MUD AND MOSAICS

Chapter 15

THE BENEDICTINES OF KANSENIA


IT was a great moment for the Church in Africa when, one day in June, 1944, Father Charles, a Benedictine, presented seven young Africans to Bishop de Hemptine, the Vicar Apostolic, with the words: "These young men, My Lord, want to give themselves to the service of God." "Then take them," said the Bishop, "and apply the Rule of St. Benedict." That was how Kansenia started. The name, by the way, means "The little antelope". For fifty years the Benedictines, who had come to establish a monastery, had been taken up with mission work; but their original purpose was never forgotten, and the fruit of their sacrifice of the monastic life was the gift of the monastic life to the Africans.

"It started as a Sodality of Farm Workers," the Vicar Apostolic explained to me. "With Father Charles there was Brother Gabriel who had a withered arm. One day an African with a withered leg came to Father Charles saying: "Brother serves God with one arm, can't I serve Him with one leg?" He does — he is now Brother Simon, O.S.B. Father Charles, now the Prior of St. Benedict's, completed the tale: " Six others joined Simon and after some time I took them along to the Bishop. He made them wait a year and then, as they had persevered so well, he established them as a Diocesan Society. We started the noviciate later and now we have a monastery of African monks."

The monastery was so much in the Bush that the last forty miles of "road" leading to it would have made a cart track look like a modern by— pass! We climbed to a high bare plateau which we crossed, and there, just over the edge, nestling in a valley ten miles wide, was what we had come to see — the monastery. The valley runs between two ranges of the Biano Mountains. I was reminded of Ampleforth Abbey in the Vale of Pickering, but here there were no purple moors and green woods, only dry bush, and the red ribbon of a dusty road running through the wooded hills. At the end of the plateau we stopped the car to gaze down into the valley where we saw the outline of the monastery; no majestic towers; no beautiful buildings, just ordinary lines of native huts. A short distance away were the permanent brick buildings in course of construction. We heard the distant tinkle of a bell and we could just distinguish tiny white robed figures moving towards one of the buildings.

Continuing down the hill, we stopped again near the monastery. The sun was setting, all was quiet. Suddenly, quite faintly, I thought I heard the chant of Psalms. It was the Vespers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whose feast it was. I shall always remember and cherish my wonder for we were listening to African monks praising God and His Blessed Mother in the African bush.

We went into the temporary church where there were seventy black monks who had come from all parts of the Congo, and I was delighted to have the opportunity of meeting and talking to them after supper. For our meal we ate maize and cassava, which they call "Nshama", while a monk read the Encyclical of Pius XII — "Fidei Donum" — on the African Missions.

Father Charles, the Founder of this monastery, who is now the Prior, took me round the domain. We pushed through thick bamboo to reach the waterfall which the monks have harnessed to provide irrigation and electric power. Like all good Benedictines, they had chosen an excellent spot for their monastery; they found here practically everything needed for building. Water, clay and sand, with wood and a fine stone in large quantities. I saw the Master of Novices with some of his flock, making bricks. They turn out three thousand a day, and nearby was a large kiln where thirty thousand were being baked. Some of the monks were making clothes or sandals; others were doing sculpture, carving or fine metal work, and lest the fine old arts be forgotten, there was a "Gradual" measuring a yard across when open, hand printed and illuminated — just as the Benedictines of centuries ago used to hand print and illuminate their books. In the archaeological museum I was shown a wonderful collection of prehistoric flints and bones. I was told, with due awe, that one very famous human tooth, found in the district, was on its way to the British Museum for examination !

Brother Maurice, who was in charge of the farm, proudly showed me his two hundred head of cattle and over one hundred fine pigs. This Belgian Brother has a whimsical sense of humour — or does he still think of home? — for he had named the animals with touching names: Forget-me-not, Butterfly, Tea Rose and Pompadour!

"One day," Father Charles told me, "during the pre-monastic period, the African 'Brothers’ saw three lepers leaving the mission station to go back to their village as 'nothing could be done for them'. The 'Brothers' told them to stay: 'We shall look after you', they said. So they handed over a couple of huts to the lepers and cared for them with tender devotion, until they died. That was the beginning of their work for the sick."

There is a holy air of simplicity about this place, an Anthony the Hermit, a Pacomius, a Basil or even St. Benedict himself would feel at home if they were to walk up this road between the trees, and enter the monastery. Even the dark skins of the monks would be familiar enough to the two former who came from Egypt.

Forty miles north at Lubudi the Benedictine nuns complete the prayerful apostolate of their Brothers at Kansenia. I wish we could have visited them, but unfortunately my itinerary would not allow for this. I shall long remember my visit to this Benedictine oasis from which must flow the rivers of grace needed to fructify the seed sown by the missionaries in Africa, and bring the missions from infancy safely to maturity.

After the Benedictines I met the Franciscans, fifteen of them in a mission at Kolwezi, where they had eighteen thousand Christians, and where most of the Fathers were occupied in the schools with classes which were as usual too large: eighty five in the fourth form and a general average of seventy five per class.

The Canonesses of St. Augustine had charge of the girls. The Superior told me that they had facilities for only four hundred children, but that nine hundred were in class every day! These Sisters were doing a splendid work in the villages: six of them were constantly out in the surrounding countryside, as far as twenty five miles from their convent. With the help of sixteen lay teachers they were educating two thousand children. The Superior, a member of a noble Italian family, is a remarkable woman; she possesses unbounded enthusiasm matched with tireless energy. Nothing could stop her in her work for souls. Burning heat, sickness, poverty, red tape, officials, and prowling missionaries, such as myself, were all obstacles to be overcome. She was responsible for the schools; she ran an African co-operative and did a regular "round" of parish visiting.

She said: "I've adopted the street of Saloons; it's most rewarding — and I'm frequently offered a drink!"

These nuns had been here for only two years. If only there were more of them all over Africa, what a transformation would take place.

A trip of seven hundred miles had shown us only the two towns of Jadotville and Kolwezi: the monastery at Kansenia and the Ursulines at Luisha. That gives some idea of how scattered and sparse the population is. When we stopped for some refreshment on the way back from Kolwezi to Elizabethville, our African driver had to go to a different restaurant across the road to the one we used. Thank God we could go together into the same church!

When we got back to St. John's Mission, we found that some later visitors had taken our rooms, but the kindly Benedictines were unperturbed. I was put in a room which smelt strongly of paraffin: but I was in a bed under cover which was more than I had had in many a mission of the West African Sudan. In the morning I noticed that the door to my room was marked' 'Rubbish"!

We were due to leave the Congo next day, so we made our plans. Our photographer, Leo, was to be left behind to complete a lot of photographic work. He did not mind in the least, on the contrary. He was with Belgians who spoke his language, and who knew that a "Flamand" needs a decent meal! Father de Decker and I planned to go to Rhodesia and return the week after to catch a plane for Baudouinville on Lake Tanganyika.

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