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Moving in a sea of love in South Africa

Earlier this year, Mill Hill Missionary, Fr John Doran, spoke with Missio Scotland’s Communications Officer, Gerard Gough, in depth about his life and time spent on mission. Continuing on the latter theme, Fr John talks to us a little more about his time in South Africa.

IN 1973, Fr John Doran, along with 11 other men, were ordained missionary priests for St Joseph’s Foreign Missionary Society—seven Englishmen, three from Tyrol (Austria-Italian border area), one from Ireland and one from the Netherlands. Four were sent to Malaysia (Borneo), two to the Philippines, two to Pakistan, two to East Africa and two to West Africa (Cameroon).

“Today, two are in England, one in Pakistan, one in the Netherlands, one in Kenya, one in Tyrol and I’m here in Scotland!” Fr John said. “Five, please God, are in Heaven.”

Before their ordination, the men were told that they could write the names of three countries they’d like to be sent to, if possible, and the Superior General would try and send them to one of them. Fr John, initially, was reluctant to be sent to Africa.

“All of my classmates wrote ‘anywhere’ on their paper,” Fr John explained. “I didn’t. I wrote ‘anywhere, but I think I’d prefer to go to Asia rather than Africa.’ I was subsequently sent to the Philippines.

“Why did I write that you might ask? Well one reason was that an old missionary had recently told us: ‘If you go to Africa, you are treated as a god. If you go to Asia, you are treated as a fool!’ Perhaps I thought it was safer to be treated as a fool.”

Africa calls… eventually!

In 2004—after many years spent on mission in the Philippines and the Falkland Islands— Fr John decided to head for Africa, volunteering to go to the Sudan. The Superior General and his Council, however, decided not to send him, given his age, the difficulty of the languages and, as he joked, his ‘fair complexion that would have to cope with the burning sun!’

They did, however, say that he could go to their new mission in South Africa (above) to join three young East African Mill Hill Missionaries based almost 100 miles north of Kroonstad.

“I take my hat off to our pioneers who opened our South African mission some 25 years ago,” Fr John said. “Three men—James, Ephraim and Omollo—welcomed me when I arrived and helped me find my feet.

“After four months trying to learn some basic Sesotho—the local African language—I was sent to St Daniel’s parish in Viljoenskroon to assist the elderly Dutch Dominican parish priest who was a wise and holy man. Three months later, he left for an active semi-retirement and I found myself the new parish priest of four communities with three churches and a borrowed Methodist chapel, as well as two presbyteries and one house we rented out.

“Two of the parishes were African and African speaking (Sesotho). Two, much smaller, were town parishes, English-speaking and attended by mainly white people. Most white people in this part of South Africa speak Afrikaans, an old form of Dutch with some other words thrown in. To my surprise I found I could follow a lot of it, partly because of the time spent in the Mill Hill College in the Netherlands as a student.

“My job was obviously to be the parish priest, but soon after, I was given other jobs! Our diocese was the size of Belgium and we had less than two dozen priests, only five of whom were locals. So, everyone had more than one parish and everyone had one or two diocesan jobs too. I became part of the bishop’s vocation team. In time I also became chaplain to the knights—similar to the Knights of St Columba—and then the diocesan chaplain to the ‘Men of St Joseph.’ Once every month, I celebrated Mass in the women’s prison in Kroonstad too.”

Spirit, support and successes

Fr John fondly recalled the vibrancy of parish life in South Africa, the help he received from both lay and religious and the success stories during his time there, which included building churches, schools and helping to contribute to the end of the Apartheid regime.

“Our parishes were so active and full of life with youth groups, servers, choirs, men’s groups, women’s confraternities, Sunday schools, adult classes, Eucharistic ministers helping to take Holy Communion to the sick, ministers of ‘priestless services’ and so much more,” he said. “Parish councils and finance committees were normal too, although they sometimes resembled the Handforth Parish Council that made the news recently!

“Many of my parishioners were Basotho people, who are known as the ‘Singers of South Africa’—a hard won title! They were also great warriors and the only nation that the marauding Zulus couldn’t conquer in the 19th century. I had lots of help via an active set of parishioners—both black and white.

“In terms of priests and religious, three Franciscan Sisters came and built a nursery school for more than 200 children of all denominations and none. They did great work in the parishes as well. I had, at different times, three priests with me too. Apart from Fr Peter—who was there when I arrived—I had Fr John (RIP), a local priest, Fr Emmanuel, a Mill Hill Missionary from Cameroon and Fr Gabriel, a Mill Hill Missionary from Kenya. I had four Mill Hill students for two years—three from Uganda and one from India. All four are now priests working in Borneo or East Africa. I had four local students for six months each. Three are now diocesan priests and the fourth, a Salesian, is still training. I’m lucky to have had two great bishops too—Bishop Stephen Brislin, of Scots and Irish descent and Bishop Peter Haliday, of English descent.

“I spent 13 years in South Africa and before I left, we were able to build a chapel—which was named Holy Family—in Bothaville to replace the Methodist one. Perhaps our biggest contribution—and challenge—though was to live and work together in a country still trying to recover from years of racial discord and oppression. Christianity, sport—football, cricket and rugby—helped to break down barriers between the races and to see Africans, Asians and Europeans living and working together spoke volumes.”

Challenges and continuity

Having touched on the challenges, Fr John spoke about some of the difficult situations that he faced, which weren’t related to the previous supremacist government, but rather concerns over the climate.

“A priest—perhaps especially a missionary priest—lives and moves in a sea of love,” he said. “That said, we are not cushioned from the traumas of modern life, including the climate crisis. In my time there, the weather changed dramatically. It became drier and hotter. There was less thunder and lightning. There was a shorter rainy season with warmer winters. There were poorer crops, thinner cattle and less water, which were grave concerns.”

Fr John also touched on something that is pivotal to every single missionary who spends time on their mission, namely growing the Church in a country or territory so that it can be handed over to native priests and religious.

“While I was on mission in South Africa, four of my parishioners: Vincent (RIP), Edward, Thabo and Wellington were ordained priests,” he said. “Young men like these take over from missionaries who work themselves out of a job, but that’s the idea! Bishop Walsh, the American Maryknoll Missionary to China, once said: “A missionary is a man who goes to a place where he is needed, but not wanted and stays until he is wanted, but not needed! And was I treated like a god? Mercifully not, thank God!”

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