SVD in Ghana since 1938

THE GOLD COAST MISSION

In the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 16 Paul had a vision of a Macedonian who urged him in these words: “Come across to Macedonia and help us.”  That was the way in which the Holy Spirit inspired the early Christian Church to launch its missionary apostolate to Asia Minor and Europe.  The call for the SVD to go to the Gold Coast came in 1938 when the Society of the African Missions, the SMA, which had pioneered in bringing the Catholic faith to West Africa, sought help for its missionary work in the Gold Coast. At that time they were so overwhelmed with the task of the mission in this country that they were unable to develop the area surrounding the capital city of Accra. It was evident that Accra would become the center of government, of business and of industry. At that time in the whole area that later became the Accra Diocese there were only two residential mission stations.  Evangelization had only started in the Akim and Kwahu Districts, and the Church had hardly touched the Krobo and the Afram Plains.

BISHOP NOSER

Father Adolf Noser who at the time was a most beloved Rector in the Techny community in the U.S.A  was selected by Father Superior General to be the first superior of the new mission.  But the Doctor who examined him declared him unfit for life in the tropics.  Fr. Superior General suggested: “Find another Doctor.”  The second Doctor too considered him unfit. So a third one was consulted who finally did agree to his going to Africa. One Doctor is said to have observed: “I give him 6 months.” He was wrong, Fr. Elsbernd writes. Actually   Fr. Noser became an indefatigable missionary in the Gold Coast, the first Bishop of the Diocese of Accra and later the Archbishop of the Papua New Guinea Mission. He labored on as a missionary until his death in New Guinea in 1981, at the age of 81.                

Fr. Noser was both a very spiritual man and a rugged missionary and under his leadership the Accra Mission made phenomenal advances. He himself became the model of the so-called “bush missionary” on trek facing unflinchingly the hardships of travelling and living in the more primitive conditions which prevailed in the Gold Coast of that time. During his 15 years of being the Mission Superior and later on Bishop, the Accra Mission made truly astounding progress.             

He was incessantly visiting the mission stations directing their growth and progress. He personally pioneered the opening up of new mission stations in the Krobo area, the Afraam Plains, and along the Volta River.  Over and above all these activities he somehow managed to become a tireless correspondent and through his letter writing and mission reports gained a huge number of benefactors who supported the mission financially. He took his typewriter along on trek and would be writing letters whilst waiting on the roadside for the lorries to come to take him to further stations. In Accra he had plans made for the building of the Cathedral and solicited the funds necessary to inaugurate that gigantic and magnificent project.  Our Ghana mission owes much to its many generous benefactors

Father Noser was the right man at the right time to be the Superior of the new mission. Being a very spiritual man who amidst all his activities was still able to spend hours in prayer every day, he was enabled to animate the faithful and inspire his faithful  missionaries. He himself became the model of the bush missionary going on trek and opening new mission stations. His first trek through the Afram was strenuous and adventurous, but the response of the people was most encouraging. 

Due to the remarkable growth of the mission and its progress the Accra Mission became a Prefecture in 1944, a Vicariate in 1947, and a Diocese in 1950 with Fr. Noser becoming the first Bishop.  When Bishop Noser left the Gold Coast  in 1953 there were 14 residential stations, 227 outstations, 35000 Catholics, 177 schools and 775 teachers.                

FR. ALPHONSE ELSBERND  AND THE SCHOOLS

The first of the SVD missionaries to come to Ghana in October 1938 was Fr. Alphonse Elsbernd. An American, born in Festina, Iowa in the year 1899, his life spans almost the entire 20th century. He was ordained in Techny, went to Rome for further studies and then served as a teacher in SVD Seminaries in the United States, Germany and England. He came to the Gold Coast with Fr. Gehring, a former Togo missionary at the end of the year 1938. Fr. Gehring got sick in his first month in the Gold Coast and had to go back to Germany, never to return to Ghana. Fr. Elsbernd, at that time the lone SVD in the country was the one who took over the new mission from the SMA Priests. He personally played a great part in the phenomenal growth of the new mission. It was particularly in the field of education that Fr. Elsbernd excelled.  He founded the Catholic Mission Educational Unit and became its first General Manager. Through his efforts primary and middle schools mushroomed throughout the mission, both in the urban and rural areas. He pushed so hard to get new schools started that he became something of an irritation to the officials in the Colonial Government Education Department but without his vigorous tactics our catholic schools would never have developed in the grand way they did. He pressed too for the establishment of Mount Mary Training College and the other secondary schools of the Accra Diocese. He became the first Rector of Pope John’s Minor Seminary and secondary school in Effiduase. The saying was that a good SVD was busy with several jobs at once. Fr. Elsbernd was that kind of an SVD. In addition to all his  work in the educational field he served as Pastor in many of the Parishes. In his retirement he was still teaching in St. Rose’s Secondary School in Akwatia. Fr. Elsbernd left Ghana in 1977 after 33 years of yeoman service in the mission. Returning to the States, he served as a Chaplain in a hospital for several more years until he retired at Techny where he kept busy collecting stamps for the Missions until he died at the grand old age of 98.

 THE TWELVE PIONEERS

Including Bishop Noser and Father Elsbernd we have that small but noble and stalwart band of missionaries who carried on the mission work in those early days of difficult labours and hardships. Because World War II had begun, no new missionaries could come into the country until December 1945. In this talk I can do little more than give you the names of those heroes.  

The famous Priest and Scientist, Doctor Harold Rigney  came from the States in 1939  to be a Teacher and Chaplain in the prestigious Achimota Government School.  Fr. Rigney was commissioned into the American Army to become a Chaplain right here in Accra.  After serving in North  Africa and many other places he was missioned to the Philippines  and then to China to be the Rector of the Catholic University in Peking. Serving in this office he was imprisoned by the Communists. This story of suffering he wrote about in a book entitled: “Four Years in a Red Hell.” After this he returned to the States and became the Rector of the Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa.

Father Cletus Hodapp arrived in 1941. We must call him one of the foundation stones of the Gold Coast Mission. His work was both in the pastoral field and in administration.  In fact, he was one of “the big three” as we jokingly referred to Noser, Elsbernd and Hodapp, whom we perceived as a triumvirate running the mission. Fr. Hodapp in fact was the Procurator and the first Regional Superior after Bishop Noser.

Two Brothers came from the States and were with the Mission right from its beginning. The first was Bro.James Doerfler who was the Mission Accountant and Bookkeeper and who became famous for running the first Religious Bookstore and a Supply Shop for the missionaries. The second was Bro. Lucian Orians who was both a builder and all-around maintenance man. These two Brothers contributed enormously to the growth of the Church here in the Gold Coast.  They were the forerunners of that large  stream of Brothers who would come to Ghana to build up and maintain the mission.  It is not possible to imagine how the mission could have grown so solidly and rapidly without the services and ministries of its Brothers. The SVD tradition is grounded in the fact that ours is a Society of Brothers and Priests.

Now comes Father Joseph Bowers  who hails from the West Indies and was trained and ordained in our St. Augustine’s Seminary, of Bay St. Louis Mississippi. He became the very first missionary in the Krobo area. This was in essence the most pioneering work in all the mission.  The fruits of his labours are seen in the rapid growth and development of the Church throughout the Krobo. Fr. Bowers promoted the work of Catechists and furthered  their training. 

The coming of Fathers George Wilson and John Dauphine, two African American missionaries added greatly to the witness of the Society. They served as Pastors and were especially beloved by the Ghanaian people. 

Father Joseph Lauck arrived in 1941.His work as Pastor in the various parishes of Accra was truly outstanding. He also took up the work of chaplaincy in the mammoth Korle-Bu hospital.

Another two outstanding Pastors were Fathers Anthony Bauer and Aloysius Turbek. We want to point out  that the Pastoral work formed the backbone of the mission. At the heart and center of missionary work is the proclaiming of the gospel and the shepherding of the Christians with the Eucharist and the sacraments. Fr. Turbek is especially famous for developing the Nkawkaw Mission. Fr Bauer started his work in Adoajiri-Nsawam and then served as Pastor in the Kwahu. In the beginning he got around his stations using a bicycle. When he managed to get permission to buy and use a motorcycle he added  the third vehicle to the other two small cars that made up the mechanical transportation fleet of the entire mission.

CHARACTERISTICS OF THEIR APOSTOLATE

Looking back upon that little band of 12 pioneers we  survey the outstanding growth of the SVD Mission that took place during their time. The progress was not only on the material side  of  the building of  churches and schools, but also on the spiritual side of the Christians’ growth in the faith.  I see three characteristics that certainly played a major role in their apostolic success. These distinctive characteristics are their spirit and practice of poverty, their sense of commitment and their living together as a community.    

As to poverty , their life-style was very modest and simple.  Perhaps this was a necessity rising out of the difficult economic situation in the country at the time, due to the fact that World War II was then raging. In any case it was the source of great blessing; for the Christian faith can be built only on the foundation of the practice of evangelical poverty. At that time the Mission was literally poor.  I must confess that  I chafed under the strict regimen of poverty that I experienced  when I first arrived in the Mission. It was an austere type of living.  I remember well that all our funds were shared and handled, not individually, but as a community.  Even the funds a missionary received  through his own personal efforts  were put into the common pot and not used individually for one’s own particular station or work. However, the way it turned out, the individual’s work benefited much more than if he had to develop it all on his own . The way they shared their money reminds one of the way the early Christians shared their goods in the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. They had very little in the line of equipment. The Mission possessed only two small cars in Accra and a motorcycle in Kwahu Tafo.  Herein too there was a hidden benefit. Travelling on public trucks and walking from one station to another meant that the missionary stayed longer in each outstation before trekking on to the next. The people were strengthened in the faith through this closer and longer presence of the Priest with them. These missionaries did not have to face the temptations offered by a consumer society, as we do now. Their work was accomplished through the force of the Word and the power of the Spirit more than through the use of sophisticated equipment.

Secondly, these pioneer missionaries were characterized by an ardent spirit of commitment. This is shown in their practice of obedience. The kind of obedience I talk about here is not simply a matter of rules and regulations, but rather a commitment to thinking, planning and acting with a common mind. The priests and brothers willingly accepted regular and frequent changes going from one station to another or from one work to another. Their agenda was not personal, but that of the Society.

The third characteristic of our pioneers was their sense of community. This sounds surprising since they seemingly were working mostly in living alone in places distant from one another. They were rugged individuals indeed, but they performed their individual tasks in the spirit of working together as individual parts of the same body. They all came together regularly, if somewhat infrequently, for meetings, recollections and retreats.  In these gatherings they animated one another with their presence and enthusiasm, their interest in one another’s work and experience and in sharing their joys and sorrows, but most of all through their common planning and discussions.  I have already mentioned what is perhaps the most crucial aspect of it all, their communal sharing of  the funds and goods. These meetings lasted long enough to enable them to feel and foster their togetherness. When it came time to have fun, Fr. Elsbernd writes, even Bishop Noser was on the ball field with the others. He doesn’t mention how well he played ball.

 A TRIBUTE TO THEIR WORK

There is no way nor is there an instrument for measuring the spiritual gains and growth in the mission during this period of  pioneering and sowing the seed. But in this period up until the arrival of a flood of new priests, brothers and sisters in the year 1946  there were 5 more residential stations, 91 more outstations, about 6000 more baptized members, 89 more schools and about 170 more teachers. All that accomplished within 7 years by a band of 12 SVD missionaries.

How can we possibly describe and appreciate the work and services of this small band of 12 pioneers?  They laboured in the days of hardships when living conditions were poor and transportation difficult. They were not as yet able to screen off their homes against the mosquitoes and so they suffered from regular bouts of the  endemic malaria fever. Their only remedy against it was quinine and because of the frequent use of quinine they were subject to become hard-of-hearing.

With the year 1947 we reach the point in our mission history when we start flying ahead, as it were for the progress becomes so great and manifold. The Society at large was now able to send us a good number of new missionaries from year to year. At this point too, the Sisters came – the S.Sp.S.   They pioneered in their special area of mission work beginning with the girls’ schools in the educational field and with the clinics in the medical field. They ministered spiritually especially to the women and started the vigorous Christian Mothers’ Associations.

THE DIOCESE UNDER BISHOP BOWERS

When Bishop Bowers took over from Bishop Noser we can say that the strong skeleton of the Church in the Gold Coast was in place.  It would be Bishop Bowers’ task to put the flesh and blood on those bones – which he did most admirably. I can give only a very general and tiny sketch of these developments. Bishop Bowers brought the Dominican Sisters of the Diocese of Speyer into the Mission and they built up hospitals in Battor and Akwatia and established the  Girls’ Secondary School  in Akwatia. Bishop Bowers founded the Diocesan Congregation of the Handmaids of the Divine Redeemer (notice the closeness of the name to the Divine Word). That Congregation grew up rapidly and is flourishing. In the educational field several top rate Secondary Schools were established. Pope John Secondary School was started as a Minor Seminary for our Diocesan Priesthood. The Catechists were given special attention and a Diocesan Catechetical School was started at Asamankese. Most of all the parishes and outstations grew and multiplied as also did the Catholic Youth Organization and other pious associations of the lay-faithful.. When we look back now, it is difficult to even imagine how one man could be shepherding that vast area of the Church which is now the Archdiocese of Accra and the Diocese of Koforidua.

OUR  SVD BROTHERS

Our SVD Brothers formed a background for this building-up of the mission. The Swiss Father Joseph Jud was the architect of our beautiful Holy Spirit Cathedral and many other Churches and buildings. But it was the Brothers who supervised the works and did the building. It was amazing the way the Cathedral rose up under the supervision of our Brothers. The Cathedral was built without any fancy modern equipment;  the labourers climbing the ladders on those tall walls of the Cathedral with headpans of concrete. 

Our Brothers were active in the educational and pastoral fields as well. Another example of the great part of the contribution of the Brothers is the Orthopedic Training Centre at Nsawam.  The story of Brother John Heckel great contribution to the Province cannot be overemphasized. He established the automotive department at St. Paul Technical School in Kukurantumi, dug  wells and boreholes in the Brong Ahafo District and helped in tremendously the poor and needy in Tamale. Many more stories of the work of the Brothers could be added

It was the SVD Brothers who started the workshops and St. Martin’s Secondary School in Nsawam. Their work and skills developed and promoted St. Paul Technical School. The Carpenter Shop at Kukurantumi was completely built, equipped, managed and directed by our Brothers. Who could ever count the buildings they completed and roofed, the furnitures they provided for churches, schools, convents, hospitals and residences?  So too they opened and managed the Catholic Book Centre and the Catholic Press in Accra. They taught in our schools, served pastorally in our parishes. They have been active in the Biblical apostolate and in creating church music and organizing church choirs and bands. They have been the mainstays in many of our communities. The lives and works of Brothers Baldericus and Damian are legends. There are many Brothers now alive whose names cannot be mentioned now who are working so splendidly in different ministries here in our Ghana Province.

 BOOKS ARE NEEDED TO TELL THE STORY

From the point when Bishop Noser passed over the Shepherding of the young Diocese of Accra to Bishop Bowers, the development becomes so rapid and widespread that it becomes like a river now flowing into the ocean. Happily, we have that book in Fr. Elsbernd’s: The Story of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Accra which has been republished as another contribution of the Ghana Province to the local church.

It is our trust that another will give us the histories of the Province’s extension to the Yendi and Brong-Ahafo Districts in Ghana as well as other districts that the SVD championed missionary activity not forgetting the neighboring countries of Togo and Benin.

The SVD story in Ghana would not be complete without a reference to the internal growth of the Province.  This refers to the establishment and growth of our own Ghanaian SVD Brotherhood and Priesthood, and all that this involved. The fact that we have already sent over 40 SVD Brothers and Priests to work in the Society’s missions throughout the SVD world is in itself a crowning glory of the work and vitality of our Ghana Province. 

OUR SVD HERITAGE

All that have been mentioned above flows out of what could be termed our SVD Heritage. Those achievements can be considered its abundant harvest of fruits. We are proud of this but this did not come from the blue but it is a heritage contained in our SVD spirituality. We receive it as a precious treasure of three jewels. The first jewel is that of our Constitutions; the second jewel is our community living together, and the third is in our being immersed in the Liturgy of the Church. These  are given to us not in that order but all together and all at once.

Spirituality as that energy in us which shapes our actions. Spirituality is what we do with the fire inside of us. It is about how we handle our innate energy.  Take Mother Teresa as an example. “She was a dynamo of energy. She may have looked frail and weak but she was nevertheless a human bull-dozer. At the same time she was a very disciplined woman, dedicated to God and to the poor. That total dedication of everything to God and the poor, was her signature, her spirituality.”  Life is energy. The soul is what gives life. Inside the soul lives the fire, the energy that drives us.  We have within us spirit – soul; and what we do with that soul is our spirituality. (cf. Ronald Rolheiser in THE HOLY LONGING).

  OUR SVD SPIRITUALITY

Our SVD Spirituality is contained in our Constitutions. As the Prologue of the Constitutions states: “The idea and purpose of our rule is to interpret for us the call of  the Divine Word and prepare us for our missionary service.” The Constitutions give us our life-style which is distinctively that of a religious missionary. The Constitutions are like a map for us, leading and guiding us for living in a true gospel way. 

We receive our Constitutions in words. These words are actualized, expressed, and lived in a loving and intimate community. This is a community bonded and united together with the three vows.  It is a total commitment made to God and to our confreres in the Society. Herein we find our joy and friendship, our strength and support and our dedication to the Church in its missionary service.

The Liturgy, we know, is the primary source and the summit of the Christian spirit and this is a major factor in our daily living. It is in and through the liturgy that Christ is present with us in spirit and power.  We, as companions of the Divine Word are to be so immersed in the Word that we are constantly experiencing Christ, witnessing to him by our very lives, and proclaiming His Kingdom.