Ireland - Remembering Ethiopian missionaries
Earlier this year Farther Kevin O’Mahony died in Ethiopia having spent almost sixty years there as a missionary priest and a member of the White Fathers in Adigrat. Because of our links with Ethiopia and with Father Kevin a number of Little Sisters attended a memorial Mass in the White Fathers Chapel in Templeogue, Dublin where his former Provincial talked about his sixty years on mission in Adigrat. It brought back memories of our mission in Edaga Hamus and the cries of the Ethiopian people in the 1980s
At a General Assembly in October 1984 we experienced a call to respond to those cries. Three of us were missioned in December that year and set out for Mekele where hundreds died every day in the famine camps. Together we recalled the words of Jeremiah: "When I go into the city, behold the diseases of Famine" Jer 14:18. However, we were not to remain in Mekele. The Bishop of Adigrat needed help in his diocese. His desire was that people should remain (or die) in their own homes rather than be gathered into camps.
To us it was ’A dry weary land without water’, a place where people travelled day and night for care and to find a response to their needs. We were welcomed by the Bishop of Adigrat, by Father Kevin and other priests from the seminary. They accompanied us during those difficult years when we were setting up a health-care clinic in Edaga Hamus, about twenty km from Adigrat. There was also support from experienced missionary sisters, notably the Daughters of Charity (Mekele) and the Good Shepherd Sisters (Addis).
For now, we wish to share a little of Father Kevin’s story, based on the homily delivered by Father Ian Buckmaster. Kevin was born in Manchester to Irish parents in 1930. Having completed secondary education, he entered the White Fathers in 1946 and was ordained in 1953. He studied philosophy in Rome and afterwards taught in Scotland. In 1966 he was sent to Ethiopia, as part of a pioneering team setting up a Senior Seminary in the town of Adigrat which had a small Catholic population of the Ethiopian Oriental Rite.
He spent a year in Rome studying in the Ethiopian College after which he commenced teaching in the seminary. Apart from six years as Provincial from 1994 – 2000 this was his life’s mission. He arrived during the reign of Haile Selassie, who was overthrown in 1974. The Emperor’s rule was replaced by a communist regime that was extremely brutal and which openly supported by the Soviet Union. In the 1980’s Ethiopia, struck by a series of famines, was at the same time enmeshed in a civil war which added to the miserable conditions of the people. In 1991 the regime collapsed and the new government was composed mostly of people from the north (TPLF). Eritrea became independent in 1993 which meant that Ethiopia became a landlocked country.
Whereas our sisters lived in Ethiopia only during that last decade (1984-95) Father Kevin had lived through earlier and later times. He had become very integrated into the Ethiopian culture. As well as being a philosopher, he was a historian who loved to research local history and traditions. He was not impressed when in 1969 the Inter-Nuncio to Ethiopia consecrated the new Adigrat Cathedral in the Latin rite, something he felt was very insensitive to local Catholics of the Oriental rite.
He worked tirelessly to maintain friendly contacts with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and he was completely fascinated by all aspects of Christian heritage, local politics and culture. He loved the Ethiopian people. He also had to work as an NGO (non-Governmental Organization) in helping the diocese to cope with the enormous number of refugees who (arrived in) came to the diocese looking for help during periods of violence and famine. He wrote many letters to Aid Organisations and featured on TV and radio programmes during the 1984 famine. In a sense he was a precursor of Bob Geldof (Live Aid)
Kevin lived through very difficult times. He could rarely return to his family – now living in Ireland – because getting back into Ethiopia again involved long journeys by night through Sudan. Bombing and shelling were traumatic and dealing with the realities of hunger and poverty among his beloved Ethiopian people was a source of deep suffering. He died in January 2015 after a short illness and was buried in Adigrat according to the Ethiopian rite.
Those of us who knew the White Fathers in Adigrat wish to remember and respect their missionary commitment, particularly in the person of Father Kevin. We shared those very difficult times during the eighties and some of us also travelled those dangerous routes through Sudan. Having lived and suffered with the people through famine and political upheaval we also want to give thanks for our mission as LSA and the gift it was for us.
As we look at the images of refugees fleeing war-stricken countries we are reminded of the thousands of people who died in war-torn Ethiopia. In our time there during famine years, we lived, shared life, prayed and worked with Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics and other religions. We were struck by the way different religious co-existed peacefully, and respected one another. We think of our world today and the crises in Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and other countries where our sisters and brothers are being persecuted and tortured. We know that these situations are complex and require courageous and committed responses. But, as Pope Francis reminds us, each human being caught up in the conflict has a face and a name. We appreciate the grace of bearing witness to the quiet dignity of the Ethiopian people who knew deep sorrow and carried it with an equally deep faith. And we give thanks for all those who contribute even in some small way towards solutions and relief for our suffering fellow human beings.
As we celebrate one hundred and fifty years of LSA mission, we wish to remember our mission in Ethiopia which, in 1995, we handed over to the Daughters of St Ana, a native Congregation – just twenty years ago. The mission, which is bigger than us, will continue.
In July 1985 the musician Bob Geldof organised a concert that brought together artists from the pop-rock scene and which was broadcast throughout the world to collect funds for Ethiopia.
Srs Marie McAuliffe et Teresa Maher (LSA) – Dublin