By Fr Brian Enright SJ
Xavier House, the joint novitiate in Lusaka will be celebrating fifty years in July. It was on 30 July 1969 that the novice master, Fr Francis McKeown accepted the first group of novices, Fr Ignatius Zvarevashe and Br Augustine Kandawasvika among them.
Xavier House was not the first novitiate in Southern Africa. In 1887 Fr Weld, the second superior of the Zambesi Mission had opened a novitiate at Graaf-Reinett in Cape Colony.
The novices were from Europe, volunteers for the Zambesi Mission and were to go on to Dunbrody for philosophy and theology. It was thought that formation in Southern Africa would better prepare them for their future mission. It was an ambitious, but unrealistic plan: the mission didn’t have the resources, neither the men nor the money, to support such a venture and it was abandoned in 1990.
Much later, in the nineteen-fifties, the Jesuits in Northern and Southern Rhodesia approached Rome with a view to establishing an English-speaking novitiate for the territory. Rome approved and a novitiate, Silveira House was built on the Chishawasha estate. The novitiate opened on 14 February 1958. The novice master, Fr Wallace was from Southern Rhodesia, and the socius, Fr O’Connor from Northern Rhodesia. Some years later, in December 1964 the novitiate moved to Mbebi, a farm near Mazowe donated to the Society by Lord Acton. By this time, Fr Francis McKeown had taken over as novice master.
The deteriorating political situation in Southern Rhodesia and the opening of a Jesuit mission in East Africa led to a further move, to another farm, this time in Zambia. The site, obtained through the good offices and foresight of Fr Vincent Cichecki, was just outside Lusaka, near Chelston, on the airport road. Plans were drawn up and building began. The work was done entirely by a team of Jesuit brothers, including Brs Joseph, Dilber, and Kowalik. The building was completed in July 1969.
I was a young priest at that time, due for tertianship and it was decided I would make it at the new novitiate while generally helping out. Accordingly, on 25 July 1969 I flew to Lusaka and to take possession of the building and prepare for the arrival of the novices. A few hectic days followed. Then on 29 July Fr McKeown travelled up by road with five novices and one postulant. The following day five more novices (three from Tanzania, one from Kenya and one from Zambia) arrived and in the following weeks two from Nigeria and one from Cameroun. A total of fourteen, from seven countries. From Zambia, Paul Lungu, who went on to become novice master himself before being ordained Bishop of Monze in 1992, tragically killed in a road accident on 29 April 1998. From Zimbabwe, Brothers James Paul, Herman Toma (2ndyr) and Augustine Kandawasvika (1styr), postulant Vitus Guta and Scholastics Patrick Makaka (2ndyr) and Ignatius Zvarevashe (1styr).
Later more staff arrived; in August Fr Michael Costello (New York Province), socius and prefect of studies, and in September Br Michael Bennett (Oregon Province), minister.
Jesuits in Zambia had a chance to inspect the new novitiate on 3 December, feast of St Francis Xavier when Xavier House hosted a celebration to mark the erection of the Vice-Province of Zambia, formed from the two Jesuit Missions of Lusaka and Chikuni. There is another jubilee on the horizon!
I returned to Rhodesia in January 1970 to complete my tertianship, and was replaced in Lusaka by Fr Mark Hackett, also due for tertianship.
There were further developments over the years. Two wings were added to the original building, providing a proper chapel and additional accommodation. Nigeria-Ghana established their own novitiate, as did Eastern Africa. Due partly to problems at the Zambia-Zimbabwe border and partly to encourage local vocations, Zimbabwe withdrew in 1978 and opened a novitiate in Waterfalls, Harare, but returned to Lusaka in 1983.
There have been several changes in staff over the years, with Zambia usually providing the novice master and Zimbabwe the socius. The longest-serving member of staff is undoubtedly Br Joseph Rovtar who supervised house and gardens for well over a decade.
Much has been achieved over the last fifty years. Most of the younger Jesuits in the Zambia-Malawi Province and the Zimbabwe-Mozambique Province received their initial formation at Xavier House. The next fifty years will no doubt involve further changes as Xavier House responds to new challenges facing the Society in Southern Africa.
Indeed, the changes have already begun. In 2017, as part of the restructuring process, Xavier House was established as the joint novitiate of the Southern African provinces and region. Fr Virgilio Costa was appointed director of novices and the first novices from Mozambique arrived.