Missionaries of Africa

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The Society of Missionaries of Africa (M.Afr.), formerly known as the "White Fathers," was founded in Algiers in 1868 by Charles M. lavigerie, Archbishop of Algiers. The society's first apostolate was among the orphans whom Lavigerie had taken under his care during the typhoid epidemic of 1867. Villages of Christian Arabs were founded in 1873 and 1875. Soon after, mission stations were established in Kabylia (Algeria) and on the northern fringes of the Sahara. Archbishop Lavigerie, as apostolic delegate for the Sahara and the Sudan, planned to send the missionaries of Africa into the interior of the African continent. Two attempts to cross the Sahara, one in 1876 and the other in 1881, resulted in the massacre of six White Fathers by their Touareg guides.

In January 1878, Lavigerie submitted to the Holy See a plan for the evangelization of the newly explored "Great Lakes" region of Central Africa. Leo XIII responded by appointing Lavigerie apostolic delegate for Equatorial Africa and establishing four mission territories to be entrusted to the Missionaries of Africa, although the society had less than 80 members at the time. By May 1878 the first caravan of ten missionaries had set out from the coast of Tanganyika (now Tanzania) toward the interior. At Tabora they split into two groups: one heading for Uganda, the other for the western shores of Lake Tanganyika.

The beginnings were extremely difficult. Physical sufferings, disease, and persecution by jealous tribal chiefs and greedy slave traders caused great hardship. By 1887, 16 priests, two brothers, and three lay auxiliaries had given their lives for the mission. In 1882 King Mutesa of Uganda forced them to leave the region south of Lake Victoria. They returned under Mutesa's successor, King Mwanga, only to see their small flock decimated by violent persecution. Twenty-two of the Christians martyred in Uganda were canonized in 1964.

After much hardship and losses, Lavigerie's plans began to bear fruit. He had instructed the missionaries to apply the discipline of the early Church's catechumenate in order to prepare the neophytes for baptism. The long task of building up an indigenous clergy was begun at an early stage of the mission's development. Uganda had its first two priests in 1913; the Congo, in 1917. In West Africa, the mission in the French Sudan (now Mali) was founded in 1894.

In 1880, at the request of the Holy See, the Missionaries of Africa opened a Greek Melkite seminary at the Basilica of St. Ann in Jerusalem. Today the Missionaries of Africa remain the guardians of this shrine in Jerusalem.

At Cardinal Lavigerie's death in 1892, 278 Missionaries of Africa from five different nationalities worked in six countries: Algeria, Tunisia, Uganda, Tanganyika, Congo, and Zambia. The Holy See granted final approval to the Society's constitutions in 1908. Its members, both priests and brothers, are bound by an oath of stability and of dedication to the continuation of Jesus' mission among Africans. Adapting themselves to the local surroundings, the Missionaries of Africa wear a religious habit which resembles the traditional clothing worn in North Africa: the white gandurah (cassock-like robe), a white burnoose (a hooded cape) and a reddish chechia (a fez-like head cover). They also wear a 15-decade rosary about their necks.

The General Chapter of 1936 divided the Society into provinces, Canada being one of them. The U.S. province was established in 1948. In 1997 the Canadian and U.S. provinces were combined as the North American Province. By the end of the 20th century, total membership was more than 2,000, coming from 31 different nationalities, working in 384 communities in 43 countries and recruiting from all continents. The North American Headquarters is in Montreal, with an U.S. Office in Washington, D.C.

Bibliography: j. bouniol, The White Fathers and Their Missions (London 1929). d. attwater The White Fathers in Africa (London 1937). g. kittler, The White Fathers (New York 1957). e. m. matheson, African Apostles (New York 1963). f. renault, Le Cardinal Lavigerie (Paris 1992).

[j. g. donders]

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Missionaries of Africa

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