Vicariate Apostolic of Ingwavuma

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Coming to South Africa in 1956

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(from our archives)

I started my Religious Life in Benburb, Co. Tyrone, Ireland, in May 1950. It was the Holy Year. I often joke that I was Dublin's gift to the Order. The training, in those days, was on the farm, kitchen and, of course, spiritual life. We lived a very regular life - up at 5 a.m.; plenty of prayers in a very cold chapel and house; windows open, plenty of fresh, cold air. It was all considered good for discipline and mortification. The bell ruled our day. We lived in dread of missing the bell and having to appear before the superior in chapel and confess our fault for failing to answer the bell promptly.


The Priory was well staffed with a group of dedicated Servite priest-friars: James Keane, Peter Rookey, Amadeus Wickers, and Damian Kobus. They strove very hard to make Benburb a success. It was the first Servite foundation in Ireland. The above mentioned friars were all Americans.


In 1953, I was sent to Chicago for further training. Then, in 1956, Iwas assigned to the Republic of South Africa. This latter assignment came as a great surprise. One morning, after breakfast, the Prior called me and said: "Camillus, you are going to Africa. Prepare you case. Stay in our Priory in downtown Chicago for a few weeks." That was the beginning of a whole new experience, for which I thank the good Lord every day of my life.


I got permission to stay in Dublin, Ireland, for a few weeks. Then I took off for Africa. The plane trip consisted of flying from Durban to London, then onto Belgium, and from there to the Belgian Congo, and finally arriving in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was met at the airport by two Servite missioners: Fr. Motzney and Bro Timothy. I stayed overnight in Johannesburg, with Italian Servites who graciously gave us a room and plenty to eat. Then it was time to make the 350 mile trip to Zululand. We travelled all day and part of the next, over rough, dirty, stony roads. When I reached Ingwavuma, I thought I was on the moon. Everything seemed so quiet, desolate, and so far away from anywhere. I did not know a word the people were saying to me. How we ever reached the place, I just don't know. There were no signs to show the way!


There was a little store in the village, also the court house which was presided over by a Magistrate. He was white, and ruled with great power. There was also a jail, which was under the care of another white man. They were the days of apartheid. Only whites had any authority. Only whites could live in the village. Blacks were simply "things", not persons; and as such did not matter.


The Servite friars arrived in Zululand in 1948. The American Province of the Order had undertaken the care and responsiblity for this area. American Servites set about establishing schools and clinics throughout the territory. There was, then, a tiny hospital catering for the needs of a vast area and its population. At that time, too, a hospital was something new to our people. They were scared to go to it. They did not trust the doctors or nurses. Most of them refused to take their children. Pregnant mothers seldom went to consult a doctor. Hence, by building clinics our missioners were helping our people to experience and use the skills of the nurses and doctors. One friar, Tom Calkins, even took a course in midwifery and followed up with another course in dentistry. Tom was very good at pulling teeth. He became famous throughout the Ingwavuma area for his skill.


Many schools were built and hundreds of young boys and girls became boarders. Thus they received a free education and were well fed. All this was made possible by the money donated to the Servite Missions from back home in America and elsewhere.

I worked as a builder and did some mechanics, keeping the cars and lorries on the road. I even drove a five-ton-lorry to collect supplies. This entailed travelling many, many miles to collect food, petrol, and so forth. Those were very busy and full years.


We Religious Brothers were busy with the maintenance of the missions. This meant taking care of the generator that supplied electricty for the house and was used for pumping water from the rivers or a bore hole. Our vehicles (landrovers) were in constant need of repair, and consumed a fair amount of our time. Obtaining building supplies meant a trip to Durban, 300 miles away, over very rough terrain. There were no tarred roads. Having so many boarders necessitated frequent journeys for mealie meal, sugar, salt, soups, and the like. This was the staple diet of all our children.

The priests were kept busy, too; teaching in the schools, pastoral visiting the homes of the people, celebrating Mass in the many places known as "outstations".


1978 was a time of change for me, after spending 28 years as a Brother. Change was all around. People were better off. Roads much improved. There were no longer school boarders. People had grown accustomed to the hospitals. There was a large, new one, now in Ingwavuma. Other mission stations had their hospitals, too. There were many new schools, with new secondary education ones opening for the first time. People were anxious for education.

While at our mission station of Star of the Sea, Maputa, I was asked to build a number of little homes for the very poor. In fact, they were just one-room huts. I had a plan to buy the material in Pretoria, about 400 miles away. I asked the superior of the mission, Fr. Bernard Thorne, to come along with me and advise me if the material I was buying was worth using.

It was during our trip that Fr. Thorne asked me if I had ever thought of going forward to study for the priesthood. After long discussions, I decided to give it a try. Fr. Thorne, subsequently, made the arrangements with our Servite brethren in Ireland. And, after some hectic experiences in arranging my plans, I was on my way to Dublin. I completed the little hut project, before leaving. That was in September 1978.


Five years later, in 1983, I was ordained to the sacred priesthood. I must say, I remember and pray always for all the people who helped me over those years. I have fond memories of my time in Milltown Park College. There I had wonderful, caring teachers. They helped in so many ways. And I often thank God for those people and those days.


I returned to a new South Africa. A changed South Africa. A very different South Africa. There were now tarred roads in places I never thought possible, in my days. Roads, so modern! And to think of the many hours that I spent on those roads when they were all sand! Of the many days I spent trying to get from one place to another. It used to take six hours to get from Ingwavuma to Maputa; it now takes barely one and a half. Travelling to Durban now takes about seven hours. People are now more educated, more demanding; there are more shops being opened up; and a different atmosphere was now in evidence.


Mtubatuba had one little tea-room when I first arrived. When I left for Dublin, it had maybe three or four big shops. When I returned it was like a little town: many new buildings, and even some supermarkets. Thousands of people now flocked into town to shop and were allowed into any store. In fact, shops, trains and buses were now opened to Africans. No longer "white only" signs. Africans were freer to enter any shop - even the post office. No longer were they stopped to be asked for their "passes". Indeed, I had returned to a different Africa.


My life as a priest was even different from that of the priest ordained years before me. Changes had taken place in the Church. As a Brother I managed with little Zulu; now I had to get down to learning the language properly, in order to say Mass, preach, attend meetings, and so forth. The new age in the Church seemed to demand meetings all the time. There are now council meetings, and meetings to oragnise councils, and meetings how to suggest oragnising councils...

It is now a tiring process, a different approach to mission activity. The priest today is no longer the all powerful one, knowing everything and running everything. No longer the man who thinks for everyone. He is now one of the many. He is now one of a team. He is now learning about how people think. He is now seeking the African way. No longer is the white man, the man from overseas, able to decide for all the activities of the Church. No longer is he the only source. No, indeed. The priest now has to listen and learn, not command and demand.


My job is visiting people at home, attending meetings, preparing my homily, trying to make it jive with the everyday experience of the people with whom I work. My job is seeing what I can do to make my religion relevant to our everyday experience: working in the midst of poverty, hardship, and primitiveness in many quarters; with the youth, learning more, wanting more, more exposed to radios, propaganda, T.V. Then there is the influx of people from different areas to work in Government departments, hospitals, police, prisons, etc. They all have different ideas and many have little regard for religion. Materialism has taken hold in many places, and God seems to take second place.


This is God's world. He has not lost his command. And so, I live in hope. I enjoy my work with the people. I often wish I could speak Zulu better. But the people are patient, tolerant and understanding. They are able to bear with my stumbling and inefficiency. I try to do my best. And I go on hoping for young men and women to come along and offer their service to the Lord.

My life is different now. But I still thank God every day for my priesthood. I am not the least sorry for changing my role. I am sure it was God's call, not my decision.



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