History of the Jesuits in Zimbabwe

Since the Africa Synod in Rome in the mid 1990s it has been customary to speak of three attempts to evangelise Africa. The first we can associate with Saint Mark, the foundation of the church of Alexandria, the spread up the Nile to Nubia and Ethiopia and West along the coast of North Africa. Saint Augustine attended a synod with some 500 other bishops from North Africa in the early fifth century. But, except for the enclave of Ethiopia, Christianity in Africa virtually disappeared under the onslaught of Islam in the seventh century.

It took almost a thousand years before the second great attempt was made with missionaries arriving in West Africa, the Congo, Angola and Mozambique, and it was in this last that our story begins. In 1556, the year Saint Ignatius died, Gonçalo de Silveira, just 30 years old, sailed to India to be in charge of the Jesuits in the East.

He was energetic but not a good listener, and had to be moved. But to where? The decision was made to send him to Africa, and he reached Tete in November 1560 and from there proceeded to the court of King Mwene Mutapa, North West of Mutoko near the Mazowe river. The King and his mother became Christians, but Muslim traders worked against Silveira. Silveira was killed and the mission collapsed..

Gonçalo da Silveira (1560)

The International Mission                

The third, and finally successful, attempt took place in the nineteenth century when numerous missionary societies arrived in virtually every corner of Africa.  On the 16th February 1879 Pope Leo XIII signed a decree setting up the Zambezi Mission and entrusted it to the Society of Jesus.

                     Fr Henry Depelchin SJ

Grahamstown (South Africa)
Two months later, on the 16th April, four ox-wagons containing six priests and five brothers set out from Grahamstown traveling North at the speed of 17 miles a day. They were Fr Henry Depelchin (Superior), Fr Charles Croonenberghs, Br Francis de Sadeleer and Br Louis de Vylder, all from Belgium; Fr Salvatore Blanca and Br Peter Paravicini from Italy; Fr Charles Fuchs and Fr Anthony Teroerde from Germany; Br Joseph Hedley and Fr Augustus Law from England, and Br Theodore Nigg from Liechtenstein.


Shosong (Botswana) 
They reached Kimberley on 11th May.  They reached the Limpopo on July 8, and carved a cross high up on a spectacular tree where many travellers, including Living-stone, had halted.  It can be seen to this day, though the tree is dead.  They crossed the Limpopo and 'for six days journeyed through a dreary waste of thorn bushes, dusty and dry, almost without water and without grass ...'  and reached Khama's capital at Shoshong on 23rd July.  The chief was cool to them because he had aready welcomed the London Missionary Society. Depel-chin was very disappointed and determined to move on.

Fr Charles Croonenberghs SJ

They faced many trials.  The wagons were often stuck and the oxen fatigued.  They were frequently dehydrated in the scorching sun, and there was the constant threat of wild animals. 

Tati (Botswana)
On the 17th August they reached the Tati goldfields, in modern Botswana not far from the Zimbabwe border. Depelchin decided to found a mission there, which the Jesuits called Good Hope, on the south bank of the Tati river. It was the first mission of our Jesuit Province.

Gubulawayo (Zimbabwe)
Depelchin went on North to Gubulawayo and reached Lobengula’s capital on the 2nd September. He set about gaining permission to stay, and won the King's favour by repairing and painting the king’s wagon. The remains of the Jesuit residence are still there, close by Lobengula's kraal at Old Bulawayo.  The Jesuits struggled on, but made no headway in terms of their aim of bringing the Christian faith to Lobengula's people.   In 1887, after Lobengula moved to the current site of State House in Bulawayo, Fr Prestage moved the mission to Empandeni, where he had obtained permission to start a school. While Good Hope was the first mission of our Jesuit Province, Empandeni is the oldest still existing to this day though no longer run by the Jesuits.

Depelchin was disappointed by the slow progress of relations with Lobengula, and decided to send two additional expeditions – one to Mzila’s Shangaan people in the East, and one to Lewanika’s Barotsi in the North. Neither of these expeditions were a success, largely due to a tiny insect – the mosquito which brought about the death of most of these early Jesuits. The irony is that it was the Jesuits in South America who had brought the world’s attention to the anti-malarial qualities of quinine, known at the time as 'Jesuit's Bark'.

Fr Augustus Law SJ

Mzila - Shangaan (Zimbabwe)
What could go wrong did go wrong on the journey to Mzila's.  Fr Law, Bro Hedley, Br de Sadeleer and a new arrival, Fr Karl Wehl, set out on 28th May, 1880.  Fr Wehl got separated from his three companions and was lost for a month.  The rains set in and the wagons got stuck; food ran out and malarial fever weakened the health of all three.  They abandoned the wagons and arrived at Mzila's on foot on 31st August in an exhausted state. 

Mzila did not welcome them, and Fr Law died of malaria on 25th November.  The three remaining Jesuits lived in squalor and starvation until 19th April 1881, when two of them struggled to Sofala on the Mozambique coast where Fr Wehl died in his weakened state.  Br de Sadeleer returned to Mzila's with supplies, then he and Bro Hedley struggled back to Gubulawayo, arriving on 1st October 1881, sixteen months after they had set out, and having accomplished nothing.

Pendamatenga (Botswana)
The journey to the North fared little better. On the 17 May 1880 Frs Depelchin, Terorde and Weisskopf, with Brs Nigg, Vervenne and Simonis set out for the Zambezi and settled at Pandematenga.

Mwemba - Tonga (Zambia)
Depelchin decided to start work with the Tonga people, and eventually obtained permission to start a mission at Mwemba’s settlement on the North bank of the Zambezi. Mwemba soon tired of their presence and, it seems, tried to poison them. Fr Terorde died in agony on the 16th or 17th of September 1880. Br Vervenne was very ill but able to bury Fr Terorde. At this point Br Nigg arrived and carried away Br Vervenne in a hammock.

Lewanika - Barotse (Zambia)
Depelchin, though ill with malaria, determined to press on, and sent messages to Lewanika of the Barotse who invited him to come the following year, 1881. They made the journey and were welcomed and promised land for a mission station. Depelchin returned South to gather more men and supplies, but he was now weak from his exertions and the constant malaria, and did not manage to return to the Zambezi.

Fr Peter Prestage SJ

Empandeni (Zimbabwe)

In 1886 Fr Prestage eventually persuaded Lobengula to allow him to start a school at Empandeni, but the new superior, Fr Alfred Weld, decided that a period of consolidation was called for, and ordered the withdrawal of all Jesuits from Matabeleland.  Prestage accordingly withdrew, but he begged Weld to allow him to return, and Fr Weld eventually gave in. 

In 1887, Frs Prestage and Andrew Hartmann built up Empandeni, and classes began in the school.  But the signing of the Rudd Concession soured relations between Lobengula and the Europeans, and the Jesuits felt they had to withdraw for a time, leaving a caretaker in charge of the mission.

1890 was the year when Rhodes’ expeditionary invasion, also known as the pioneer column, came to claim the land between the Zambezi and the Limpopo. His claim was based on a flimsy agreement with Lobengula, which Rhodes interpreted liberally. It was shortly after this that Fr Prestage returned to Empandeni, a residence was established in Salisbury, and the first mission in Mashonaland founded at Chishawasha in 1892.

The Salisbury and Sinoia Missions (1894 - 1978)

In 1894 Fr General decided to entrust the mission to the British Jesuits although many of the Jesuits who came from other countries stayed on. Despite the wars of the first decade of colonialism, it was a hectic period of expansion. Missions, schools and parishes were established in Bulawayo (1894), St George’s (Bulawayo 1896), Gokomere (1896), Mutare (1899), Embakwe (1902), Gweru (1903), Chikuni (1905), Kasisi (1905), Driefontein (1906), St Joseph’s Hama (1908), Katondwe (1910), St Peter’s Mbare (1910), etc. In 1927 authority was delegated from the British Provincial to a Mission Superior on the spot, and in 1930 the first bishop was consecrated, Bishop Aston Chichester.

There were always a large number of Germans among the Jesuits in this country, and they felt they needed their own area in order to focus their efforts and give identity to the support they knew would come from Germany. So in 1957 the East German province took over the Sinoia (Chinhoyi) Mission. Within a few years they built missions in Guruve (1958), St Albert’s Mission and school (1962), Karoi (1963), Chitsungo (1964), Magondi (1964), Banket (1970) and St Boniface Hurungwe (1970).

The Zimbabwe Jesuit Province

By the late 1970s we felt it was time for the British and German missions to come together, and Fr General Pedro Arrupe called us to form one province in 1978. Both missions were beginning to receive vocations locally and, at the same time, the number of Jesuits coming out from Britain and Germany was rapidly reducing. So we wanted to combine our resources in responding to this new phase in our story.

After a few years of running our own Zimbabwe noviciate, we decided in 1983 to join with Zambia/Malawi and Eastern Africa in a joint novitiate in Lusaka. In 1994 Arrupe College was established in Harare as a college of philosophy and humanities training Jesuits from the whole of English speaking Africa.

Zimbabwe Provincial Superiors since 1978

1978-84  Fr Henry Wardale

1984-90  Fr Ken Spence

1990-96  Fr Joe Hampson

1996-02  Fr Konrad Landsberg

2002-08  Fr Fidelis Mukonori

2008-14  Fr Stephen Buckland

2014-       Fr Chiedza Chimhanda

At the beginning of 2013, Zimbabwe Jesuit Province had 127 members:

  • 7 Novices,
  • 32 Scholastics before ordination: (19 studying Philosophy & Humanities, 7 on Regency, 6 studying Theology)
  • 10 priests awaiting Final Vows,
  • 14 Brothers with Final Vows,
  • 64 Priests with Final Vows.