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 10. The Sisters Arrive

EVER SINCE the mission had got well into operation the Bishop in Monrovia and Father Hughson, the Commissary in the States, had been in search of some women Religious to come to Bolahun to help. We simply had to import some women workers if ever we were to reach the female half of the population. Strong local custom holds that in public men and women simply do not associate together. Men and boys had become Christians in considerable numbers while women and girls made themselves conspicuous by their refusal to have any dealings with our religion.

It was in the Autumn of '29 that Father Hughson happened to be conducting a series of retreats in England. By that date from every available sisterhood in the States regrets and refusals had been received because (as was obviously true) there were no qualified Sisters to spare for foreign mission work. In England someone asked Father Hughson whether he had approached the Community of the Holy Name, which was known [99/100] to be thinking of establishing a house on St. Kitts in the West Indies. Father Hughson lost no time getting to Malvern Link, where his urgent and picturesque plea for help thrilled all who heard him. It just happened that Bishop Campbell was passing through England, so at Father Hughson's urgent prompting and upon receiving a cordial invitation from the Rev. Mother Agnes Mary, he too was glad to visit the convent. The Sisters had many questions to ask, for they could not but weigh carefully such matters as health, personal safety and the stability of the mission. None of the drawbacks were hidden, but a frank, detailed account of the pretty primitive living conditions canvassed at length. The Bishop stressed the dire need for women Religious and the almost boundless opportunities in every aspect of church work. After much correspondence, much consultation with trusted advisers and above all after much prayer, the Sisters in their Chapter held on the Feast of the Transfiguration (Aug. 6, '30), voted to accept our call. As later events have showed clearly, it was really God's call for them to help carry light into heathen darkness, to banish ignorance and fear with the glad tidings of Him who lives and loves and cares for all His children.

As soon as the missionaries at Bolahun on August 30th received the letter from Malvern announcing the favorable action of Chapter, Father Gorham and Father Simmonds began building a new convent to the west of our hospital compound, but with a fair sized tree-covered conical hill in between. By 1930 we had learned much from our many mistakes in tropical construction, so the new building embodied our greatly revised techniques. High ceilings, concrete-rubbed pisé de terre walls, wide doors and windows and celotex ceilings were all incorporated in the plans, as well as a large square porch in front to serve as a sort of common room. A roof of corrugated iron was laid and (so far as men know anything about such), suitable equipment installed. We expected that of course the Sisters [100/101] would be bringing a great lot of household necessaries with them, but most obligingly they sent a pretty complete list of what they would expect the mission to furnish.

Let it be remembered that these handmaidens of the Lord made no charge for their ministrations. They receive no financial remuneration for their services whatever. Holy Cross agreed at first to foot all expenses for each Sister from the time she left Malvern Link till she returned. During those dreadful depression years that was a bold promise on our part. But Cod's blessing rested upon us and always thus far the necessary funds have been found. And the Sisters--their saga thrilled some of the stuffy Protestants even, and in Merrie England at that. As the years have gone on, the Sisters have shouldered more and more of their travel expenses.

Another "just happened" was that Father Whittemore was on furlough in England and thus it became his privilege to escort the Sisters to Bolahun. Before leaving Liverpool on April 8th in St. Margaret's, Princes Road, he said Mass in the presence of the Sisters destined to open the new convent--Monica Mary, Mary Katherine, Mary Joseph, Marguerita and Clare. That afternoon they boarded the M.V. APAPA of the Elder Demster Lines and slid down the Mersey out into the Irish Sea, just as unpredictable as its namesake is supposed to be. Every morning except the first Father Whittemore celebrated Mass for them, and also except the last when the ship was nosing her way into port at Freetown. The "Lion Mountain" loomed menacingly above them, and the hot, noisy city spread out before them.

Canon Horstead, of Fourah Bay College, years later the Archbishop of West Africa, and his wife met the arriving missionaries and carried them to the college for the week end. That was Friday, the i7th of April, and on the upcountry express, after Dr. Wright, the Bishop of Sierra Leone, had given them his blessing, they rolled out from Water Street station on the following Monday. Here let us spread the first letter the Sisters [101/102] wrote to Malvern Link after their arrival at Bolahun on Wednesday, April 22, 1931. The Sisters were keen observers, so let us record their first impressions.

"It falls to me to begin the letter you must be so anxious to receive," the Sister began. "We were charmed with the beauty of Freetown. There is nothing English about it, as we expected, and the great variety of buildings, huts, houses and booths, together with the many colors both of vegetation and decoration make a very bright, gay picture, altogether African.--"You have to picture a country untouched by the hand of man, with hills, dales, occasionally broken by a very wide river, sometimes by streams, and always clothed with verdure, either thickly with giant trees or sparsely and more often with quite average sized trees and shrubs, presenting a not unEnglish appearance. Here and there is a clearing, either by burning or for a village. We went through many villages and small towns, and at the stations a leisurely crowd of males pressed up to the carriage windows to see as Bishop Campbell expresses it, 'The circus come to town.' The further we got into the interior the more primitive became the huts and the less clad the inhabitants. The children are fascinating, often wearing but a string of beads, and one little scrap we saw with a piece of common string about it. The men and boys were friendly, the females much less approachable and interested. The whole way through the bush the only thing we saw in the way of tropical animal life were two varieties of lovely birds and one monkey. It requires an effort of the imagination to realize the hundreds of eyes beholding you through the 'Green Wall of Mystery.' Sister C. asks about the color of the bush. Palm trees, cotton trees, darkish green; bananas looking like gigantic dock plants are pale reseda; oleanders, frangepani and all the rest go to make up a verdure like you get in an English forest in June. I should say that the coloring is in no wise different, the strong light and the blue sky make it all very lovely, and, of course, here and there, but not to any great [102/103] extent, you get flaming scarlet and bright orange flowering trees (in the bush), and occasionally some lovely white lilies.

"The drive to Kailahun (from the end of the railway in Pendembu) was very much the same as the train journey also, of course, we were more in amongst it all, and saw all sorts of kind and interesting people en route. The roads (bright vermilion there) have a narrow ditch on each side, and at the sound of approaching traffic, the natives would make hastily for the ditch, stand facing the middle of the road and if possible, hold on to any stray support while the terror (!) passed. A fine figure of a man, tall, upright, very black, dressed in the least possible, at one point stepped through the green wall to see us pass. We saw three boys from the bush school who were painted and wore a very large mesh net tunic trimmed very elaborately at neck and sleeves and round the bottom with a sort of fur.

"When we reached Kailahun we were presented to the Chief, a most depressed looking gentleman, and Father W. inquired where we were to be quartered. He waved us to the Rest House, whither we were escorted by the military. This was a very different place from Bo, a lovely thatched building with an open house-place which reminded us of Bethlehem, a truly lovely setting for a Nativity Play. We straightway were taken to tea with a nice Englishman, for which we were grateful. Then began the performance of unpacking beds and preparing chop. We had three visitors during our meal, an Englishwoman and her two children. It was a glorious night and the fireflies were gorgeous. As soon as the sun goes down in Africa the most unbelievable noise begins; crickets chirping, frogs croaking, and Sister C. thinks beetles calling--it is truly a fearful racket, and not conducive to sleep."

Very early the next morning Father Whittemore saw that the loads were securely stowed in the lorry which was to carry them to the end of the road towards the Liberian boundary, [103/104] some 15 miles. Let us continue the Sister's account of their first day of new yet ever so ancient a mode of travel.

"At the end of three-quarters of an hour's drive we suddenly saw a host of boys rushing up the toad to meet us, waving their hands and shouting and laughing, and at last so effectually blocking the road that we had to stop, whereupon they all rushed to shake hands with us, calling out, 'Mother, Mother!' They were the first contingent of boys from the mission: it was a thrilling moment!" The noise and excitement when it came to the point of getting into our hammocks was positively bewildering--all the carriers talked and gesticulated and the Mission boys added their bit to the din, but soon the head-boy had got the carriers into a semicircle and they were quiet while Father spoke to them, giving them orders, through an interpreter. He said there were to be eight boys to every hammock, and they were to carry the Sisters every step of the way--for they love to make you get out and walk if they can, and he knew that we were light loads. Then the babel broke out again, and in a few minutes I saw little Sister C. going off gaily with eight huge natives looking as fierce and unclothed as possible. A moment afterwards a man rushed at me, and beckoning, and so off I went also.

"By that time I was thoroughly enjoying the thrill of it all, and it was marvelous to find how absolutely safe and secure one felt when alone with these men, of whose language I could not speak a word. I found we had to walk over a 'Monkey' Bridge,' but big black hands came to hold me tight, and almost before I knew it I was in and off. I think my carriers were keen to be in front, as we soon passed Sister C. and her band, and my men yelled derision at hers, like children. At first it was all I could do to hang on for dear life, as I happened to have a very narrow hammock, and was lying on my back with my feet well above sea level. Besides all that my bearers were full of energy, and trotted with me, so that I was jolted up [104/105] and down exactly as one used to be when riding a donkey at the seaside.--The trail was just a narrow track, wide enough for only one person, but the four men with the hammock were marvelously surefooted, stepping along without hesitation or stumbling in places where a white man would have found it impossible to keep his balance. Sometimes we climbed over huge fallen tree trunks, sometimes the men forced their way through thick undergrowth, and beneath overhanging branches of trees. Again we often came to tiny streams, through which they waded, splash! splash!, usually standing still in the middle like thirsty horses, and drinking from a shallow tin which another man would fill and hand to them. Sometimes for a long time we were in dense forests, and I could see nothing on either side of me but thick green foliage, hanging creepers and great trees whose branches met overhead and shielded one happily from the sun. Again the trail led along the side of a steep ravine, with thick undergrowth arid I could look down and down a great distance, or across a flat stretch of land covered with a coarse grass as high as the carriers themselves. The trail went up and down like a switchback. I have never seen such steep banks; they seem to drop sheer down like a wall; when we came to one I had to hold on tight with both hands, or I should have been pitched out head first; the bearers in front would hold the hammock above their heads as high as possible while the two at the back would lower their end to their shoulders. Then up we would go on the opposite bank and often six men were needed to pull and push; amidst many groans and shouts I found myself with a splendid vision of my feet.--

"Often after going in silence for some distance, one man would suddenly give an ear-splitting yell and then set up a kind of weird cry to see if he could get an answer, and from far away the cry would be echoed by the other hammock bearers, and they would call and answer till they grew weary--We [105/106] had glorious views occasionally across a deep valley in a range of beautiful hills, all covered with bright green foliage and trees, and at the most lovely point of all a Mission boy came to me and pointed to a distant hill on which I could just distinguish something white, said with real pride in his voice, 'See, Bolahun!'

The caravan arrived in Masambalahun amid great excitement on the part of the people, and after a rest moved on to their destination, about a mile distant. To continue the Sister's narrative, "As we drew near to the Mission we heard the church bell ringing, and then we saw Father Gorham in his white habit standing by the trail to welcome us. We were put down by the church, which is exactly as it is in the photos, only the (old) monastery is now pulled down, so there is an empty space where it stood. When the two Fathers came up we went into church, which was filled by a seething, excited crowd of people. We Sisters knelt at the altar steps, candles were lighted and a hymn in Mende was started, taken up by the whole crowd. Never, never have I heard such din--there is no other word to describe it--they have no idea of time and just shout, but no doubt it reaches heaven. As I knelt I found something soft and wet pushed into my hand, and discovered a rough, yellow dog, the Monastery dog, standing in front of me, wagging his tail, anxious to give me a really moist welcome. After prayers and a blessing, we left the church, and once more climbed into our hammocks for the very last stage of this wonderful journey. About ten minutes' travelling brought us within sight of the Convent, and we were carried up the steep, sandy path leading to it; we saw that lights were shining in every window, the doors wide open; a table spread with a meal and decorated with flowers stood on the wide porch before the front door, and Father Gorham and Father Whittemore were waiting to welcome us to our new home.

"Words simply fail to express one's feelings at that moment, [106/107] the thankfulness for all the care that had been taken of us on the journey, and the big, big joy to find ourselves at last in the Convent of the Holy Name, in Africa!

"We went into the chapel, where a temporary altar has been fitted up, and the Blessed Sacrament reserved--and here the next morning Father Whittemore said the first Mass at 7:10 A.M.

"The Convent is an extremely nice building, far better than we expected; it has high ceilings and is cool and airy, except in the evening when doors must be shut, and often the window shutters also, on account of the rain.

"At present we are finding the heat very trying, and are wondering who first invented the fairy tale of the 'exhilirating champagne air,' in which it would be easy to pray and work. We are damp and limp all day, and the nights are difficult also, but we are told that this is the hottest season of the year, and we shall feel better soon.

"The windows of the Convent are covered with mosquito wire (no glass of course), but we still have to use nets over our beds, and they seem to shut out the last gasp of air.

"There are many species of creepy, crawly creatures, which are a plague; also we have dear little frogs, lizards, and now a very wild young kitten sent from the monastery, which is to keep down the rats!"

Those first few days for the Sisters must have left them rather dizzy, but on Sunday, after Mass in their chapel at 7, they walked to St. Mary's Church. One of the Sisters writes about this as follows: "One mounts six or seven very narrow steps. I found the Holy Water stoup very difficult to manipulate poised on the top step. There are no kneelers, just bare boards with fairly wide cracks, so that one can see the ground some little distance beneath one. Plain forms, without backs, to sit on. The church was absolutely packed full, of course, mostly men and boys; the few women and incidentally [107/108] ourselves sit on the gospel side of the very back forms. There were only four women in any attempt at European dress, and the rest came with lovely babies on their backs, with just a cloth which answered two purposes, to keep the babies in place and a dress for the women.

"Mass was in English, and the hymns in Mende, but as the rest of the congregation sang very lustily our St. Augustine Malvern Link pronunciation was lost--it was a pity! Father Whittemore preached in English, which was translated into Mende. Men and boys kept coming in until they seemed kneeling against each other's backs, but at the consecration down went every head, and bronze and ebony backs bent low in adoration and wonderful silence.

"On Sunday afternoon we were writing on the Porch when Sister said, 'You are wanted in the kitchen,' which is a few minutes' walk from the convent, and there I found that the head man in charge of my hammock and bearers had called to see me, and brought a
'dash' in the shape of a very live and fluttering chicken. I held it firmly until I could politely hand it to the kitchen boy. This morning we returned the call and the 'dash.' Father Whittemore said an empty sugar tin would equal the value of the chicken--it made a very good meal for us last night. I was sorry it ended in the pot; I had hoped to have kept it and had already planned to put the eggs down in a water glass.

"In the evening, o'clock, we went to Church again for Benediction--a much smaller congregation, consisting chiefly of the boys from the school, Mr. W. and ourselves. It was very beautiful; small boys came dressed only in birthday suits, and with delightful unconscious grace genuflected and knelt devoutly, and again as in the morning, down went every head at the right moment, and, peeping, one saw only rows of bent heads and sandy bare feet! There are colored prints of the Stations round the walls, and quite a nice statue of our [108/109] Lady and the Holy Child. One missed the flowers on the Altar, but I noticed a few placed over the XII Station, but we have not yet discovered why."

Hardly settled, the Sisters began classes and instructions for the native women and girls, a feat we had never been able to accomplish by ourselves. Religion was taught of course, but also cooking, sewing and the proper care of babies. Visits to nearby towns were made several nights each week for "god-palaver," with occasional trips farther afield, especially to Kisi country and Boawohun. Right at first the Sisters could not understand our informal, sometimes breezy American way of getting things done. But all this passed into oblivion when the two communities gained a better understanding of one another and cooperated fully in producing the really remarkable results almost incredible under pioneer conditions. Father Whittemore had been appointed their Chaplain and gave valuable assistance not merely in their spiritual life but in furnishing pointers for proper orientation.

Even then, those first months at Bolahun must have been most trying, the temptation to discouragement strong. Not only was it a matter of adjusting themselves to primitive living conditions, but the vast difference from the parish and other work to which they were accustomed in England. In the house they had to do battle with rats and vermin and those implacable termites. These last lost no time attacking walls, woodwork and celotex ceilings very promptly, so that, new house that it was, extensive repairs had to be undertaken if the Sisters were to have the use of their home. It proved itself an all-out offensive which is still going on.

But the Sisters persevered, helping mightily not only in the evangelistic programme, but assisting in the hospital with devoted, most effective service. What are called the "palaver-house classes" they started in Bolahun itself for the instruction of inquirers and hearers, and the women and girls desiring Holy [109/110] Baptism. They carried the light of the Christian Gospel even farther into heathen darkness. The Fathers had been so busy with building and developing the local Bolahun set-up that for several years their preaching trips had been sporadic. All who have had any missionary experience know that a strong central station must be maintained, and that from that power house branch stations be established. Thus, with the advent of the Sisters more regular patrols could be organized, for there were now reserves to carry on at home while others were out on the road. The harvest of souls won for our Lord over the years has more than compensated for the effort to reach them by going out after them in their villages. For holding informal services in the town palaver houses of an evening after men and women came in from their farms, we must give full credit to the Sisters, for they organized their work on a schedule basis. It was their genuine missionary zeal which revivified our hope for what might eventually blossom forth as a really Christian Hinterland, but especially among the Bandi, Loma and Kisi nations.

If this were the end of the story, it would still be an epic. But the great day arrived on the 4th of July, '32, when the Sisters opened St. Agnes School for girls. The modest little compound of native houses lay near the convent, yet at a distance sufficient to soften the hubbub connected with any school. The very first child enrolled was Titi, daughter of one of our faithful carpenters, Zechariah Roberts, who worked for the mission for years. Very few children materialized during the first years of the school. Their parents feared that when they had learned to speak English and thus become "civilized" they would want to many men of the same attainments. This would mean that no dowry would fall to the family of the bride, and thus upset the family balance, mentioned previously. This dowry is not a purchase price, for the girl does not become a slave. It is rather a pledge given that the young woman being received into another family will be humanely and respectfully treated. Just as an [110/111] example, when Bishop Campbell was in Loma country some time later he saw an attractive little girl of six or seven years. He asked the chief to send her to St. Agnes, but after waiting for a few days for an answer learned that Silipo could not leave the village because her dowry had already been paid and she was thus engaged to be married.

Here again the Sisters persevered. Despite opposition from the natives who misconstrued the biggest boon that had come to womankind in all Bandi history, the school grew slowly but steadily. Its influence and good report were verified by the obviously superior teen-agers produced. In spite of some moral casualties (as among our boys also) the net result has been eminently gratifying. Loud, heathen girls have been transformed into modest, literate Christians, young women well prepared to take their place as the Deborahs and Ruths and Judiths of God's new Israel in the Liberian Hinterland. Thursday, September 8th saw the blessing of the school compound, which thus began its fruitful career as a shining star in our Bolahun firmament.

We should really let the Sisters speak for themselves about one of their evangelistic efforts, but that will come later. Tagulahun is the name of a village not far from the market place, and until '35 had been under the rule of Baiya, the friendly old one- eyed chief. After a few years in his town we had won so many to the standard of the Cross that it seemed opportune to erect a small native church. That the people of the town did. It must have been a most picturesque ceremony when Father Bessom and his servers blessed the new building. Men, women, not to mention the perfect swarm of small children, crowded in to witness the service. It is with the children that the future of the mission rests, but they must have touched the hearts and consciences of the congregation, for our converts from there have been very many indeed. This is but one of the many Christian centers inspired by the efforts of the good Sisters, for there exist many others.

[112] To relate the services of the Sisters in the hospital would require a volume in itself. More notice of this will be taken in following pages. Suffice it to say that when the Reverend Mother Elfrida made an official visitation from Malvern Link in '47, she was particularly impressed by the medical work. The very sight of the hundreds of sufferers coming daily, afflicted with all the diseases of Europe plus the many often loathsome ones common in the tropics is impressive at any time. The deft ministrations of the Sisters did much to banish any fear of the doctor, who by common consent walked and lived as a god on earth. The natives called the Sisters "white mammies" and good mothers they showed themselves, winning confidence by their skill, preaching their religion by deed and a timely sympathy. At first the language barrier put a quick stop to any mutual understanding. But some of the Sisters showed themselves soon to be proficient linguists. How they did it we can only guess, yet within a short time of arrival they displayed an astonishing ability to converse with patients in their native tongue, but especially Kisi. Further than that, women could tell them freely of their ailments on topics not to be discussed with men.

Let us close this chapter with a brief extract from the 1932 Easter letter to the Sisters back home in England. "Never, never have I been at a Three Hours (on Good Friday) like it, and lad- mired Father Gorham's wonderful way of teaching and keeping the people's attention, and I felt it was the very best way of making them understand the story of Good Friday. One longed for a few moment's quiet and space in order to say a prayer, but just because there was no stillness, no quiet--no time to speak to our Lord, I realized as I have never before, what Calvary itself must have been like, and how the dear Mother must have suffered in the midst of the pushing, jostling crowd.

"On Holy Saturday we had a great joy, when after the Blessing of the New Fire and the Candle in Church, our little band of women bravely stood up and declared they wished to [112/113] become 'hearers.' They were all very shy, but they were placed in the front of the Church, and the Catechumen men and boys on the other side, and all stood up together. Father Gorham asked them if they wished to be baptized, if they wished to give their hearts to God, if they would come to be taught, if they wanted to keep God's laws. To all these they answered "U-u-u-m' in their deep voices. Since then Sanga has brought two Gizzi women to give in their names, because she is the only Gizzi woman hearer and cannot understand Gbandi, so she is very keen to have a Gizzi class."

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