Chapter 5


THE STORY of the conversions among the Dagari people of Ghana is, to say the least, unusual.

[ Note: The story is so extraordinary that I took the precaution of submitting the text of this Chapter to Father Remigius McCoy, W.F., the Superior of Jirapa Mission, as the person most concerned with these events. While endorsing the events described here, Father McCoy was embarrassed by the prominence given to himself. He wrote: "If it serves any useful purpose I don't mind, but it would have been a lot easier to accept the facts if it were more centred round God's love for His Dagari people." ]

First a word about Father McCoy himself. He is tall and gaunt with a quiet manner. He belongs to our American Province. One of his closest friends in years gone by, a fellow student in Theology, has this to say about him:

"Remigius McCoy was a somewhat staid young man with a good sense of humour but not overburdened with imagination. He was physically tough, and quietly persevering. He was always easy to live with because he easily adjusted himself to whatever his friends proposed. One would have predicted that he would make a very good missionary priest without ever getting himself talked about." *

Now, at sixty, he is certainly a good missionary, but, through no fault of his own, he has also got himself very much talked about. He was ordained at Carthage in 1925 and was sent to the Gold Coast, now Ghana. In 1929 his Bishop sent him to start a mission at Jirapa. He and his two assistants made five small round mud huts to live in, and also built a temporary chapel. At first they did not make very much impression on the Dagari people.

"We made friends, as we thought, with the Paramount Chief," said Father McCoy to me, the night of my arrival at Jirapa, but we were very surprised when he began to come to Mass every day, and even more surprised to see his thirteen wives with him! Neither he nor his ladies ever consented to receive any instruction from us. Then he began to come to the church every morning at 5.15 for our Meditation. We were flabbergasted! We soon found why he came. A man complained to me that this same chief had forbidden him and others to come near us, so I went along and had it out. I think I hurt his feelings, because he soon gave up coming to the church. That seemed to be a signal for his people to come in droves: in fact, the old demon had been coming to the church to frighten others from doing so."

"The Dagari soon began clamouring for instruction. At first we could do little more than inscribe their names in the catechumens' register. Then we took a number of leaders, carefully chosen for their intelligence, and we gave them a concentrated course of instruction in the great Catholic truths. These men were then able to teach small groups of people at least the elements of the Faith."
"How many people came?" I asked. "Oh, as many as four or five hundred a week! Of course, they didn't all stay, and we planned to form a proper catechumenate from the best of them in due course."

"But what attracted them in the first place?" "The clinic helped a lot. There were so many sick people - and we were lucky with some cures which were talked about and attracted more sick people. Naturally, we used every opportunity to explain to them what we had really come for; we told them that we were men of God, and nothing but men of God, and they seemed interested. I must admit that one 'cure' caused a sensation. One day a man fainted in a crowd and we gave him a sip of brandy; he came round at once and the people were amazed. They had never seen anything like that before and our fame spread far and wide. That only made us more cautious later on, and, as you know, we had need to be cautious about so-called 'miracles'!

"Things settled down after a while. A reasonable number of good people persevered with their catechumenate and after four years were baptised.

"Then came the great drought. The 'Dry Season' did not end at the usual time; weeks passed but the long overdue rains did not fall. The poor people began to grow anxious. The witch-doctors and pagan rain-makers worked overtime, but the pitiless sun continued to kill the cattle and the crops and to prevent the sowing of new seed for the next harvest; the wells dried up and it was not long before anxiety turned to terror.

"The day came when a frightened Paramount Chief was forced by his people out of his house and up to the mission. He had come to beg me to make rain, and his followers laid the price at my feet; various presents as payment in advance. I told him to take them away: that I was no juju worker: and that I could not make rain. 'But,' I said, 'God can give you rain, if you ask him.' The Chief told me that he and his people had no hope except in me. I must ask my God to give them rain. 'All right,' I said, 'I will pray for rain, but you must pray with me: come along.'

"We all trooped into the church. I told them about God and how different His works were from juju magic. Then I knelt down and got them to repeat after me, sentence by sentence, some simple prayers for rain. I think they expected the heavens to open immediately, and one or two local chiefs were a bit violent in expressing their opinion about coming to me at all. I sent them away, telling them to continue to pray to God in their hearts and to be good, and assured them that God would send them rain in due season. I felt in my bones that the due season was a bit overdue, and I suppose that is what I was saying to God in my heart: but nevertheless I felt very reassured.

"That afternoon clouds gathered over the mission and the people came out of their huts to gaze at the sky, and when the rain began to fall in torrents they stood out in it with their hands outstretched to receive it and caress it and press it to their bodies. They began to shout and dance and sing with delight.

"The rain covered an area of only three miles, but the strangest thing is this: some chiefs had refused to accompany their people and the Paramount Chief to ask me to pray for rain. No rain fell on their villages until they, too, came to pray for it."

This was an incredible story, and I suppose Father McCoy sensed a flicker of doubt in my voice, as I asked: "And all this you saw with your own eyes?" "With my own eyes," he said, "but if it were an isolated happening, I could doubt the evidence of my senses, or attribute it to some natural cause unknown to me. But the same kind of thing happened again, and more than once."

"Go on," I said.

"There was also the affair of the locusts which destroyed the harvest," Father McCoy went on. "All the crops were eaten except those of the Christians who had had their seeds blessed before the sowing. That event is history, and you will see for yourself in a day or two the entire populace bringing their seeds to be blessed."

"On another occasion the Chief imprisoned a catechumen on account of his religion. It was during the rains, and that day the rains ceased in the area until the catechumen was freed. His name was Poriku and his son is now Father Dery, who, is at present taking a course in Sociology at St. Francis Xavier University, Canada.

[ Note: Mgr. Dery, consecrated by Pope John XXIII, became first bishop of Wa in 1960. ]

"Then, in 1933 in Daffiama, the chiefs began to persecute Christians, and one day a Malam (Moslem religious leader) told the chief: 'I saw a distressing thing today. I lifted a flat stone and saw millions of little worms come to eat our crops. I have come to warn you. You must make a sacrifice: take a red hen and a red goat and kill them in the sacred grove.'

"The frightened chief called together the heads of all the compounds, Christians and pagans alike. He ordered them to go home and prepare for the great sacrifice. The Christians refused, were bullied by the chief as 'enemies of the people' and threatened with prison. The Christians sent word to me and I told them to pray and hold fast. The pagans began the sacrifice that evening, and to the East a swarm of locusts appeared. They destroyed the crops of all the pagans, and left intact the Christians' fields. The chief apologised to them, and our catechumens preparing for baptism took great courage from this incident.

"That, too, I saw with my own eyes. I also saw rain fall on the village of a local chief who had prayed hard with his people; and rain fell nowhere else." "So they call you the Father of the Rains?" Father McCoy replied: "It's quite natural for these people - to approach God through another to whom they attribute great power of intercession. The only possible explanation is that God has shown Himself to these people in an extraordinary way."

"By the way," he added, "you don't have to take just my word for all this, you can read all about it in the Mission Diary, which means, as you know, that it is verified by at least two other priests."

"To go back, Father McCoy," I said, "to the first occasion. What effect did it have on the people?"

"Well, of course, there was a tremendous furore and masses of people came for instruction. Now, there is a curious thing about that — few of the people who actually came that day to pray for rain persevered as catechumens, but many others who had not come to pray persevered later to become good Christians."

"The people say," I insisted, "that you worked a miracle on that occasion, at least. " Father McCoy interrupted me: "No! Don't let's talk about miracles. God heard the prayers of the people. They needed Him more than water. That's the point. We told the people the truth about the brandy and about the answers to prayer, and no one ever spoke more emphatically about prayer than Our Lord did. Well, their prayers were answered, and thousands of people have come to know God in consequence of that first remarkable starting point. That so-called miracle brought some people to begin with, but that's not what has brought them ever since. They've come in here from miles around, even from over the border in Mali Territory. In fact, so many were coming that Government tried to stop them: some were even imprisoned, but that didn't stop them. They would walk thirty or even forty miles to come to us: fifteen miles was common. Eventually we trained catechists and sent them out to the people, instead of the people coming in to us: we established missions in four other centres, and we are now helped by five Dagari priests, the African nuns, and very soon now we shall have professed African Brothers too, for their noviciate is prospering."

"How many baptised Christians are there now in the area?" I enquired.

"Here, at Jirapa Mission, we have 8,600, and our four 'daughters' are doing well too. Kaleo has 1,500, Daffiama 3,000, Nandom is bigger than her mother for she has 12,000 now, and Ko, founded only eight years ago, has 9,000. That is 34,000 baptised, at least, and 15,000 catechumens under instruction.”

"Would you say that they are good Christians?" I asked. "They keep us very busy," said Father McCoy, "and they're generous. They worked like Trojans, without pay, to build the missions, and now they contribute well to the mission works."

"Does Christianity really enter into their souls?" "I am out of touch with old Christian countries," replied Father McCoy, with a frown, as his memory went back to his boyhood at home, "but as far as I can remember, I should say there's not much difference. Why should there be? You don't have to be educated to love God and your neighbour. Some of these people can teach us a thing or two."

"You are thinking of someone in particular?" I asked. "Yes; there's old Francis, for instance. He was a witch-doctor with a great name in the country. They called him Kutuna - which means the man who protects people against other jujus. Anyhow, his brother, a catechumen, persuaded the old boy to come to see us: he kept on coming and eventually after a long time, we baptised him. I must say, that even then I had my doubts about whether his faith would hold out against so much ingrained superstition. I wondered how deep his faith was. Well, I was soon to have my doubts settled. His younger brother was poisoned and his murderers propped up his body under a tree, and then brought poor old Francis to see him. Two thousand people were there, for this was the body of a man of a rich and important family. There was the usual song-leader, and he soon had the people taking up his chant. They mocked Francis unmercifully. 'You are a fool,' they sang: 'you were a rich man once and now you have nothing: you are a fool, you were once powerful and now you are weak: you are a fool, you were once a great man and now you are nothing. Your brother is dead and you could do nothing to save him.' And so it went on. Francis told me all about it.

"'And what did you do Francis?' I asked him. 'At first I was angry,' he said, 'then I was hurt; but I thought to myself that that was just how they treated Our Lord on the Cross, and I was not hurt any more.'" There are others too like Francis.

I was to see for myself how the Church had come to the Dagari for during the next few days I went round jirapa and to the other missions born of

At jirapa I found a fine co-operative run by Father McNulty of Motherwell, who refused to remove his sun-helmet.

"Because," he said, "you just can't trust the ants. The other night I hung my helmet up on the wall and during the night the white ants ate all the lining and canvas."

There was a hospital, built by Brother John, which has sixty-two beds and one hundred and twenty patients. There were two doctors and the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. At KO, the latest "daughter" of Jirapa, I saw the immense church fifty feet wide almost finished. Brother Basil who was building it, told me: "It will hold about four thousand well stuffed". He had been out here for thirty years — only twice home in that time — and he had built the permanent churches of Jirapa, Nandom, and KO. He has also put up eight mission stations, and schools. He was a bit proud of the fact that he had never lost a roof in that country of disappearing roofs.

"Nandom did lose a bit of its roof," he said, "but that bit had been put on by somebody else !"

At Nandom I met Sister Peter, a White Sister, who showed me the old maternity hospital. It was a group of smallish huts.

"Don't despise it," she said, "two hundred babies came into the world in those huts!"

Nandom church lies amongst tall trees which are lovely and afford useful protection. I went round the schools with Father Everist, who is in charge. Then I looked at the gaping hole in the roof of the church — the only part of the roof which Brother Basil did not put on. A storm had carried it off.

We saw a Dagari funeral and Father Everist told me that they keep a body several days before burial.

"Imagine, in this heat !” he said. I did !

"Then they fire off guns to let the dead man know he is not forgotten," continued Father Everist. "They want to make as much noise as possible and so they often overload the guns which sometimes explode. A catechist lost his hand like that a short time ago."

On Sunday I said my Mass in the African Sisters' chapel. It was odd and somehow touching to notice the tribal markings on the Sisters' faces both the upper and lower lip being pierced. I always find that African nuns impress me more than anything else out here. It is perhaps the most visible manifestation of how far God has brought these people, there is such a difference between a poor pagan woman and a Christian Religious.

Father Everist told me that between 20,000 and 22,000 Holy Communions a month are received in this mission and that when he last went on "trek" he distributed no less than six hundred Communions in a tiny Bush chapel: "The people just circulated in one side and out the other," he said.

At the third Mass at 8.45 a.m. the congregation was oozing out of the doors and the windows and the church was surrounded by little piles of hats, sandals and sticks. I wondered how each person found his own belongings. After Mass someone had been telling me how thoroughly well these people understood what is said to them about their religion. "But not always," said Father Everist. "Last week a little girl came in tears because she had missed the 'Nine Fridays' to which there is a great devotion. 'But, surely, you were at Holy Communion this morning?' 'Yes, Father, but only four times !'"

"Now here is an interesting thing," continued Father Everist, "there were about 4,500 people at the three Masses. Of these, about 2,000 at the most are under any obligation to attend. The others walk miles and miles, some twenty miles. They leave their homes on Saturday morning, reach the mission that evening, and sleep in huts provided for them."

I had been thinking a lot about Father McCoy - the "Rain-Maker" — and seeing at Jirapa some of the wonder of God's works, I would be happy to be Father McCoy or one of his priests.

*You may wish to read " Great Things Happen : A Personal Memoir " by Fr Remigius F Mc Coy, published by the Society of Missionaries of Africa. (ISBN 0969314612)

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