São Tomé and Principe, The Catholic Church in
SÃO TOMÉ AND PRINCIPE, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Principe are volcanic islands located in the Gulf of Guinea, west of Gabon, off the coast of Africa. The former, 319 square miles in area, lies on the equator; the latter, occupying 52 square miles, is 100 miles to the north. Mountainous, the region has a tropical climate with a rainy season from October through May. Natural resources consist of fish and hydropower, while agricultural products include cocoa, coconuts, cinnamon, pepper, coffee and bananas. Most plantations on the large island were carved from the jungle during the 16th century.
Held by the Portuguese since the late 15th century, the region changed its political status to that of overseas territory in 1951. Slavery was abolished in the islands in the early 20th century, and in 1975 the region became politically independent. The first free elections were held in
1991. The permanent population on both islands is largely rural and attached to the plantations. The majority are Africans descended from slaves brought from the African mainland, while small minorities of Europeans and Creoles also exist. Although contract laborers from Angola, Mozambique and the Cape Verde islands frequently lived on the islands without permanent residency status, by 2000 an economic decline had resulted in a 50 percent unemployment rate in the region.
Originally uninhabited, the islands were discovered by Portuguese explorers c. 1471, and settlers and missionaries quickly colonized the region. The introduction of slave labor allowed the region to become a major sugar cane producer within a century. In 1534 São Tomé became a diocese with jurisdiction extending to the Congo and Angola. By 1597 São Tomé had a cathedral and seven parishes; and Principe a single church. In addition to the growth of the cocoa and coffee plantations, the islands quickly became a major transportation center for African slaves, creating a difficult environment for the Church. Foreign aggression, the exodus of many inhabitants, and the erection of separate ecclesiastical jurisdictions on the mainland caused the Church to decline in importance throughout the next several centuries, and the last resident bishop, Bartolomeu dos Mártires, died in 1816. Despite the dwindling of the slave trade by the mid-1700s, the few priests sent from Portugal could not stem the decline, which continued through the 19th century. Finally, in 1927 the claretian fathers were entrusted with the two islands.
Although São Tomé was the world's largest cocoa producer by the turn of the 20th century, the inhuman treatment of its plantation workers prompted an international boycott by major chocolate manufacturers in 1909. The seeds of a nationalist movement were sown in 1953 following the deaths of hundreds of African workers during labor riots. As a result of the Portuguese revolution in 1974, on July 12, 1975 the region declared political independence, although a stable government did not take power until the election of Miguel Torvoada as the region's first president in 1991. During the 1990s the economy suffered as drought reduced the relied-upon cocoa
exports. Increased poverty and a dependence on foreign aid were the result. Government corruption did not aid in the region's stability, but the state remained optimistic that exploration of its off-shore areas would result in the discovery of petroleum deposits in the early 21st century. A new government, elected in 1998, also boded well for economic reforms.
By 2000 there were 12 parishes tended by 12 Claretian priests, assisted in their ministrations by three brothers and approximately 40 sisters. During a 1992 visit to the region, Pope John Paul II recalled São Tomé's past in addressing the institution of slavery as a "cruel offense" to the dignity of the African people. In response to the poverty of the region, which had resulted in a foreign debt equaling 283 percent of the islands's Gross National Product, in 1999 the Italian Bishops's Conference donated money to both ease the debt and reinvest in São Tomé's economy.