Project Canterbury

Within the Green Wall
The Story of Holy Cross Liberia Mission 1922-1957

By the Rt. Rev. Robert Erskine Campbell, O.H.C.
Formerly Prior of Bolahun and Bishop of Liberia

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, [1957]

Reproduced online by permission of the Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross, 2006.

Chapter 5. Our Adventure Begins

HOW THEN did the Holy Cross Liberian Mission come into being? The late Father Hughson was the Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross when a special meeting of Chapter was held at the Mother House in West Park on Easter Monday, March 28, 1921. He and his brethren felt that the time had come for the Order to enter some foreign field. For forty years we had been quite busy with work in the United States, having opened St. Andrew's School for mountain boys in Tennessee in 1905 and Kent School in Connecticut the next year. That was in addition to a very full schedule of retreats and parochial missions in all parts of the country. At last it did seem as though God had blessed us with enough men and resources to offer our services for labor in some distant land. Chapter passed a resolution which reads in part: "Naturally a Religious Order would seek admission to the most neglected part of God's vineyard." This resolution was implemented by requesting the Superior to write various missionary bishops as to possible openings. Very [36/37] wisely in his query Father Hughson asked pointedly whether our services would be wanted at all.

A prompt, most enthusiastic reply came from the Rt. Rev. Walter Henry Overs, the Bishop of Liberia, who just happened to be in the States collecting men and money for his diocese. He sensed in our offer the answer to his prayers for an opportunity to evangelize the untouched thousands in the hinterland. From the very outset it was clearly understood that we offered ourselves as volunteer workers, and that we would finance the entire project ourselves. This meant that while we would be directly under the bishop's jurisdiction we would make no claim upon the general mission funds of the Church as administered by the National Council in New York. This scheme of our going out as volunteer missionaries gave rise later to considerable comment, even though in years past there had been many such, and in the Liberian field at that. Perhaps the most notable example of these in recent years was Miss Margaretta Ridgely who with her friends in 1904 founded and supported the House of Bethany for girls at Cape Mount. That outstanding project is still flourishing, though now under the care of the National Council since her retirement in 1932.

In the "Holy Cross Magazine" for November 1921 we find the following passage: "What lies before us in Africa we are not even trying to divine. When we get there things will be as God wills them to be." The plan outlined in that same article was to send a party of seven men. Of these, three were to be professed Holy Cross Fathers who would be assisted by two secular priests and a doctor and a mechanic. They would all live together in the new "Holy Cross in Liberia" as Anglican Catholics called to a great adventure for God and Holy Church. The motto of St. Francis of Assisi was to furnish their inspiration:

"We have promised great things to God, but He has promised greater things to us." Money began coming in at once, for the imagination of Church folk on all sides was fired. This general [37/38] enthusiasm for the proposed work we had not expected, even as a pious farmer who falls on his knees to thank Cod for a sudden heavy shower after a parching drought. We got off thus to an encouraging start.

About that same time Bishop Overs determined to organize a scouting party to spy out the land, to explore the possibilities of inaugurating a "Christian Industrial Mission" as part of this advance into heathen territory. Since in Philadelphia there was also an earnest group prayerfully considering such a move as that made by Holy Cross, the Bishop selected the Rev. Father Barnett, Rector of St. Mark's, Manayunk, and as the official photographer the Rev. Father Hazzard of Wrightstown, Perina. Our Father Herbert Hawkins of the Holy Cross Order at that season was stationed at St. Peter's, Ripon, Wisconsin. By telegram he was summoned by the Father Superior to sail with Fr. Barnett and Fr. Hazzard on the BALTIC, leaving New York on January 14, 1922. After a few days spent in collecting supplies in Liverpool they set out thence January 25th on the famous old APPAM which was sunk during World War II. A ten-day sail brought them to the imposing harbor of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Thence they travelled by rail to Bo, an all-day journey on the little 2'6" guage line. They had to carry their own food and when in the afternoon tea was wanted they sent a boy up to the locomotive for the driver to fill the pot with hot water from the boiler.

At Bo they were joined by two priests from Cape Mount. The Rev. James Dwalu was a native of the Vai tribe, and the Rev. Elwood Haines headed the entire mission in the Cape Mount area as sort of Archdeacon without title. He was afterwards the Bishop of Iowa, and a splendid chief pastor he was. This party set out by train from Bo on February i7th, and that afternoon reached Pendembu, the railhead. There they remained long enough to collect the necessary porters for their loads to carry them into the unexplored hills farther to the east. Entering Liberia at Kabawana Customs they started their long trek [38/39] through a country and among a people who never had seen such an expedition in all their lives. Masambalahun they reached on Washington's Birthday, the 22nd of February, and Kolahun the next day. Father Hawkins records that in every town where they stopped they would tell Chief and people why they had come, not failing to inquire whether a mission station would be welcomed. The answers were all in the affirmative apparently, though sometimes more polite than convincing. The Paramount Chief Fofi of Masambalahun seems to have extended the most cordial invitation for the strangers to "sit down" in his jurisdiction. This they remembered when later reporting their findings to Bishop Overs in Monrovia.

Leaving Kolahun and Bandiland the explorers tramped eastward through the dense forests and over the high hills of the Buzi, or Lomas as they are properly called. Vezala, Vonjama, Zigita were visited. All are large, important towns. They visited Pandemai also, meeting with a cordial reception and being especially impressed, not merely by reason of the striking beauty of the scenery but the ready response of the people. Pandemai is an ancient war town which never has been captured, and lies adjacent to some spectacular densely wooded peaks to the south. Father Hawkins tells us: "In every place up to Zigita we held services and spoke to the people through an interpreter or interpreters, telling them the purpose of our coming and trying to find out from them what support they would give to such an enterprise. After leaving Zigita our whole purpose seemed to be to 'get to Monrovia,' very few questions being asked or information sought." In Monrovia they arrived on March 22nd, quite happy though weary from their long walk.

When they made their report to Bishop Overs, Father Barnett asked to be sent to Pandemai because three native houses stood there ready for the large group of workers he was expecting to import from Philadelphia. So it was that Father Dwalu was dispatched at once to Pandemai to "hold the fort" till Father [39/40] Barnett and his companions could come. Be it said to the lasting praise of Father Dwalu that he held on for nearly twenty years, for the expected missionaries never materialized. After Father Dwalu's retirement and death Pandemai was placed under the care of Holy Cross Mission, which now maintains there an elementary school together with a teacher and a native evangelist, a one-armed man named John Juma.

Good Bishop Overs must have been in an expansive mood when he assigned to Holy Cross "not five towns but five nations." Bandi Kisi, Mende and Loma we have been able to locate; but just where the other one lies we have found ourselves somewhat vague unless it is the Madingoes. So, when Fr. Hawkins returned to Masambalahun early in April after his long scouting trip we may say that the work was actually begun. From Monrovia Father sent carpenters, sawyers and some building supplies to travel overland. He himself took ship to Freetown to establish necessary banking and business contacts and to procure equipment for a longer residence in the bush.

As a preliminary step it seemed advisable to ascertain definitely and officially how the chiefs and people really felt about the establishment of a Christian mission in their territory. Under the chairmanship of the Liberian District Commissioner, Mr. Ledlam, they assembled at Kolahun. Present, along with many others, was Fofi, the Paramount Chief residing in Masambalahun who first had invited us to open a mission station with school within his jurisdiction. There also stood Njave Manjo, who, as Speaker for the Bandis, occupied a post more like what we call Attorney General for the tribe. After consulting together for several days, and with answers from Father Hawkins to their many questions, they all agreed to support Fofi and welcome us in their midst. That happened on Tuesday, May 2nd, the feast of St. Athanasius of Alexandria, in honor of whom our monastery is named.

[41] Back in Foil's town again, Father Hawkins took immediate steps for building. He had been granted the then uninhabited bit of jungle known as the site of Mbola's town, destroyed along with many another village during the war of 1910. In Masambalahun Foil assigned two mud huts to Father for a temporary residence. In one of these on Sunday, May 7th, being the third Sunday after Easter, Father Hawkins celebrated what was almost certainly the first Mass in Bandiland. The site of the old Bolahun was brushed and cleared of elephant grass and scrub growth, the larger trees being left standing, notably several giant cotton- woods and a few others unknown by name. With the help of laborers, poles and other materials for a country house of mud walls were gradually assembled. From Monrovia the sawyers and carpenters arrived May 14th, and the way seemed clear for a steady bit of construction and the early opening of our work. Thus far all was going smoothly.

But early opening there was not to be. In Monrovia the responsible officials had evidently been misinformed about us. They did not know us, and could only imagine what tricks we might stage, for the Bandis had been in revolt not so many years before, and Fr. Hawkins had failed (on Bp. Overs' advice) to obtain permits and formal sanction from the authorities to open a new mission station. Years later we learned that our settling so near to the English border to the west and French Guinea to the north, and our going and coming through Sierra Leone, raised a strong suspicion that we might be bent on mischief. Hence, it is quite understandable that an order was sent to Father Hawkins through the District Commissioner that all operations were to cease at once and that Father Hawkins must leave the country. That was early in July. Father Hawkins set out for Monrovia promptly to explain the situation and clear up any possible misapprehensions as to the Order of the Holy Cross and our intentions for work in the Liberian Hinterland. His Excellency, President Charles D. B. King, most courteously [41/42] attended to the matter personally when Fr. Hawkins had interviewed him, and on August 4th issued the necessary permits for our residence and the establishment of the new mission station.

Thus far Father Hawkins had been quite alone and had bravely faced the many delays and trials of a complete stranger in a foreign land. But in September reinforcements came in the persons of Father Campbell, the first Prior, and Mr. Harold Manley, a veteran of World War I and a most competent architect and builder. They landed in Freetown September 16th from the same APPAM which had brought Father Hawkins and his companions several months previously; and if Father Hawkins had not been on hand to meet them and see them through customs with all the boxes of supplies they brought, it would have been a difficult day for the new arrivals. Neither Fr. Campbell nor Mr. Manley had ever been to Africa before, so where to go and what to do would have been a vexing problem. Fr. Hawkins arranged promptly for the luggage to pass through Sierra Leone in transit and unopened, thanks to the courtesy of the Customs Officials. Only our personal bags and trunks were opened for inspection. With a caravan of porters toting our personal effects on their heads we then made our way to the George Hotel up on Charlotte Street--at that time the very best Freetown had to offer, bleak as it was. Father Hawkins advised Fr. Campbell to repair to Monrovia at once to obtain the necessary permits before attempting to go on up country. This very thing he and Mr. Manley did promptly, taking a cargo steamer then lying in port, and in Monrovia were received by the various officials with courtesy. They experienced no difficulties whatever, thanks to the kind offices of an old schoolmate of Fr. Campbell's, Mr. Sidney de la Rue, the Financial Adviser from the United States.

Back once more in Freetown, the mission party set out early on the morning of September 27th in the "Pendembu Express." In leisurely fashion (why should aristocrats be hurried?) this [42/43] little train wound around the northern side of the Sierra Leone peaks. Stopping at every halt, the train crew would alight to pass the time of day with friends and acquaintances, and women and children would walk up and down in front of the car windows selling oranges, bananas and goodies of various sorts for the passengers to buy. The natives were gaily clad in Manchester prints of many colors, all chattering in tongues unknown to the travellers. After a while, above all the hubbub of hucksters calling their wares, there would be a bell rung by the guard, the locomotive would emit a shrill whistle after it had finished its needed drink of water, and off we would go to the next stop. We entered bush, ever more bush, especially after we had left what is known technically as the "colony," and had gotten in the protectorate, where native laws and customs hold. Towns became more and more widely spaced as we travelled ever to the eastward that day. In the afternoon we began to climb up to the plateau, nearly 1,000 feet. At times, from our decreasing speed and the almost human groans and labored puffing of the overworked little engine, we feared it could not make the grade. But it did, even though leaving us covered with dust and cinders. Thus in a great cloud of dust we rolled into Bo.

Just a few steps across the road from the depot stands the Government Rest House set up on concrete stilts but with no furniture whatever within. Here Father Campbell and Mr. Manley had their first experience of setting up cots and mosquito nets, diving into chop boxes to find the food for dinner, lighting kerosene lanterns and taking a much-needed though very sketchy bath. Having brought no chairs with us, we had to sit about on our steel trunks and perform comical acrobatics balancing on our knees our cups and plates as best we could. At any rate, we took it all in stride amid a merry chatter and many a hearty laugh.

Both we and our train slept in Bo that night, but as we moved on to Pendembu the next day we could not but note the wilder, [43/44] more rugged country, as well as the longer run between towns. The British military post at Daru, established as a precautionary measure after the Mende uprising in 1898, excited our interest, for many well-mannered African soldiers and their white officers stood on the platform. That was the last station before our destination--Pendembu, a journey of one hour and the end of the railway. Were we excited? Of course we were, for the novelty of the scenes and experiences thrilled us. We had no time to speculate "what next?"

The British District Commissioner, Mr. N. C. Hollins, we found absent from Pendembu on official business, but his native clerk met us and conducted us to the rest house not too far distant. Here we met another "first." The rest house was an oblong mud house with a thatch roof, quite cool and comfortable. The breezeway between the enclosed rooms served as our dining room, supplying also a cool place in which to sit. Here it was that we spent a pleasant week end, even though amidst strange surroundings. Yet it was fortunate that we had the time for organizing ourselves and our baggage. We had to prepare for the four-day trek to Masambalahun, a journey not to be undertaken lightly. We had to check on such minor items as bread, matches and kerosene, For Pendembu was the last outpost where anything of the sort could be obtained. Thus by Monday morning all seemed ready and off we marked into what Father Hughson has called so aptly "The Green Wall of Mystery."

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