Liberia, The Catholic Church in
LIBERIA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Republic of Liberia, largely agricultural, is located on the coast of West Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean on the southwest, sierra leone on the northwest, guinea on the north, and cÔte d'ivoire on the east. A tropical region, Liberia has a long coastal plain rising to plateau, with low mountains in the northeast. Dry winters from December to March are punctuated by dusty harmattan winds blowing from the Sahara desert, while summers are rainy. Natural resources include iron ore, diamonds, gold and timber from the region's rain forests; agricultural crops include rubber, coffee, cocoa, cassava, palm oil, sugar cane, rice, bananas and livestock.
Africa's oldest independent republic, Liberia was created out of settlements of liberated American slaves organized by the American Colonization Society. The region
settled after 1822, proclaimed its independence in 1847 and patterned its government on that of the United States. Political and economic power remained largely in the hands of a very small American-Liberian minority, despite the fact that 95 percent of the inhabitants are members of indigenous African tribes such as Kpelle, Bassa, Gio, Kru, Grebo, Mano and Gbandi. An additional 75,000, the Congo people, are descendants of Caribbean slaves who immigrated to the region. A military government during the 1980s was followed by a decade of civil war ending in 1996 when free elections were held in the country. The region's economy and social structure remained unsettled through 2000. Most of the population are agricultural workers; only 39 percent of Liberians can read and write.
Early History . Portuguese missionaries visited the coastal region from the 15th century, and the Jesuits and the Capuchins from Sierra Leone exercised an intermittent apostolate beginning 200 years later. Settlements of blacks, liberated from slavery in the United States, began forming in 1822, and from its founding, Liberia was a stronghold of Protestant missionary activity. The American Catholic bishops and the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith expressed keen concern for the expatriate Catholic settlers. In 1833, Bishop John England of Charleston, South Carolina, requested of Rome that missionaries be sent to care for black Catholic settlers. Pope Gregory XVI then asked the bishops of Philadelphia and New York each to send a priest. They arrived in 1842: Edward barron, an Irish-born priest of Philadelphia, and John Kelly (1802–66), an Irish-born priest of Albany, with Denis Pindar (1823–44), an Irish lay catechist. Barron became the first bishop of the Vicariate Apostolic of the Two Guineas (created 1842), an immense territory comprising all of West Africa from Senegal to the Orange River in Southern Africa. He returned to Liberia in 1844 after recruiting seven priests and three laymen in Europe, but the mission was abandoned before the year's end because the missionaries had either died or were broken in health due to the region's damp climate. Barron resigned his post and returned to the United States.
The Holy Ghost Fathers from Sierra Leone established a mission at Monrovia that lasted from 1884 to 1886. When the Prefecture Apostolic of Liberia was created in 1903 (Vicariate in 1934), it was confided to the Montfort Fathers, who remained for a year in the unhealthful climate. The Society of the african missions arrived in 1906, and took charge of the mission. By 1928 there were 3,350 Catholics, mostly among the coastal tribes.
Liberia remained a prefecture apostolic until 1934 when John Collins, SMA, was ordained bishop and appointed vicar apostolic. In 1950 the vicariate was divided when the prefecture apostolic of Cape Palmas was established; this latter jurisdiction was raised to the status of a vicariate in 1962. The first Liberian priest, Patrick Kla Juwle, was ordained in 1946. In 1972 he was ordained as the first Liberian Catholic bishop and was named the Vicar Apostolic of Cape Palmas. The Liberian hierarchy was formally established in 1981 when Monrovia became an archdiocese and had the diocese of Cape Palmas as a suffragan see. The Metropolitan See of Monrovia was further divided in 1986 when the diocese of Gbarnga was created as a second suffragan. The bishops, all native, belong to the Inter-Territorial Catholic Bishops' Conference of Liberia, Gambia and Sierra Leone.
Fatima College, a Catholic teacher training institution, opened at Cape Palmas in 1952. The Barclay Training Center, a third-level vocational and technical school staffed by the Salesians and indigenous teachers, was established in Monrovia in 1978. Also that year the National Pastoral Center was founded in Gbarnga, its emphasis on the training of lay leaders for parishes and the formation of catechists to assist in the work of evangelization. In 1979 an Inter-diocesan Matrimonial Tribunal was created in Monrovia and an indigenous religious community, the Sisters of the Holy Family, was founded in Cape Palmas. 1982 saw the founding of a Catholic Agricultural Training Center at Sanniquellie in northeast Liberia and in 1992 a nursing school was established in Monrovia. A regional major seminary for the seven dioceses was established in 1972 at Gbarnga; in 1990 it was temporarily relocated to Sierra Leone because of military hostilities.
Civil Unrest . Liberia prospered from the 1920s through the 1970s due to the lucrative market provided for its rubber harvest by the Firestone Rubber Company. The Americo-Liberian elite, which had settled the coastal areas from 1822, ruled the republic after 1947 under the leadership of president W. V. S. Tubman. Tubman's death in 1971 and a shrinking rubber market set the economy into a decline and on April 12, 1980 a violent military coup led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe gained control of Liberia. The decade that followed was characterized by a great deal of social and political instability, the result of a corrupt and repressive regime. The flagrant disregard for civil liberties sparked confrontation between Church leaders and the military-civilian authorities. The Monrovia-based National Catholic Secretariat defended human rights and civil liberties through a newspaper and radio station; since the Church's position was strong among the indigenous peoples whom the government purported to represent, its voice could not be silenced. The region's growing unrest eventually culminated in civil war. An armed incursion led by Charles Taylor in December of 1989 to unseat the government escalated into a brutal ethnic conflict that had devastating effects in all areas of public life. Over 200,000 people were killed; another 800,000 became refugees or were exiled. As Taylor attempted to build his rebel army, children as young as eight years old were forced to carry arms.
The turmoil seriously hurt Catholic life, particularly since the Church depended heavily on its schools, healthcare and social service institutions. Church installations suffered much physical damage; some, including those in the capital city of Monrovia, were totally destroyed. Many religious congregations were dispersed, many missionaries forced to leave. Although not a stated target of either of the military factions, the Church lost one Ghanian missionary priest (1991) and five American missionary sisters (1992) in execution-style killings. In October of 1994, two of the country's bishops were forced to flee, although Archbishop Michael Francis remained, thanks to the protection offered him by a West African peacekeeping force. Lay Catholics kept Catholicism alive among the people during the civil war, especially in those areas where schools had ceased to function. Catholics, working with the ecumenical Liberian Council of Churches, sponsored vigorous programs of humanitarian assistance and social welfare; its work among the refugees, displaced persons and exiles proved consistent and effective. The defense of human rights and the active support of peace and democratic evolution continued to be a focus of the pastoral letters and speeches of Liberia's bishops throughout the civil war, which finally ended in 1997 when free elections brought rebel-turned-President Taylor to power.
Into the 21st Century . By 2000 there were 51 parishes left in Liberia, tended by 52 priests, 26 of whom were religious. Fewer than 100 other religious remained in the country, most of whom tended Liberia's 34 primary and 26 secondary Catholic private schools. Orders active in the region included the Hospitalers of St. John of God, Missionaries of the Immaculate Conception, Salesians and Hospital Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The government continued to respect freedom of religion, which was guaranteed under the constitution promulgated in 1986, although tensions were sometimes apparent in its treatment of Liberia's growing Muslim population, which had opposed Taylor during the civil war. Of special concern to many Catholics was the damage wrought on the young, forced to fight in the war, and special schools were planned as a way to help deal with the psychological trauma associated with these disrupted childhoods. In March of 2000 the Church ran afoul of government censors, its Monrovia-based radio station closed down until it agreed to restrict broadcasts to "purely religious matters." However, this action was viewed as politically motivated; Taylor remained a proponent of Christianity, in 1999 firing most of his cabinet after they failed to attend a prayer meeting.
By late 2000 armed conflict in the northern region had resumed amid charges of corruption against Taylor and his administration. Control of the region's diamond deposits was held to be a motivation for control of the government.
Bibliography: Africa Watch, v. 5, no. 6, Liberia: Waging War to Keep the Peace (New York 1993). m. j. bane, The Catholic Story of Liberia (New York 1950). j. baur, Two Thousand Years of Christianity in Liberia (Nairobi 1994). bishops of liberia, Pastoral Letters (Monrovia 1980–94). p. clifford, Christianity and Politics in Doe's Liberia (London 1993). p. gantly, African Mission, 2 vols. (Rome 1991–92). j. c. hickey, A Land Both Old and Young (Newark 1987). e. m. hogan, Catholic Missionaries and Liberia (Cork 1981). j. g. liebenow, Liberia: The Evolution of Privilege (London 1969); Liberia: The Quest for Democracy (Bloomington 1987). society of african missions, A Missionary Policy for Liberia (Rome 1992). u.s. committee for refugees, Uprooted Liberians: Casualties of a Brutal War (New York 1992). Bilan du Monde, 2:562–565. Annuario Pontificio has information on all diocese. For additional bibliography see africa.
[r. m. wiltgen/eds.]