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Our history in Africa

Jesuit history in Africa goes as far back as the history of the Society of Jesus itself. It also divides itself fairly neatly into two periods: before the suppression of the Jesuits (1541-1759) and after the formal restoration of the order (1848 to the present).

During these periods, Jesuits have been intermittently present in various parts of Africa, preaching, baptizing, building churches and schools, running farms, transacting business, mediating politics and doing a variety of other works, just as has been their custom elsewhere in the world.

Francis Xavier


A history of exploration
The first Jesuit contact with Africa was made in 1541 when Francis Xavier, Micer Paulo Camerino and Francisco Mancillhas had an extended sojourn on the island of Mozambique while on their way to India. More permanent missions were opened in Algeria, Congo and Angola in 1548.

After 1561, the Congo-Angola mission, which was championed by Portuguese Jesuits, expanded significantly and counted among its works several churches and schools. Their "Church of Jesus" in Luanda was then recognized as the largest concrete structure in the southern hemisphere, and their schools passed on an education whose traces 19th century travelers could still find.

oxfordhb 9780199935420 e 56 graphic 003 full   Photo: A 2014 painting of the seventeenth-century Church of Jesus in Luanda, Angola (by Martin Waweru Kamau, SJ)

The Mozambique-Zimbabwe region also received Jesuits fairly early. Gonçalo da Silveira (1526-61), a Portuguese Jesuit, is still recognized as the first European of whom detailed and accurate knowledge exists, who penetrated the interior of this vast region. Silveira was martyred in the Monomotapa Kingdom in 1561, but later on the Jesuits founded another mission that lasted there for close to two centuries.

Another African region that saw a concerted Jesuit effort towards evangelization was around today's Ethiopia. In the early period, the Jesuits lasted in this fabled land of Prester John from 1555 to 1632, holding on to a mission that stood precariously against opposition from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Spanish Jesuit Pedro Páez (1564-1622) stands out as the main protagonist of this mission and is recognized as the first European to see and describe the sources of the Blue Nile.


Evangilisation and Martyrdom
This early Ethiopian Jesuit mission ended rather disastrously with the killing of eight Jesuits after Emperor Fasilidas had proscribed Catholicism and expelled the Jesuits. The missions in Angola and Mozambique continued to hold on until 1759 when Jesuits were expelled from Portugal and all her oversees dominions
The expulsion from Portugal ushered in a series of local expulsions, which culminated in the papal suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773. The Society was restored back to formal existence in the whole Church in 1814, making it possible for Jesuits to return to Africa eighteen years later.
Opening this second period the French Jesuits reached Madagascar in 1832, although political intrigue rendered their initial attempts fruitless. In 1840, another French mission was sent to Algeria where an orphanage was opened. A more international group of Jesuits took part in a mission of the Holy See to the Sudan, where they first arrived in 1848. For a brief moment, a Polish Jesuit, Fr. Maksymillian Ryłło (1802-48), became the mission's pro-vicar apostolic. On another front, Queen Isabella of Spain invited the Jesuits to move to her newly acquired Island of Fernando Po in 1858. A Jesuit mission was opened there and lasted for fourteen years.

Besides the smaller missions mentioned above, other 19th century efforts in Madagascar, southern Africa, Congo and Egypt survived then and have lasted to our day. From 1855, the local situation in Madagascar was slightly more favourable to Christian evangelization. The Jesuits took advantage of this development, although their missionary advance was constantly being checked by political intrigue. It was, indeed, politics that led to the martyrdom of Fr. Jacques Berthieu (1838-96), who was declared a saint in 2012.

In southern Africa, the Jesuits responded to a local invitation and entered the region in 1875 to run St. Aidan's College in Grahamstown. These Jesuits were later entrusted with a territory that covered the whole of today's Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, Mozambique and parts of Botswana, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. Their efforts were then known as the Zambezi Mission. Following instructions from Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903), another mission opened in Egypt in 1879.

Jesuit presence grew fairly steadily both in Cairo and in Alexandria—two cities that hosted two Jesuit colleges in those early years. In 1893, Belgian Jesuits established a mission at Kwango in the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. This marked a return to the region the Jesuits had left in the 17th century and laid the foundation for a work that would contribute significantly to the re-establishment of the Catholic Church in the Congo.

The nineteenth century missions, together with several others that started in the twentieth century, have endured in one form or another and have given rise to a myriad of other activities in several new locations.

Text by Fr Festo Mkenda, Director of the Jesuit Historical Institute in Africa - http://www.jhia.ac.ke

Fr Festo Mkenda is also author of the recently published book Mission for Everyone: A story of the Jesuits in Eastern Africa (1555-2012) Click Here