Order Ceding Work to African Church. (Religious Life: Special Section)

By Lefevere, Patricia | National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002 | Go to article overview

Order Ceding Work to African Church. (Religious Life: Special Section)


Lefevere, Patricia, National Catholic Reporter


Fr. Thomas Wright said he was "surprised, very unhappy, even angry" when he was chosen last July to head the U.S. province of the Society of African Missions, sometimes known as SMA Fathers. If he had had his way, he would have wanted to finish his term as the society's vocations director, then return to missionary work in Africa.

But Wright felt "a sense of peace and rightness" descend on him about three hours after the provincial assembly named him provincial superior. Wright said he thought of Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis of Monrovia, Liberia, at that moment.

"I knew he'd been a bishop for 25 years under very trying circumstances. Here was I complaining about having to do a job for six years," Wright told NCR at the order's provincial headquarters here. In 1921 Katharine Drexel, the Philadelphia heiress who was recently canonized, gave the African mission society $5,600 to help them purchase the 11-acre property about six miles from New York City, which is currently home to 15 members of the order.

In an earlier era, Wright -- age 42 and ordained in 1992 -- might have been deemed too young or inexperienced to lead the society. But with only 35 priests in the American province, with an average age of 70, his time has come.

Wright's vocation to missionary work arrived first as a call to Africa and later as an invitation to priesthood. Raised as a Congregationalist in Warren, Mass., Wright attended Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. "I got excited whenever we touched on Africa," he recalled. He also thought about becoming a minister. He volunteered for the Peace Corps in Ghana.

When he tried to find a Protestant congregation to join in Ghana, he discovered that the nearest church was Methodist, and its Sunday services, in a local language, lasted three hours. A nun at the Catholic school to which he'd been assigned invited him to Mass in English whenever an Irish priest would arrive. She also gave him a missal.

During two years of attending Mass, Wright felt his call to Africa and to ministry was meshing into a call to become a Catholic missionary. He entered the church on Easter 1984 and the Society of African Missions seminary a few months later. He spent another six years in Africa -- two in the seminary and four working in Ivory Coast and in Monrovia, Liberia.

Wright recalled the time in 1992, in the midst of Liberia's seven-year civil war and following the murder of five nuns, that rebels were overheard saying that a "Father Tom" was not a real missionary but a CIA operative. The rumors got to Bishop Francis, who sent Wright into neighboring Ivory Coast where he assisted Liberian refugees.

It was during this time that the young priest began to see the great courage of the Liberian Christians and of Francis, who was attacked by rebel soldiers, his home ransacked and his possessions taken. Francis continued to condemn all atrocities, to preach forgiveness and reconciliation and to rail against violence and human rights abuses in his radio broadcasts and his hour-long sermons.

The bishop survived the bloody coup that toppled President William Tolbert's government in 1980 and resulted in Tolbert's assassination and the execution of many of his cabinet. Francis ministered to the 140,000 Catholics in the Monrovia archdiocese and worked ecumenically during the brutal rule of Samuel Doe (1980-89). Francis also weathered the civil war (1989-96) brought on by Charles Taylor's invasion of Liberia.

The war destroyed the church's infrastructures though not its spirit, Wright said. He wondered aloud how many thousands of Liberians lost their lives because of their faith. In all, 200,000 citizens -- about a tenth of the country -- died as a result of the war. "Catholics stood up to the rebels because of their Christian beliefs,' he said. "They recited the 23rd Psalm or the Our Father" when captured.

Wright said that people frequently confuse his order, the Society of African Missions, with the Missionaries of Africa, formerly known as the White Fathers, whose U. …

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