulcahy was Irish and first went to Sierra Leone in 1917 serving at Mobe and  Serabu before being posted to Freetown when St Edward’s was about to be opened. Under Fr Mulcahy’s leadership the school quickly gained a strong reputation, both academically and on the sports field.  Many of its past students would become prominent figures in Sierra Leone society, among them Albert Margai, a future Prime Minister. Apart from his responsibilities at St Edward’s, Fr Mulcahy became deeply involved in the development of sport in Freetown.  In particular, he was an enthusiastic member of the Colony’s Football Association of which he was Vice-President for many years.


Writing with obvious pride in St Edward’s the author of the report on Sierra Leone for the Bulletin de la Congrégation du Saint Esprit, stated, ‘elle nous a donné des Catholiques bien instruits dont plusieurs occupent maintenant les plus hauts postes dans les services du Governement où ils peuvent exercer une influence très utile au profit de la Mission’ (The school has produced Catholics who are well instructed and who now occupy some of the highest positions in Government service where they may use influence to the benefit of the Mission).[13]


Alongside the development of secondary school facilities, the mission’s primary sector continued to expand and between 1912 and 1927, Bishop O’Gorman oversaw the opening of schools at Bo, Gbama, Mattru Jong, Sumbuya, Boajibu, Koribondo and Sembehun.


Human Cost of Expansion

As in the previous century, the expansion of the mission’s services was still not without its human costs, or its challenges. Like those of his predecessor, O’Gorman’s letters frequently mentioned missionaries who were afflicted with sickness, mainly fevers of one form or another, some fatal, arising from fatigue and overwork. He also wrote of school and church buildings being damaged or totally destroyed during violent storms and of having to be rebuilt. He mentioned the physical challenges his missionaries faced living in isolated stations in the Protectorate. He instanced the priest at Gerihun whose home was in a local hut, and who regularly visited on foot the seventy-two villages in his area, some requiring a trek of fourteen hours. O’Gorman also reflected on the problems facing the local people – the high price of rice at times, the situation of women who were essentially their husband’s chattels, the hold their secret Bundu society had over them, and the persistence of domestic slavery and, in some areas, of cannibalism.


O’Gorman was also frequently frustrated with what he regarded as an inadequate response to his appeal for more missionaries. He believed that the authorities at home in Ireland were not listening to his pleas, his absolute need for more men, not just to replace and relieve those unable to continue but because there was just so much to be done, especially in education where new schools were his top priority. On the same issue O'Gorman referred caustically to what he termed ‘la maladie de Blackrock’ (the Blackrock illness), i.e. the Irish leadership at its headquarters were turning a deaf ear to his plea for more missionaries to Sierra Leone.


Among O’Gorman’s other personnel problems was the fondness for alcohol of some missionaries. It was not a widespread problem, but a few missionaries caused particular concern, one brother’s behaviour the source of more than a little public embarrassment. O’Gorman’ reported that the brother had arrived in Sierra Leone ‘en crise d’alcoolisme aigu … Le pire est qu’il était comme ivrogne à bord de bateau’ (with a severe alcoholic crisis   … the worst is that he was a drunk on board ship).[14]  Later, despite the brother’s promises to repent, one Sunday morning O’Gorman ‘stumbled on him drinking whiskey, no thought of mass or anything else’. The impression O’Gorman had was that the brother had been sent to Sierra Leone to distance him from the authorities at home. Eventually that was where he had to be returned.[15]

An entirely different personnel problem was outlined in a letter from O’Gorman’s deputy, Fr Daniel Lynch, written during the former’s lengthy visit to the United States in 1925. A recently arrived missionary is described as ‘very pious, too pious’ and unable to relate to the local people so much so that the ‘children ran away from the school and refuse to return while he is there … He had the same result at Blama, Gerihun and Moyamba’.[16] He was brought to Freetown where no suitable work could be found for him. Eventually he requested to be sent home and he was.


Reflecting concern for their own general well-being, the annual meeting of missionaries in 1930 advised on paying attention to personal hygiene, to the kind of food eaten and the amount of alcohol consumed. On alcohol, it was laid down that ‘only one glass of whiskey might be taken by fathers in visits to Europeans’, while every effort was to be made to avoid stationing missionaries on their own where no common prayer or other acts of common worship were possible.[17]


Bishop O’Gorman celebrated his silver jubilee as bishop in 1929 in the presence of Governor Byrne and other leading dignitaries of Freetown’s society, a mark of his standing in the city's society. By then he was beginning to feel the effects of thirty years in the tropics and, when he fell seriously ill two years later, he was advised to spend time in Switzerland. He went there in 1931 and it was while there that he submitted his resignation in 1932. He died in Fribourg in 1935.


Bishop Ambrose Kelly

When Bishop O’Gorman resigned he was replaced by a man who was soon to also experience ill-health. He was Bishop Bartholomew Wilson who had been ministering in the East Africa for many years. Appointed in 1931 he was affected by poor health almost from his arrival in Sierra Leone and was obliged to spend time at home recuperating. He returned, but in 1936 was obliged to resign on medical advice.


Wilson’s successor was Ambrose Kelly, born in England but educated in Ireland. Bishop Kelly had served in Sierra Leone since 1929, first at St Edward’s Secondary School and later at Moyamba, Blama and Bonthe. His early years as missionary witnessed the continuing expansion of the mission under his two predecessors, including the opening of the first mission station and school in the Northern province at Lunsar in 1933. However, the main geographic focus of the expansion remained the Southern province where the increase in missionaries allowed many new primary schools to be established before the outbreak of war in 1939 delayed further expansion for its duration.


In 1939 the first Sierra Leonean, Edward Hamelberg, was ordained a priest as a member of the Holy Ghost congregation. Fr Hamelberg was born in Freetown and had attended secondary school at St Edward’s. Efforts to attract other young men to the priesthood had been made from time to time, but without success. A junior seminary had been established at Blama, then transferred to Gerihun and later to St Edwards, but, according to a review of these initiatives in 1938, ‘most (of the boys) left for grand jobs when they had obtained their diplomas’.[18] It would be another twenty years before Fr Hamelberg would be joined by a second Sierra Leonean priest.


World War2

WW2 with its inhibitions on travel to and from Europe and the difficulties in obtaining all kinds of materials constrained developments in the mission, while the increase in military personnel meant that several more missionaries than normal were allocated chaplaincy roles. Also, school premises, notably, at Ascensiontown, were acquired by the military and not returned until the war was over. A greater problem was created when many teachers and not a few pupils abandoned their schools to take well paid jobs at the many military bases established around the Colony, or to actually join the forces.


One very notable wartime development was the establishment of the Catholic Training College in Bo in 1942 with Fr Hamelberg as its principal. The college opened with fifteen students, but quickly expanded when it moved to new large premises on the outskirts of the town in 1950. Another notable development was the expansion of missionary activity to Kono, populated at the time mainly by Kissy people who had not previously been evangelized to any great extent.

In the Shadow of Independence

In the aftermath of the war the future of Britain’s colonies, as with the colonies of all imperial powers, increasingly became a matter of urgent discussion. Sierra Leoneans had long sought greater control over their own affairs. A new constitution in 1947 significantly increased the number of members in the Colony's Legislative Council from the Protectorate to ten, all nominated from the Protectorate’s own assembly which had been established the previous year and which met in Bo. In 1951 membership of  the Legislative Council was further increased  with more members being directly elected, and in 1953 a number of Sierra Leoneans were appointed to ministerial positions in the Executive Council, among them Milton Margai, a Mende, and a medical doctor. From then until the end of the decade the focus was on negotiating and preparing for independence which was eventually granted in April 1961 with Dr Margai as the country’s first post-independence prime minister.


Mission Prepares for Independence

In 1950 the position of the Church in Sierra Leone was enhanced when, what had hitherto been a province or vicariate, directly responsible to the Vatican, was accorded independent status with the creation of the Diocese of Freetown and Bo. The Northern province would follow in 1952 when the Prefecture of Makeni was established and entrusted to the Xavarian fathers from Italy under Mgr Augusto Azzolini. The Church, as it were, had formally shed its own ‘colonial’ status though with only one local priest it was still highly dependent on foreign missionaries. By then its personnel had increased to thirty-seven priests, six brothers, and twenty-seven religious sisters serving the religious needs of approximately 11, 500 Catholics.[19]


The establishment of the Makeni prefecture was not, however, universally welcomed by the missionaries. One in particular, Fr James Gosson claimed the division of the country was premature saying that sufficient progress had not then been made to warrant the development. He argued that the opening of the missionary station at Lunsar in 1936 had had ‘depressing results’ and despite attempts to open other stations they had ‘always met a blank wall of opposition’.[20] The wall of opposition he referred to was the extent to which Islam had penetrated communities in the area.

The contrary view was put by his colleague, Fr Mellett, who wrote that ‘the mistake of many is to try to convert from the beginning instead of planting the Church which will convert tomorrow’.[21] Mellett claimed that while Islam was prevalent ‘nnowhere is it very deep except in towns like Makeni and Magburaka’.[22]  He went on to note that ‘even there the children coming to (mission) schools are in no way prevented from learning the catechism and a fair number of them come to mass on Sunday’.[23] Fr Mellett was obviously hoping that the return on missionary efforts would be seen as the younger generation came of age.


As the political climate changed the demand for education and other public services increased rapidly and missionary congregations were only too anxious to provide personnel. In Ireland, from where the majority of Catholic missionaries now came, membership of such congregations continued to increase significantly in the post-war period and Sierra Leone was among the countries to benefit. By the late 1950s the number of male missionaries approached fifty, while the sisters numbered approximately twenty-five, among them members of two congregations new to Sierra Leone, the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary (MSHR), and the Xaverian fathers.

As part of the preparation for independence a number of government reports highlighted the urgent need to expand educational opportunities throughout the country, especially in the Protectorate. One report, Educational Opportunities in the Protectorate, revealed that in the immediate postwar period as few as 15,000 children were attending school there. [24] So when Milton Margai’s brother Albert assumed office as Minister for Education in the early fifties, he began implementing a Programme of Education which included the establishment of local education authorities to oversee and assist the expansion of educational facilities.[25] The Catholic Church, as with other agencies, was an enthusiastic participant in the implementation of Margai’s programme.


Bishop Thomas Brosnahan

Bishop Brosnahan, another Irishman, headed the Catholic mission for the period leading to independence, and for more than a decade afterwards. He succeeded to the bishopric of Freetown and Bo in 1953 after twenty-two years in Eastern Nigeria. Notes on his suitability for the position stressed his energetic commitment to his missionary responsibilities in Nigeria, his above average intelligence, his prudence, his generosity and his patience.[26] Bishop Brosnahan would oversee a very rapid expansion of the Church’s involvement in education over the next two decades. To add coherence to this expansion Brosnahan’s predecessor had already established the Catholic Education Secretariat. The secretariat had responsibility to liaise with government and to dispense government subsidies to Catholic schools and their salaries to its teachers.


Central to expansion plans was the need for more secondary schools, not least to ensure that well qualified local personnel would be available to meet growing demands in the country’s public and private sectors. In 1954, Christ the King College (CKC), Bo was opened with Fr Michael Corbett as its first principal. CKC was followed over the next ten years by secondary schools for girls in Bo and Pujehun, and by boys’ schools in Pujehun, Kenema, Segbwema, Makeni and elsewhere.  In 1959 St Joseph’s girls’ school in Freetown moved premises from Howe St in the centre of of the city to Brookfields, where the principal Sr Teresa McKeon, who had been serving in Sierra Leone since 1954, spearheaded several major developments, expanding the curriculum and overseeing the construction of new facilities. In tune with the times, Sr Teresa was also very committed to transferring the administration of the school to a lay person, and she trained Florence Dillsworth to be its first Sierra Leonean principal.


Along with this expansion into secondary education, there was no pause in the expansion of primary education. In 1953 the Catholic mission controlled seventy schools, two years later the number had increased to 125, and by the centenary of the Catholic mission’s presence in Sierra Leone in 1964 the number was over 300, making it the largest single provider of schools in the country[27] 


Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary

The additional provision of educational opportunities for girls would not have been possible without the arrival in 1948 of members of the MSHR.[28] Their arrival marked a significant development in girls’ education in the Protectorate where the sisters concentrated their work. The congregation was Irish, founded by Bishop Joseph Shanahan in 1924, and as early as 1939 Bishop Kelly had requested that the MSHR provide personnel for Sierra Leone, particularly for Bo, the country’s second largest town.  Eventually, in response to his request, in November 1948, two MSHR from Ireland arrived in Freetown.  These pioneers were Srs Felim Curley and Kevin Osborne and they took up residence in Bo.  As soon as further accommodation was found, a third sister Sr Consilia Donovan arrived in January 1949.  The parish priest of Bo provided land adjoining his mission compound for their girls’ school, the first pupils for which were taken from St Francis Boys’ School where there were 25 girls among the 200 boys. Sr Declan Stewart arrived from Nigeria to bolster the effort, but she only stayed in Bo for a few months before being transferred to Pujehun where the Holy Ghost fathers had opened a mission station and school as early as 1912, but with the outbreak of war had vacated it in 1939.  After the war, the mission school was re-opened and Chief Kaikai requested Bishop Kelly to also establish a girls’ school.  In June 1949 Srs Declan and Felim were sent from Bo to do so.  However, persuading parents to enrol their daughters in the school was not easy and the sisters had to engage in extensive campaigns around the villages encouraging parents to send their girls to school.


To provide qualified teachers, the Holy Rosary congregation established a female training college at Kenema in 1954 and in the same year St Mary’s Technical & Vocational Centre was inaugurated by Sr Mary Columcille in Bo. The centre offered courses in sewing, cooking, and laundry.  Later, a commercial course was added.


Medical Facilities

Education was not the only sector to experience expansion at this time. In 1954, the MSHR assumed responsibility for the health clinic at Serabu which had been established in 1948 by the St Joseph of Cluny Sisters. The latter then opened a hospital at Lunsar in the Northern province. Under the direction of Sr Dr Hilary Lyons the Serabu clinic quickly gained a considerable reputation and soon established a training unit for nurses. As the principal doctor, Sr Hilary won renown throughout the country for developments at Serabu, particulary in primary health care.   A second hospital was later opened at Panguma, near Kenema.


Xavarian Missionaries

This Italian congregation whose members had been expelled from China following the communist take over in the late 1940s, were in search of alternative territories when they were assigned to Sierra Leone in 1950. The congregation’s first three members arrived that year and assumed responsibility for the Northern Province. They were soon joined by four brothers from a Dutch teaching order and within the next ten years the number of schools controlled by the Prefecture increased to over sixty and the number of priests to eleven.


Missionary Reflections

What did missionaries think of their work and what were their attitudes to local spiritual beliefs and practices? These are little explored questions, particularly with respect to Catholic missionaries in Sierra Leone. What follows is a brief, initial attempt to expose some of their thoughts and attitudes.


Fr Francis Liberman, one of the founders of the Holy Ghost congregation had encouraged his missionaries to learn local languages and to familiarise themselves with local customs in order to get as close as possible to the people among whom they were working.[29] In many of the territories in which they worked missionaries did precisely that and, as a result, many of them produced a rich literature in linguistics, in folk studies and in commentaries on the life and customs of the many different cultures which they encountered.


In Sierra Leone while Catholic missionary literature can be judged not to be as rich as that which was produced in countries like Senegal, Ivory Coast or the Congo, nevertheless there is corpus worthy of study. The main exemplars of this literature are to be found in the compilation of church related texts in Mende, the main language of the Southern Province.  Such texts include catechisms, hymnals and prayer books. Notable among them is the work of Fr Tuohy who was among the first to compile a Mende manual consisting of hymns, prayers and a catechism which he did while serving at Bonthe. This was followed by an improved version of the same manual by Fr Lawrence Shields who served at Mobe from 1899 to 1912.


However, such works do not provide much insight into missionaries’ own reflections on their work. For that it is necessary to turn to other sources.  As missionary activity from Ireland increased in the post-WWI period, many missionary societies began publishing magazines to publicise their work, to encourage recruitment and to fund-raise. The content of these magazines offers interesting insights into missionaries’ attitudes and approaches to their work as well as reflections on the life of the people among whom they were working. Because of its wide circulation as well as the fact that it commenced publication in 1919 and continued throughout the period under review, articles from the magazine of the Holy Ghost congregation, Missionary Annals, are discussed as typical of their genre.


Missionary Annals

Articles featuring many aspects of missionary life in Sierra Leone appeared regularly in Missionary Annals describing the life of missionaries, their impressions of the country and its people and the progress of their mission. Theologically most of the articles reflected the same very static view of the church’s missionary endeavours that had persisted since the onset of missionary activity in the nineteenth century, i.e. the Catholic Church with the fullness of truth regarding divine revelation had come to rescue souls from the ‘darkness’ in which they lived, and that other Christian churches were in profound error.[30]


Regarding local beliefs and practices, many articles reflected the view that, spiritually, the people engaged in ‘pagan’ spiritual practices and that their belief systems were antipathetic to Christian beliefs and values and, to  considerable extent, were satanic.  The scale of the challenge was reflected by Fr Fennelly who wrote of ‘the numerous obstacles to Christianity created by the pagan inheritance of these poor abandoned races’.[31]  Missionaries believed they had a profound Christian responsibility to confront this ‘pagan inheritance’ and many accounts were published recounting how local ‘sorcerers’, the agents of that inheritance,  were confounded by the superior powers of Christianity and overcome.


The following account, also published in the same edition,  describes an encounter with an ‘old sorceress’ by Fr Raymond, a missionary who took considerable interest in local cultures and who became fluent in Mende, the predominant language of southern Sierra Leone. He typified the ‘battle’, as he saw it, as one between Christianity and ‘paganism’.[32] The ‘old sorceress’ in question was a leader of the Bundu society, the female society into which girls were initiated at puberty.  She was also the local medicine lady whose medical artefacts had allegedly curative powers. To Fr Raymond, however, she epitomised the ‘dark’ powers that Christianity had come to banish. Despite continuing hostility to the Christian message, he had somehow persuaded her to carry a Christian medal and to utter a salutation to 'Mary, Queen of Mercy'. Then ‘soon under the pitiless weight of years, she, like her crumbling hut, began slowly to sink. At last she fell down and death was but a question of some hours, but who should have her soul? On one side was a past of crime and superstition and hatred, on the other a tiny salutation of Mary, Queen of Mercy, Refuge of Sinners, only a ‘Hail to thee O Mary’.  And the little prayer to Mary won!’


Another article recounts two priests entering, with a sense of curiosity, a village hut belonging to the women’s secret society, the Bundu.  The account also betrays some of the basic attitudes that informed their missionary activity. ‘We entered a hut belonging to a women’s secret society and looked about among the fantastic trappings with which they deck their ‘devils’. Some old women nearby did not seem pleased. They think an evil end will come to any who enters a hut. We did not mind, but handled some of the suspicious equipment. Behind a hanging sack was a recess well filled with ‘medicines’, and some iron boxes held more of the treasures of these unfortunate people. How these good-natured people, misguided people of God would love and serve Him if only they knew Him better’.[33]


Reminding his readers what the Catholic Church’s fundamental missionary aim was, Bishop O’Gorman stressed in several articles that the missionary ‘must not forget that we are dealing with souls a great majority of whom have never been enabled to hear the message of God’s love to men’.[34]  Spreading Christ’s message was the fundamental task of the missionary and, as far as the Holy Ghost fathers were concerned, it was a message that Catholic missionaries alone could convey in its integrity.


Administering baptism and the last rites to dying persons were tasks missionaries took considerable pride in being able to do. They believed they were, in a very direct and immediate way, saving ‘souls’ on the brink of their departure from this life. Missionaries, therefore, were accustomed to remind their congregations to inform them when there were sick persons in their villages. Several stories appeared in the Annals like that of ‘Friskey’, a dog owned by Fr Mulcahy at Serabu, whose barking awoke him one Christmas night and led him to a hut in which a young child lay close to death. Surrounded by members of the Bundu who were performing their own rites, Fr Mulcahy somehow managed to approach the sick child and succeeded in administering baptism and the last rites. Then, ‘we returned (to the mission) in triumph … Friskey strutting boldly in front’. [35]


A more sympathetic approach to local customs and beliefs was also reflected in some missionaries’ writings. A Fr MacNamara wrote, in the spirit of Fr Liberman’s exhortations to his members, that while ‘the native is generally a pagan, possessed of pagan habits … some of his customs are opposed to the Divine and human law, but some our Holy Religion can, while not destroying, assimilate and transform. Did not St Patrick thus, when he came to convert the Irish?’[36]


As for attitudes towards Protestant missionaries, the dominant message was still one which regarded them as inhibiting true evangelisation by their hostility to Catholicism, and by offering an incomplete version of Christianity. A perennial concern about the influence of allegedly very wealthy Protestant churches was frequently raised. Writing about Bonthe in October 1923, Fr Michael O’Connor commented on the town’s ‘three fine Protestant Churches, well equipped, efficiently staffed with plenty of money to carry on their work’, but also wrote of the opposition to Catholic missionaries whom he says are described as ‘Roman cockroaches’.[37] He went on to describe, without any sense of irony, the ‘disciples of Martin Luther (the Protestants) are nearly everywhere true to type, strait-laced, sour-faced, narrow minded and pharasaical’.  A contributor to the Missionary Annals using the pseudonym ‘Columba’ also writing from Bonthe, referred to the ‘bell of the United Brethren in Christ (American) calling people to their false worship’.[38]


In an article entitled ‘How False Prophets Organise, Work and are Assisted’, Bishop O’Gorman wrote about the well-resourced American United Brethren in Christ describing them as ‘the most important by far of the enemies of our faith’.[39] O’Gorman went on to claim that ‘we have not a single mission station at present round which rival missions have not started up within the last few years’.[40]


Comments about the amount of money available to schools conducted under other agencies were also frequent. In 1924, O’Gorman drew attention to what he regarded as the huge amount of money being spent on the government controlled Bo School claiming that the ‘the school is the scandal of the Education Department …’  but there was some consolation because ‘several of its pupils are under instruction, and it only a beginning we are making, please God’.[41]


Fr William Walker contrasted what he claimed, without much evidence, was the concentration by Protestant missionaries on ‘the socially superior class, while the Catholic missionary preached the Gospel to the poor, and was despised’.[42] However, since he also argued, with a degree of wishful thinking, that the ‘whole fabric of Protestantism in Africa, as in Europe, is crumbling into the dust of its error’, there obviously would not be too much longer to wait until the Catholic mission would triumph! 


Offering his explanation as to why the mission had not made as much progress in attracting adherents to Catholicism as many had hoped, Fr Clerkin, religious superior of the Holy Ghost fathers in Sierra Leone, attributed the failure to  what he regarded as ‘l’apathie pour le christianisme et le pauvreté de la vie matérielle pour laquelle ils doivent soutenir une dure lutte’ (the apathy towards Christianity and the poverty of material life for which they have to endure a tough battle).[43] Only those who had managed to obtain work with the Government, the missions or commercial enterprises had ‘les moyens de se marier et de fonder une famille chrétien’ (the means to marry and establish Christian families).[44] Since, such work had not been widely available in the past the prospects of establishing Christian communities had not been, according to Fr Clerkin, very great.  However, even as he wrote things were beginning to change and more rapid development was in store.


Articles in the Missionary Annals also reflected more mundane aspects of missionary life. Fr David Lloyd wrote about the difficulties encountered in obtaining building materials for the mission school at Bonthe, of the need to beg for barges from local traders to transport the material and, then, of losing a boat-load of stones which had cost him twenty pounds.[45]Reflecting on the challenges and the need to be prepared to look after oneself, one of the best known missionaries of the 1920s and 1930s, Fr Mulcahy, when in Gerihun, wrote ‘A Missioner must know to do everything and if he does not he must learn. I wash my own clothes, mend my soutanes, darn my own stockings, repair my own boots, do my own cooking and am quite adept at baking bread … my poultry yard excites the envy of the natives’.[46] Mulcahy also reared rabbits, kept goats and had a horse for riding to outstations.


Articles also reflected considerable pride in Ireland’s growing contribution to missionary work, particularly post-WW2, not only in Sierra Leone, but in many other parts of the world as well. Fr Clerkin who served in Sierra Leone in the late 1940s and early 1950s wrote ‘with the measure of independence we obtained in 1922, Ireland appears to have come instinctively to some realisation of what her destiny is and to recognise that if she is to be the Irish-Ireland of her ancient glory she must be a missionary … a beacon light in the world …’.[47]


Completely absent, however, in any of the articles is discussion of the social and political realities facing the people of Sierra Leone. Independence when it came in 1961 was welcomed as the dawn of a new era, but nowhere is there to be found any discussion of the circumstances in which the country found itself, the huge inequalities that existed between rich and poor, between foreigners, mainly white, and indigenous Sierra Leoneans or how those inequalities were to be overcome or what precisely should be the missionary response. Demonstrations and riots in 1955-56 across several parts of the country expressed a degree of social unrest about such inequalities. Taxes were withheld, chiefs were forced to flee their villages, houses and other property were destroyed but the Churches made no significant interventions.


Perhaps the missionaries, very practical men and women, believed their response was in providing services through their schools and health facilities and that nothing more was required of them. Whatever their views these were not the subject of public debate. This meant that the Church’s social teaching about justice in the workplace, about equal treatment of men and women regardless of colour or creed found no significant expression in the pages of the missionary press. It was a press that gave voice to a very traditional and pious form of Christianity, celebrated significant events and was aimed essentially at keeping alive a sense of the Church’s missionary activity as a process almost apart from the socio-political context in which it operated.


This absence of comment, directly or indirectly, on general political developments may well have also been a function of the absence of a Sierra Leonean clergy. By independence only one more Sierra Leonean had become a Catholic priest, Fr Joseph Ganda of Serabu, and there were as yet no Sierra Leonean sisters in either of the congregations. This was a situation that would not change in any significant way for several more decades. In this absence, foreign missionaries probably felt it not to be their business to comment on public affairs, certainly not in any critical manner.


One Hundred Year Legacy

Nevertheless, the legacy of the Roman Catholic missionaries to independent Sierra Leone was very visible in the network of schools and medical facilities which they had developed. By the early 1960s the Church had progressed considerably since the early missionaries had arrived a hundred years previously facing enormous challenges, exemplified in the tragic deaths from fever of the five French missionaries under Marion de Brèsillac in 1859, the centenary of which was commemorated with considerable ceremony in Freetown in 1959.



Note on author

Dr Seán Farren is currently a Visiting Professor in the School of Education at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. He taught in Bo and Kenema in the 1960s and is a member of the executive committee of the Sierra Leone-Ireland Partnership (














[1] Boîte 12il.3ab. Archives des Spiritains, Paris


[2] Bulletin de la Congrégation du Saint Esprit, V. 34, p.85.


[3] Boîte 12iL, 2ab, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.


[4] Ibid


[5] Ibid


[6] Centenary Souvenir of the Holy Ghost Fathers in Sierra Leone, Freetown, 1964, p.68.


[7] Boîte 12il, 2ab, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.


[8]Bulletin de la Congrégation du Saint-Esprit, XXIV, 1907-8, Paris.


[9]Bulletin de la Congrégation du Saint Esprit, XXIV, Paris, p.114.




[11]William Walker, The Holy Ghost Fathers in Africa, 1933.


[12]Annual Report on Education, Government Printer, Freetown, 1929, pp.11-12.


[13]Bulletin de la Congrégation du Saint Esprit,1935. 


[14] Ibid.


[15] Ibid.


[16] Ibid.


[17] Boîte 12 I i3a2, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.


[18] Bulletin de la Congrégation du Saint Esprit, 1939.


[19] Missionary Annals, May, 1953.


[20] Letter from Fr Gosson to superiors, 7 March 1952, Boîte 12 I 1.4b7, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.


[21]Notes by Fr Mellett 2nd August 1952, in Boîte 12 I 1.4b7, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.






[24]Report on the Sierra Leone Protectorate 1947, British National Archives, CO 267/695/1.


[25]Centenary Souvenir of the Holy Ghost Fathers in Sierra Leone, Freetown, 1964, p.71.


[26]Notes in file Boîte 12,I,1,4a 5, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.


[27]Centenary Souvenir of the Holy Ghost Fathers in Sierra Leone, 1964, Freetown, p.71.


[28]Redempta Connolly MSHR, A Brief History of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary’s Contribution to Education in Sierra Leone (personal notes).


[29]Farren, JSLS, V2, 2013.


[30] Ibid.


[31] Missionary Annals, 2, March, 1920.


[32] Ibid


[33] Missionary Annals, 3, April, 1921.


[34]Missionary Annals, 5,March,1924.              


[35]Missionary Annals 2, December, 1920.


[36]Missionary Annals, 2, January, 1920.


[37]Missionary Annals, 2,October, 1920


[38]Missionary Annals, 8, June, 1926.


[39]Missionary Annals, 5, February-March, 1924.






[42] Walker, op.cit.


[43]Review 1930-1950, notes in file 12 I 1.4a 8, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.




[45]Missionary Annals, 6, December, 1925.     




[47]Missionary Annals, January, 1948.



[1]Fr Joel Panzer, The Popes and Slavery: Setting the Record Straight, The Catholic Answer, January/February, 1996.




[3]Boîte 12il.3ab, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.




[5] The act outlawed domestic slavery declaring that ‘all persons born or brought into the protectorate are hereby declared to be free’.




[1]Bulletin de la Congrégation du Saint Esprit, XXI, Paris, pp.479-80.

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