Roman Catholicism in Liberia
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At the beginning of the 20th century, the Americo-Liberian settlers were to be found on the seacoast and at the mouths of the two most important rivers. Of the native tribes the principal are the Veys, the Pessehs, the Barlines, the Bassas, the Kru, the Grebo, and the Mandingos. Outside of the negroes of American origin not many Liberians were Christians. The converts came chiefly from the Kru and the Grebo. Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterians, and Episcopalian missions had been established in the country for many years with scant results at the beginning of the 19th century.
First American mission to Liberia
As a number of the first American colonists were Catholic negroes from Maryland and the adjoining states, they eventually caught the attention of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the second Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1833 undertook to meet the difficulty of sending missionaries to serve the local faithful. In accordance with the measures taken, Rev. Edward Barron, Vicar-General of Philadelphia, Rev. John Kelly of New York, and Denis Pindar, a lay catechist from Baltimore, volunteered for the mission and sailed for Africa from Baltimore on 2 December 1841. They arrived there safe and Father Barron said the first Mass at Cape Palmas on 10 February 1842. After a time, finding that he did not receive missionaries enough to accomplish anything practical, Father Barron returned to the United States, and thence went to Rome where he was made on 22 January 1842, Vicar Apostolic of the Two Guineas, and titular Bishop of Constantia.
Missionary takeover of religious congregations
With seven priests of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost he returned to Liberia, arriving at Cape Palmas on 30 November 1843. Five of these priests died on the mission of fever, to which Denis Pindar, the lay catechist, also fell a victim, 1 January 1844. Bishop Barron and Father Kelly held out for two years, and then, wasted by fever, they determined to return to the United States, feeling that it was impossible to withstand the climate any longer. Bishop Barron died of yellow fever during an epidemic at Savannah, Georgia, 12 September 1854, Father Kelly died at Jersey City, New Jersey, 28 April 1866.
The Fathers of the Holy Ghost, who took up the work, were also forced by the climate to abandon it in a couple of years, and the permanent mission lapsed until 25 February 1884. The Fathers of Montfort (Company of Mary), under Fathers Blanchet and Lorber, then laid the foundation of another mission at Monrovia. The President of the Republic, Mr. Johnson, and the people generally gave them a cordial welcome, because of its emphasis on providing a through education, but the sectarian ministers organized a cabal against them, and endeavoured to thwart all their efforts to spread the Catholic faith. They made some progress in spite of this, and in the following year, having received reinforcements from France, opened a school for boys and extended their operations into other places. Father Bourzeix learned the native language, in which he compiled a catechism and translated a number of hymns. Deaths among the missionaries and the health of the others shattered by fever forced these priests also to abandon the Liberia mission. After this it was visited occasionally by missionaries from Sierra Leone until 1906, when Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples handed its care over to the Society of African Missions from Lyon, and three Irish priests, Fathers Stephen Kyne, Joseph Butler, and Dennis O'Sullivan, with two French assistants, continued to work among the 2800 Catholics the vicariate was estimated to contain in 1910.
Diplomatic relationships between the Vatican and Liberia were established in 1927, celebrated by a spectacular and massive march through the streets of Monrovia on the feast of Christ the King, which subsequently boosted registration in Catholic schools and a lasting foundation of Catholicism.
Outspokenness during the dictatorships
Under the dictatorships of William Tubman up to Samuel Doe, the Catholic Church continued its work in education and with the poor, as well as using its voice to denounce abuses and corruption under the different dictatorial regimes. The Catholic Church was seen as more trustworthy than other churches because its peculiar mode of financing and hierarchy did not leave it at the government's mercy. Its financing came "predominantly from giant German agencies which would simply cease contributing if previous grants were not scrupulously accounted for." Because of the fact that it did not include high-ranking government officials, and because of the Catholic episcopal authority (prelates were not elected for just a few years), the Church benefited from a great freedom of expression, which it used wisely to denounce the government when necessary, using "machinery for public comment on national issues" with the Lenten or Advent Pastoral Letters. Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis in his first letter written in 1977, denounced corruption in these words:
"It is not too late to stop this ugly trend of corruption in our country. We are proud to call ourselves Christian, but can we honestly do so if corrupt practices are the normal things in our lives?"
— First Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Francis, 1977
The Catholic Church also used its voice to condemn the systematic recourse to violence for political ends in Liberia. For instance, after Samuel Doe's coup in 1980, the Catholic Bishops were quick in bringing out a statement on "The Liberian Situation", emphasizing the role of the Church in the country's political life, "without usurping the role of the State and without favouring any party." The bishops reminded the State of its duty to protect and not breach the citizens' rights. The statement declared that:
— Catholic Bishops Pastoral Letter on "The Liberian Situation", 1980
Civil war and aftermath
During the civil war, many churches and religious centers were used as shelters. Priests and religious were also the target of violence and many were killed. The Catholic Church in Liberia has on many occasions renewed its appeal for a War Crimes Court to be set up, "in an effort to enhance the justice system against individuals who commit atrocities against Liberians", as reconciliation must come with justice.
Involvement in the fight against AIDS
The Catholic Church has been committed since the beginning to the care of those affected by AIDS and the prevention of the spread of the disease. Recently, as part of its effort "to complement government and global efforts to create an increase awareness on the prevention of the HIV and AIDS pandemic", the Catholic Heath Secretariat of the Diocese of Gbarnga in Liberia has renewed its commitment and perseverance by organizing "intense HIV/AIDs awareness and sensitization campaigns in Bong County".
- Country information on Liberia. Catholic Hierarchy. Obtained 30-06-09.
- "Liberia". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- Burrowes, Carl Patrick. Power and press freedom in Liberia, 1830–1970: the impact of globalization and civil society on media-government relations, p. 130. Africa World Press, 2004. ISBN 1-59221-294-8
- Cited in Gifford, Paul. Christianity and politics in Doe's Liberia, p. 56. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-52010-X
- Cited in Gifford, Paul. Christianity and politics in Doe's Liberia, pp. 72–73. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-52010-X
- US Embassy Remembers Five Slain Catholic Nuns, Church Wants War Crimes Court In Liberia. The Informer (Monrovia). 16-07-2008. Obtained 31-06-09.
- Toe, Jerome. Catholic Prelate Calls For War Crimes Court. The Informer (Monrovia). 16-07-2008. Obtained 30-06-09.
- Liberia: Catholic Church Intensifies Crusade On HIV/Aids in Bong. The Informer (Monrovia). 19-06-2009. Obtained 30-06-09.