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 9. More Buildings

BY 1927 the mission had been operating for five years. Two years previously Father Campbell, the first Prior, had been consecrated the sixth Bishop of Liberia in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The mission work was expanding rapidly. Father Hughson, Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross at that time, made an official visitation during October, bringing with him the Rev. Harvey Simmonds to join the staff. The arrival of Father Simmonds supplied a mighty boost to the building operations so much needed just then if the mission were to carry on effectively. We must keep in mind that this big "building boom," all necessary, occupied the full time of the entire staff so long as Father Gorham was the Prior. But in the entire operation his right-hand man was Father Simmonds, that marvel of even temper and efficiency. By June the hospital fabric was completed, wails being constructed of home made brick fired right here on the place. Houses for the growing staff, both African and foreign, had to be provided. The [87/88] fact is, we might label the first ten years ('22-'32) as the period of constructing the basic material fabric of the mission. As we noted previously, when we first moved in there was nothing in sight but tropical jungle. Adequate housing had become an imperative "must."

But not to get ahead of our own story, the early weeks of '27 brought two unexpected though none the less welcome visitors, the Rev. Artley B. Parson and his wife from New York. Mr. Parson was then the Assistant Foreign Secretary at the Church Missions House on Fourth Avenue, and was in Liberia anyway inspecting the Church's efforts towards the organizing of an African Church under the leadership of Bishop Campbell in Monrovia. As Bolahun would play an important part in such an ecclesiastical organization, it was but fitting that he should wish to see what might be here, what contribution the mission might make. He told us afterward that not only was the mission outstanding, but the most worth while work which the Order of the Holy Cross had. Visits by high officials from home come as rare happenings, and naturally this particular one encouraged us mightily. To have such objective, impartial praise from one who is in a position to judge made us realize that Cod had guided us aright.

Then in March there came the great event so long awaited, for Bishop Campbell arrived for his first official visitation, the first Bishop ever to come to Bandiland. It was just like old home week, with chiefs and people from far and near converging on Bolahun to pay their respects to an old friend and to offer gifts "to say How-do." On a Sunday towards the last of the month the Bishop administered the Sacrament of Confirmation to no less than 48 persons, mostly men and boys. On either side of his chair before the altar sat two large country baskets in which those being confirmed were to deposit their offerings, for Father Whittemore had told the class that they should have something with which to "say thank-you" to God. Rice, cloth, [88/89] plantains, iron "Kisi pennies" appeared in considerable quantities, not to mention two live turtles. The next day it came to light that some school boy with the best of intentions but in defiance of the eighth commandment had stolen these last from Dr. Maass' collection! But despite this untoward happening that was a lovely service; the Bishop seated, wearing the traditional cope and mitre, was surrounded by his attendants, and all in the soft glow of the altar candles, the only light in church. There knelt the eager class, many of them baptized by the Bishop himself while Prior. Behind these stood the jam-packed congregation, all trying to look devout but just popping with curiosity. All was most silent when the candidates were led two by two by their sponsors for the Bishop to seal them with the chrism and laying his hand on each head to recite those solemn words of the confirmation liturgy, "Defend, O Lord, this thy child." By special license the class had made a corporate communion at Mass that morning, their first, and so were now admitted as full members in the company of the elect, members sealed into God's family.

But this is far from the end of the story, for the clock did not stop with the visit of the diocesan. About six miles to the southeast on the farther side of the Kaiha River lies Boawohun, an important town, quite ancient as antiquity goes in this country. There in the month of May Father Gorham established our second outstation under the dedication of St. Lawrence. The people were eager for the Christian Gospel. They built a compound for us of native construction, into which William Morlu, our earliest convert, moved as catechist and evangelist. Just as a word of explanation, an evangelist is an unordained preacher, while a catechist is one who holds classes of instruction for the neophytes. It is worthy of note that some of our most faithful Christians have come from Boawohun, among them Zachariah Kpoto, who gave up his training as a native "medicine doctor" in the bush school to accept Holy Baptism and later to develop [89/90] into a most loyal, effective evangelist. Yet, as can happen in any missionary venture, because of Moslem infiltration and the fact that under a new chief of that persuasion interest had flagged, this station has had to be relinquished. The Christians had moved elsewhere and Moslems are utterly indifferent to Christian faith and morals. Some indeed have called them unconvertible, though we do not agree with any such sweeping condemnation.

By the end of this year ('27) the first flush of excitement and success had worn off, not unlike the shiny luster of a once-new car. Everything was running smoothly, but the seamy, shabby side of the people became more clearly understood. With missions the whole world 'round the story is almost identical, illustrating the ancient law of physics that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction. We had experienced the thrill of the beckoning scene such as might come to one trying to scale a mighty mountain. Sooner or later the descent must be made to the gloomy chasms in the valley below. The fact stands that the entire staff became dissatisfied with results and quite apprehensive of the future welfare of the work. They sent a cable to the Father Superior in America recommending that the mission because of specific failures be closed. In this Father Gorham, Father Allen, Brother John Flagg, who had just arrived, and Father Simmonds concurred unanimously. Within a few days, from West Park, they received the brief word, "Consult the Bishop." Fortunately Bishop Campbell happened to be in Monrovia at the time, and of course he would not for a minute consent to the collapse of so strategic an outpost in his diocese. He cabled both the Father Superior and Father Gorham his immediate decision. The mission must go on, for even in Africa there are alternate cloud and sunshine. The mission staff accepted this decision generously and gladly, be it said to the lasting credit of all concerned.

We have noted that our first decade at Bolahun was occupied [90/91] principally in the building of the plant. It was no small matter to coördinate the gangs of laborers, sawyers and carpenters. Every nail, every hinge, every hook had to be carried from Pendembu, 60 miles away, and on the heads of porters. We set up many native style buildings of sticks and thatch. But termites are quite fond of the poles to eat, driving rains melt the mud walls, and unless a smoky fire inside the house burns night and day the thatch rots and becomes leaky. Hence it became increasingly obvious that nothing but substantial buildings with metal roofs would do. St. Marys' Church was one such, together with the monastery and the main hospital buildings.

We thought that the monastery could be counted as fairly permanent, but alas for the plans of mice and men! Early in '28 the voracious appetites of the termites began to appear. These "bug-a-bugs" thrive always in a dark, cool place; and that certainly was St. Athanasius'. Imagine our consternation when floors began to sag and walls to crumble as a visible result of those sneaking hordes boring from within. It took their persistent armies five years, but as with Wellington at Waterloo, their last victory was their greatest. Unless the house should crash down over their heads, the Fathers had to move.

Thus it came to pass that a high hill about half a mile to the southeast was chosen as the location for the new home for the Holy Cross Fathers. Clearing the hilltop of brush and trees began on the 28th of April, in the process of which some graves were discovered, graves of persons quite unknown. Father Whittemore was advised to send for a native medicine doctor to move the bones, for he alone would know how to "lay the ghost." This was in deference to local feelings in the matter, for of course we had no fears, though the surrounding neighbors might easily be scandalized. Part of the fee for performing this delicate transfer of skeletons to other graves was one pound sterling and a bottle of kerosene. By mistake Father Whittemore gave the medicine man a bottle of our precious communion [91/92] wine, so the next day almost literally licking his chops this old humbug returned asking for more kerosene!

Then Father Simmonds took over. The plans, size and general appearance were to approximate those of our old "Noah's Ark," but with construction known as pisé de terre--pounded mud walls set in forms till dry. It proved to be a task of herculean proportions, but by March '29, after weeks and months of camping out wherever room could be found, the Fathers moved into their new home, amid great rejoicing of course. We nearly forgot to mention that one of the houses used by the missionaries while their new home was abuilding was a smallish frame structure covered with a corrugated iron roof which Father Simmonds had erected for his own use. It supplies lasting credit to his workmanship that after nearly thirty years of hard, constant use both that and the new monastery are still in good condition, despite sun, rain and termites. An added improvement was covering the earthen floors of the monastery with concrete.

Just then we were experiencing acute growing pains, for the ever expanding work brought fresh complications. The school had long since been bursting at the seams with boys huddled in cramped quarters. The hospital had become famous almost overnight. Dr. Maass' skill attracted such throngs of sufferers that single-handed he could not find either time or strength to cope with them. Even after Drs. Korth and Germann came from Germany to help him for a while, the medical staff still found itself nearly swamped. For convalescents and their attending relatives we built a native village called Kisitown within easy walking distance of the hospital. Another headache which plagued both the doctors and us was to make the patients go home after they had been cured. They liked Bolahun and had no desire to terminate their stay. Church services and "godpalaver" congregations were always reverent and orderly, but perfectly suffocating in cramped quarters. Father Campbell [92/93] had been laughed at because he built the church so large, 50 x 24 feet. His critics just knew that it would be years before we had enough people to fill it. But hardly had it been opened for public worship when crowds became so large, the church so tightly packed, that if by chance anyone wished to step outside during service there would be almost a fistfight to see who could take his place within.

The first move was to select another location for the school where there would be sufficient room. The site chosen has proved most suitable; a wide, relatively level space to the north of what now we may call Monastery Hill. Plans were drawn for small dormitories, nearly a dozen of them, all neatly lined up and with accommodations for eight boys in each. There had to be adequate classroom space also, for the original students had long since moved on from their A-B-C classes, and other young hopefuls had flocked in to take their place. This move became all the more imperative when we were blessed with the arrival of Mr. Stephen E. Manley, a mature, well trained teacher from Sierra Leone. Within just a little while Mr. Manley was appointed Headmaster, a position he held honorably and acceptably for twenty-five years.

Just at this time again it was that the Fathers made an effort to obtain a title deed to the mission land. The native people knew exactly the limits of old-time Bolahun and had given their glad consent to our settling here as "Fofi's Strangers." Two years before this, Father Harrison (in '26) had tried to arrange for the Liberian Legislature to grant us the desired title, but apparently nothing could be done before the land had been officially surveyed. Hence the succession of delays, for all the surveyors lived on the coast and consequently were hard to contact. The more fearful among us had visions of some grasping chieftain walking in some fine day to claim land and buildings for his people. Several vexatious disagreements had arisen from time to time when men from surrounding towns claimed ancestral rights to [93/94] make rice farms hard by the built-up areas of the mission. In view of the Liberian requirements, which we respected, we had to wait a bit longer for the grant and title deed to stabilize the work and ward off possible trouble in the future. At last, in 1950 the grant was made after a surveyor had run the lines of our boundaries, which holds good only so long as educational, religious and philanthropic works are maintained. If for any reason Holy Cross should ever decide to abandon the Bolahun mission (which God forbid), land, buildings, everything would revert automatically to the Liberian Government, unless of course some other group should be prepared to step in and carry on. That is only fair, so we never have raised any objections to the conditions of tenure.

By January of '29 our dear Father Allen had become so weighed with the infirmities of years that we had to bring him back from Porluma and prepare a cell for him in the new monastery. Father Gorham and Father Whittemore nursed him assiduously, bringing him not only Holy Communion from the altar where the first mass had been offered and the Blessed Sacrament reserved on March 7th, but carrying his meals and attending to his simple wants. Dr. Maass contributed his services generously, but told us that while the Father's trouble was mostly "old age," he was in serious condition. Father Whittemore tells of Father Allen swinging his feet over the side of his bed while eating with relish a bowl of oatmeal and chuckling over some of his own little jokes. That happened on the morning of March 26th, and a few hours later God called this faithful soul home. He died in his 79th year and in peace. Father Allen's steadying influence in those formative years of the mission can scarcely be exaggerated. His ripe wisdom and genuine spirituality weighed heavily in the policies of each succeeding Prior. He knew intimately the entire background of the Order of the Holy Cross, for while not professed till 1888, he had been with Father Huntington almost from the beginning. For the [94/95] development of the mission he entertained none but the highest ideals--God first, God always.

At some time during the course of his long life Father Allen had become a member of a society, the main objective of which was to simplify funerals. Not long before his death he had expressed the wish that, with permission of the Prior of course, he be buried not in the customary coffin but with his body wrapped in cloth and country mats after the custom of the African natives. This the Fathers did. In the later afternoon, in the fresh grave by St. Mary's Church, they laid him to rest. For the burial office the church was packed to capacity with weeping mourners. The people hold in high esteem any aged person, and Father Allen in numberless ways had shown himself a friend to them all. Many were the masses of requiem offered for the repose of this holy soul, ever so gentle yet brave, ever so delightfully human yet zealous for God and His greater glory.

For the opening of the new monastery Father Allen's demise might seem like a lugubrious beginning. To worldlings it probably would be just that. But we took it as a mark of God's favor that almost at once His devoted servant should enter the larger life beyond. As with so much in any missionary enterprise, the scene shifted quickly, for early in June Bishop Campbell arrived bringing a reinforcement to the staff in the person of Father Whitall. The Bishop was to consecrate the monastery, but was promptly incapacitated by an ugly attack of shingles, painful even if not particularly heroic. By the feast of St. John Baptist, June 24th, he was up and about again, ready for whatever might come.

Thus the great day arrived, and with it chiefs and people from far and wide. For the last time women were allowed to wander about the house at will--and who of the descendants of Eve would not want to see? Then the Bishop with attendants moved from room to room, blessing each with prayer, holy water and incense; chapel, refectory, library and cells. Last of all came [95/96] the pontifical mass in chapel. Due to the limited accommodations, most of the congregation had to stand or kneel on the porch or out in the yard. Most of these ceremonies meant nothing to the non-Christians present, but when the big out-of- doors "dinner on the grounds" came along all eyes brightened and taste buds sprouted. Had there been a "Bolahun Times" to print the story doubtless it would have recorded the fact (like parish suppers at home) that a good time was enjoyed by all.

As though this were not enough, in church that afternoon the Bishop administered the Sacrament of Confirmation to 28 candidates and addressed them. Father Gorham, the Prior, presented them and stood sponsor to several. During his stay the Bishop was able to accompany Father Gorham to Boawohun to inspect the progress there and expressed himself as highly pleased. After Father Allen's death Porluma had been placed in charge of Mr. Kessebeh, a native of Sierra Leone. This station the Bishop was anxious to visit also, but the heavy rains were now flooding the country, and he had urgent matters awaiting him in Monrovia. In some ways it proved fortunate that Porluma was passed by, for with no priest resident and therefore no sacraments the work was languishing. Not too long after this the station had to be closed, for all the clergy had more than enough to occupy their attention right at Bolahun.

About the same time the Fathers decided to start a little society for the more devout of the older schoolboys. For some months it had been felt that for these lads something was needed beyond the routine daily prayers and monthly confessions; and that communions should be offered for the development of their very considerable spiritual capacities if for nothing else. It was with no intention to produce a proud religious aristocracy, but rather to bring and hold them nearer to our Blessed Lord. Hence it was that Father Whittemore organized the Brotherhood of St. Joseph, out of which we cherished the hope that under the divine guidance a native religious order might [96/97] someday grow. A simple, wholesome rule was drawn up, which proved quite effective as an elevating influence for several years. That was all as it should be, even though the dream of an indigenous monastic community vanished when the young men one after another took to themselves wives. What we wish to point out are the really excellent results produced by this group both in deepening the church life among the native Christians and in their unobtrusive, most effective witness to the powers of the living Gospel in their daily conversation.

Just before Christmas '29 Father Simmonds returned from furlough, bringing with him a 28-inch loom for weaving cotton cloth. This became at once a seven-day marvel, for the local people manufacture rather laboriously a 5-inch strip of great length, cutting it to the desired measures and sewing together the pieces to make their country gowns and cover cloths. Several men volunteered at once to learn the techniques of this new wonder, among them Zachariah Kpoto. As long as the loom lasted excellent cloth was produced with attractive patterns, especially when some brightly colored foreign thread was used along with the local cotton. This loom did noble service for years, till at last it fell a victim to the termites.

Because of the "great depression" in the United States, which was gaining momentum, operations at Bolahun had to be reduced to a minimum. Yet, Father Gorham did manage to build a substantial bridge, and over the Wawo at that. That is the stream forming the western boundary between us and Masambalahun. Because this little river goes on a wild rampage every rainy season, the bridge was erected some ten feet above the normal level of the water, and an earthen causeway thrown up to lead to higher ground several hundred feet distant. Since then, the bridge has had to be rebuilt several times, though the approach across the low, often swampy ground is still as useful as ever. In those days we always passed through Masambalahun on the trip to Foya Customs and Sierra Leone. As may be imagined, [97/98] the country people showered extravagant praise upon us for this major improvement. As this is being written we are trying to construct a strong bridge that will really last, for on Christmas Eve '56 the former one broke down under the weight of the village band and dancers returning to Masambalahun after the Bolahun festivities. Drums, rattles and people were all given a free cold bath rather suddenly, but fortunately no one sustained serious injury.

We have reached now, not a dead end, but a thrilling new chapter. Depression or no depression, God's cause must not languish. The fact is that just at the hour when we stood most in need of encouragement God sent us the greatest gift ever. That was the advent of the Sisters of the Holy Name from their beautiful convent in Malvern Link, Worcestershire, England.


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