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Missionary news

News   - n. 04

70 Years since
the first Carmel
in Sub-Saharan Africa


The Carmel of Kanaga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, celebrated its 70th anniversary on the 14th November.  It was founded in 1934 by six Belgian nuns, and over the years it has grown and bloomed, and has been responsible for the foundation of several other Carmels in Africa.   In 1952 it founded the Carmel of Zaza in Ruanda (today located in Kigali) which, in its turn, ten years later, founded Kinshasa (Democratic Rep. of Congo).   Later Kanaga founded Ruhondo-Remera (Ruanda), today in Yamoussukro (Ivory Coast), and also Cyangugu (Ruanda).  

This first sub-Saharan Carmel has today 14 nuns, all of them African. Its dynamic presence is a sure witness to the local Church, for which it is an important centre.  Retracing the great events of our Carmelite history, we proclaim once more the fidelity of God who confirms us in our conviction that Jesus Christ Ais the same yesterday, today and for ever@ (Heb 13:8). 

The Origin of the first African foundation 

The project of founding a Carmel in Africa came to birth on the 14th November 1934, in Kabwe, today the Democratic Republic of Congo, which at that time was a Belgian colony.  The first stirrings had been made ten years before, more in hope than anything else.   

It all began when a Jesuit Missionary, who had been working in the Kwango region of the Congo, came to give a conference to the Belgian carmel of Matagne la Petite (Namur) in February 1925.  At the end of the conference he raised two questions: AAre there Carmelites in the Colonies?  Is it permissible for Carmelite Sisters to have houses in missionary territories?@. 

The questions challenged the Sisters and reminded them of the apostolic zeal of St. Teresa of Avila.  But it would be a long time before any kind of project could be realized.  The Superiors who were responsible for such a project wanted to make sure first that this would be possible and so, in the meantime, told the community not to mention it again. 

There were other obstacles to a new foundation: the community of Matagne was too young and inexperienced; and numbered only 15, certainly not enough.  Moreover, in 1924 they had given up a much larger property in order to re-house themselves in a smaller and more suitable building, but still without a proper chapel or cloister. These obstacles, however, did not prevent them from dedicating their future to such a noble undertaking.

In 1926 Pope Pius XI published the encyclical  Rerum Ecclesiae, inviting the contemplative Orders to establish themselves in missionary countries.  This was a boost to the Sisters hopes.  Contact was made with missionary prelates.  The idea of Carmel in Africa raised all sorts of questions: ACan the Rule of Carmel be adapted to suit the ecuatorial climate?  Would indigenous people be suitable for a contemplative life?  Can such a Carmel in Africa be supported financially given the financial difficulties here?@  After much reflexion the first question raised about the adaptability of the Rule,  established in 13th century Palestine, could be adapted to the Tropics. And, thanks to God=s Providence and grace, the other questions were answered in a similarly positive manner.  The time for the project to be fulfilled was close but they were still required to wait. 

In the meantime those who were to be the pioneers had much work to do in the new property as well as long hours of prayer.  Their hopes and dreams intensified and at the same time the numbers of vocations increased.  In 1928 Mgr. Van Hee, Apostolic Vicar of Kwango, passed through Matagne la Petite, on his way to Rome.  He told the community that, with the blessing of the Pope and permission from Propaganda Fide,  he had assumed responsibility for the project to found a Carmel in the Congo.  

On the 15th October 1932, according to the chronicles of Kabwe, a friend and benefactor of the Carmel, John Cornet d=Elzius, promised some of his land in the Kivu region of the Congo, where a chapel had already been built in honour of our Blessed Lady.  Unfortunately, Mgr. Huys, coadjutor to the Apostolic Vicar of Bauduinville, (in which the Kivu region was situated) was not in favour of the idea and advised the Sisters not to accept this offer.  

It seemed that it was not God=s will that Carmel should be established in this particularly beautiful place which enjoyed such a mild climate.  This was also the opinion of Mgr. Van Hee, and he suggested to the Sisters that they make contact with the  Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Scheut), whose centre was in Leopoldville, today Kinshasa. 

In September 1933, Fr Daems, Superior of the said Missionaries, accepted straight away to have a Carmelite foundation in one of the vicariates confided to his Congregation.  The Apostolic Delegate, Mgr. Dellepiane, doubted that such a foundation could survive in Leopoldville (Kinshasa), and so proposed the city of Kisantu, where there was a large regional seminary.  

Thus on the 13th March 1934, the Vicar Apostolic of Alto Kasayi, Mgr. De Clerq, accepted the possibility of a Camelite foundation of nuns in his Vicariate.   He proposed to situate the convent in Kabwe, between the major and minor seminaries and not far from the Parish Church.  But then the Vicariate was divided into two, so this Vicar Apostolic was unable to finalize the plans.  

On the 15th May of the same year the Apostolic Delegate, with the blessing of the Pope,  was finally able to approve the project of Matagne Carmel.  The General of the Carmelite Order, Guillermo of St Albert, supported followed the preparations with interest.  After having weighed up the importance and significance of this project as well as the risks, he obtained the necessary authorizations from the Vatican authorities.  Now at last the train was on the move. 

Foundation in Kabwe

On the 6th October 1934 six Carmelite Sisters travelled to Central Africa, arriving by boat from Lisbon.  The names of these sisters from Matagne Carmel are: Carlota of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Teresa of the Holy Face, Cecilia of the Good Shepherd and Maria Rosa of St Joseph. Joining them were two others from Carmels in Belgium:  Maria Julian of the Blessed Sacrament,  Lieja Carmel, and Margaret Maria of the Sacred Heart from Ath.  

Mother Carlota, who had been prioress from 1928-31, was appointed prioress of the new foundation.  The itinerary that the Sisters followed was practically the same as the one followed by the first Carmelite friars to the Congo in 1584, following the attempts of 1582 and 1583 which ended so disastrously. They disembarked at Lobito (today Angola) on the 28th October, the feast of Christ the King.  In Luanda they could admire the ruins of the original Carmelite foundation.  They travelled in land by train to Dilolo-Tenke, the first station in the Belgian Congo.  As they approached their journey=s end, Luluaburg, today the city of Kananga, they intoned a fervent ASalve Regina@

They spent several days in Mikalayi, the first Mission of the Region, making initial contact with the new land, the new climate and the new environment.  Some days later, on the 13th November 1934 the pioneers of sub-Saharan Africa eventually arrived in Kabwe, where they received the Canonical approval for the new building, just arrived from Rome, from Mons. De Clerq.  The new Kabwe monastery was officially established the following day with the celebration of the first Eucharist.  The Carmelite Sisters could not wait to prepare the land, to plant trees, to lay paths and convert buildings into workplaces.  

In May 1935 another Sister arrived, followed by a second a year later.  The convent now had 12 Nuns.  The chronicle records: AOn the 24th May 1935 four Nuns arrived from Matagne, among them a novice and a postulant.  We prepared accommodation for them dividing our cells into two with a curtain...@

The construction began in 1935 and was finished in 1937.  The chapel was solemnly inaugurated on the 19th March 1938 by Mgr. Demol, together with all the Superiors of the neighbouring missions as well as the seminarians.  But right from the beginning the question had been asked: ACould this Carmel hope to attract vocations from the local people?@  The answer was yes but with difficulty; throughout there was always this problem.  

When the manor seminary transferred in 1984 to the capital, Kananga, in the Malole suburbs, the sisters decided to move there too, principally for the sake being close to the seminary which was always a resource centre for formation.  The Carmel quickly established itself and  was soon considered the heart of the diocese, and many priests, religious men and women, as well as laity went there to spend time in quiet prayer and reflection.  

The celebration of the 70th anniversary of the convent coincided with the golden jubilee of one of the community.  The sisters gave a sincere thanks to God for all the wonders that He had worked throughout these years. At the same time they appealed to our generosity for financial help so that they can keep going.  They wrote: AWe need material help and your prayers for vocations to come and join us in a life dedicated to the Church@.


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Updated 15 dic 2004  by OCD General House
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