Gabon, The Catholic Church in
GABON, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Republic of Gabon is located in west central Africa. Featuring a narrow coastal plain to the west that rises to forested hills in the interior and a savanna in the east and south, Gabon was a territory in French West Africa from 1910 until it gained independence in 1960. Gabon is bordered by on the north by Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon, on the east and south by the Republic of the Congo, and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean.
With much of its territory covered by equatorial forest, Gabon's main products are agricultural: cocoa, plantains, coffee, cassava, palm oil, and soft timber. In addition, there are deposits of manganese, iron ore, uranium, and oil within its borders. Most of the population is ethnic Bantu, with tribal groupings of Fang, Eshira, Bapounou, and Bateke. Over 60 percent of the adult population is literate. Ecclesiastically, Gabon has an archdiocese located in Libreville, with diocese in Franceville, Mouila, and Oyem.
Although the Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish a presence on the coast of Gabon c. 1400, the region was settled by the French, who founded trading posts at the mouth of the Gabon estuary in 1839 and 1842. From these port cities, in 1839 France established a naval base to aid in its attempt to halt the slave trade. Ten years later Libreville was founded by French merchants from Senegal, and freed slaves settled there on a model plantation. The slow evangelization of Gabon's interior began in 1881 with the Mission of Lambaréné on the lower Ogooué River, which drains most of Gabon. Other missions were established at N’Djolé and Franceville in 1897 and at Sindara in 1899. An additional nine missions were founded in the region in 1925.
The immense Vicariate of the Two Guineas—Upper and Lower Guinea and Sierra Leone, called Gabon (1863) and Libreville (1947)—originally comprised all west Africa from Senegal to the Orange River (except Luanda), with no fixed inland borders. Eventually the vicariate was broken apart, with portions becoming the Prefecture of Fernando Po (1855) and the vicariates of Sierra Leone (1858), Dahomey (now Benin; 1860), Senegambia (now Dakar, Senegal; 1863), Congo (1865); the Gold and Ivory Coasts (now Cape Coast, Ghana and Abidjan;1879), Upper Niger (now Benin City, Nigeria; 1884), the French Congo (now Brazzaville; 1886), the Lower Niger (now Onitsha, Nigeria; 1889), and Cameroon (now Yaoundé; 1890). American Bishop Edward barron became the first vicar apostolic of the Two Guineas in 1842, but withdrew from Africa three years later. Remy Bessieux, a Holy Ghost Father in Gabon (1844–76), became the second vicar apostolic in 1849.
By 1910 Gabon had become a colony of French West Africa, and in 1946 it gained territorial status. The Vicariate of Libreville became a diocese suffragan to Brazzaville in 1955, and in 1958 the suffragan See of Mouila was detached from Libreville, which became an archdiocese. In response to the nationalist movement that took shape during the late 1950s, French Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle granted increasing political autonomy to the region, and independence was granted to Gabon on Aug. 17, 1960. Unfortunately, the new government was quickly overthrown by the Gabonese military. With the help of French troops peace was restored by 1964, and a new constitution was adopted two years later. The first Gabon bishop, François Ndong, was appointed auxiliary bishop of Libreville in 1961. The Catholic Church continued to operate private schools in the country, although it received no aid from the government.
During the 1970s Gabon's attempts to develop its economy met with success due to the country's supply of natural resources—particularly oil. While multi-party elections were established in the republic in 1990, the nation's long-time president Omar Bongo, in power since 1967 and a member of the nation's Muslim minority, continued to win a majority of the votes, even defeating a Catholic priest in the 1993 election. In June 1999, after nearly two years of negotiations, Bongo's government
signed an accord with the Holy See that outlined the diplomatic and social functions of the Church within Gabon. The government also organized annual meetings between Church leaders and members of the Islamic Council to promote interfaith relations, which were amicable. Gabon, a member of the Central African Bishop's Conference, contained 65 parishes administered by 36 secular and 70 religious priests, and the nation' social welfare agencies benefitted from the efforts of its 23 brothers and 167 sisters.
In an effort to promote Christianity among the region's native peoples, Samuel Galley translated the New Testament (1925) and the whole Bible (1952) into the native Fang language. By this time, other faiths had begun evangelization efforts in the area, American Protestants having established a mission near Libreville as early as 1841. While Protestant activity subsided for several decades, the mission was revived by Presbyterians in 1870, and other missions were established with aid from French Protestants. In 1913 Nobel Prize-winning Alsatian theologian Albert Schweitzer revived the now-deserted mission at Lambaréné as a hospital devoted to treatment of leprosy and sleeping sickness. By the second half of the 20th century Gabon began to see an increase in Islamic non-citizens due to immigration from West African nations, and by 2000 Islamic worshipers were estimated to comprise as much as 12 percent of the actual resident population.
Bibliography: Le missioni cattoliche: Storia, geographia, statistica (Rome 1950) 129–130. Bilan du Monde, 2v. (Tournai 1964) 2:398–401.
[j. le gall/eds.]