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 12. Strengthening the Stakes

BECAUSE OF his many abilities as teacher, preacher and writer, Father Baldwin was recalled to West Park in June '37 to continue his work there after an absence of five years.

While it was a pity to lose Father Baldwin and his clear, constructive approach to problems, there was general satisfaction when word came that Father Kroll had been selected to succeed him as Prior. Father Kroll held office for nine years, when in '46 he also was transferred back to Holy Cross as Assistant Superior. In spite of the privations and anxieties of the years while World War II was raging, Father Kroll exhibited a skill and patience which held things together firmly. War time is always a period of great social unrest and of unexpected monetary inflation nor did Liberia escape. For Bolahun, the day of spectacular "firsts" had been rather abruptly terminated. Food became scarce, even the essential supplies next to impossible to get. Yet, as the natives say, "by God's power the mission lived."

Another sobering fact was the passing of such a number of [123/124] the old chieftains who had been so helpful and friendly. Bumba Yema of Porobu, Mbaya of Tagalahun, Ngumbu Teji of Dangalahun, Yekke of Kolahun all passed to the realm of "the old people" in the middle and late '30's. It was distressing to realize that these ancients and leaders of their people were fading from the scene; but perhaps the death of our first and firmest friend, the Paramount Chief Foil in June '38 affected us most. We had had our palavers with him on various matters, but principally because we did not understand his ways nor he ours. One big lesson for us to learn was that in Africa time means exactly nothing. Foil simply could not understand why next week would not do as well as today for the o men we needed to send to Pendembu for supplies. Would he please produce cloth and rice for the schoolboys? Certainly, but not when they were due. For men brought up with watch in one hand and a calendar in another these delays proved most vexatious. Except in a most vague fashion, the native people had no idea of time. Seed time and harvest and (for the Moslems) the Ramadan constituted their calendar, and the sun by day or moon by night their only clock. Yet Fofi proved himself always a loyal friend, and that friendship we valued highly. He was a staunch Mohammedan. Our efforts to interest him in our Christian religion never progressed farther than a few soft words and a gentle smile. One of us asked him the size of his family, whereupon he gathered a pile of pebbles and began to count them, calling a name for each as he placed another stone on the pile. The total came to something like 30 wives and concubines and about 100 children still living. They formed his wealth. They would perpetuate his name on the earth.

During the years in which Father Kroll was Prior two outstanding events deserve special mention. One was the steady growth of the evangelistic tours for preaching and instruction, and the other nothing less than the erection of the new St. Mary's Church at what we Americans call Times Square, the [124/125] crossing of the high-road between Masambalahun and Kolahun and our own approach to the old church and cemetery.

During Bishop Campbell's long stay in '35 he had given formal commission to the very first evangelists as unordained preachers and catechists, whose names are given elsewhere and whose help was and still is invaluable. Supervised by Fathers and Sisters, these devoted men could speak to their own people in the local dialect. Their testimony to what great things the Lord had done for their souls added great weight among their listeners. Carrying nothing but a lantern and a small package of dry clothing, they became familiar figures on the trails and in the villages all up and down the country. Of course, the Fathers and Sisters made regular and extensive patrols, too, but it was the evangelists who drove home the lesson that Christianity is for all men, not just for the benefit of the little band of strangers from overseas. For the instruction of these devoted coadjutors regular classes had to be inaugurated, to outline the Sunday sermon as well as to explain in simple language the more obstruse parts of the catechism. This necessitated the preparation of an enormous lot of material, incidentally still in use. Holy Scripture, the Church and her teaching, the moral code, all had to be brought into terms understanded of the people. Translating prayers, hymns and portions of the Bible into the native idiom of at least three languages formed an integral part of the evangelistic programme too. Thus, we regularized and intensified our efforts to reclaim the wayward and enlighten the blind. Immediate results more than justified the labor involved. Without this cordial salute to that faithful band of catechists and evangelists no story of the mission would be complete. If, as the saying goes, it takes a layman to convert a layman, so in many cases with the Africans also.

Then the new church building. The former church, small as actually it was, did seem like a perfect cathedral in 1923, erected with such labor and in the face of so many obstacles. Why put [125/126] up such a spacious place of worship for the five or six Christians on the place? But we did, and in full faith that in time our Lord would bring the people. God's Word is mighty and our faith was well founded. Our expanding schools added to the throng of believers Sunday by Sunday till it became imperative that more adequate accommodations be provided. Many were the discussions and sometimes the arguments among the members of the staff as to size, shape and cost of a building adapted to local needs. Father Kroll and others wrote to the Superior about all this, for of course it would be a costly operation and the funds would have to come from Holy Cross. Father Whittemore, with the advice of his brethren at home, gave his consent during the year 1938. Thus that bright day in May became a festive occasion when at the intersection of cross roads, as mentioned above, ground was broken for another and a finer temple of the Living God.

Plans for this spacious building were drawn in accordance with specifications supplied by Father Whittemore to a professional architect, Mr. Frederick J. Woodbridge, of New York. Heavy iron pillars, cement floors, metal venetian blinds were provided to reduce woodwork to a minimum, for it was people we wanted in church, not termites. Father Whitall had spent a tour in Bolahun a decade before, so he was sent back to superintend carpenters and masons, arriving in June of '39. Sawyers had to cut rafters, planks and boards far out in the bush. Laborers had to tote cement, nails and the hollow iron pillars weighing 325 pounds each from Pendembu.

Father Kroll had assembled as many of these essentials as he could before Father Whitall commenced the actual construction within a few weeks of arrival. Then World War II broke out, that tragedy affecting every known land. Priorities, scarcities, supply ships sunk at sea, threatened German invasion from Vichy-held French Guinea, soaring costs of materials--these formed a few of the hindrances to rapid completion of the [126/127] work. Operations would have to halt sometimes for weeks on end for lack of materials. It would be an understatement if we should label this a most trying time. The building measures 122 by 45 feet and is 35 feet high; walls are of sun-dried brick faced with a coating of cement; and of course a metal roof.

But as with so many other things in life, perseverance triumphed at last. On Saturday, June 13, '42, Father Parsell offered the first Mass in this all-but-completed House of God, and on August i5th, the feast of our Lady's Assumption, he blessed it for use as a church. We had been compelled to alter the original plans and specifications somewhat, but substantially the structure stands as Father Whittemore and Mr. Woodbridge planned it. We found that the bell tower, however, would be impracticable, because we could not secure the materials to enable it to withstand the vibration of a swinging bell. Bit by bit suitable, most attractive furnishings were made; redwood (a sort of mahogany) altar, canopy and choir stalls; benches with both backs and kneelers for the congregation; altar rail, two simple confessionals; supports and canopies for the statue of our Lady on the women's side of the main aisle, and for that of St. Joseph for the men's. The sacristy is to the south of the sanctuary and well fitted with the necessary cupboards and vestment cases, all homemade. In a small chapel enclosed from the rest of the nave and to the north of the sanctuary is placed St. Joseph's altar, used chiefly for the watch on Maundy Thursday, but also for other quiet celebrations.

They tell some marvelous tales of Father Whitall. On one occasion he had one of the iron pillars in place and bolted to the floor within five minutes after it arrived. On another, when the men were setting rafters the Father slipped and fell to the ground from a high scaffold. By some miracle he sustained no injury, but got up with an amused expression and proceeded to climb right back to that same scaffold. The wonder is that he was not killed by the 25 foot drop.

[128] In 1940, while the church was in process of construction, Father Whittemore as Superior made another official visitation. It was not just a routine affair, for he spent much time taking moving pictures, which thousands of us at home have seen and enjoyed. As those of us who have seen them know, native life and customs are made very real, and the work of the mission portrayed. Some of the hospital scenes always bring a laugh, but they are true to life. To visit in war time was a big risk, but he made the journey safely. Incidentally, it was because of the "perils of the sea" that we took to the air about this time. In many ways it was not as pleasant as the older steamer voyages, yet it certainly got us there and got us back safely. We are tempted to spread a letter of one of the Fathers about his trip out, describing the long delay in Brazil while waiting for another plane to fly him over to Liberia, but space forbids.

Before it was closed in 1929 because of the depression, for more than forty years Cuttington College and Divinity School at Cape Palmas had trained all the Liberian clergy. Both Bishop Campbell and Bishop Kroll had tried to collect funds to reopen this, the Church's one institution of higher learning in the Missionary District, but with no success. Bishop Kroll then hit upon the happy scheme of having his candidates for Holy Orders trained at Bolahun. Thus, in the year 1944 classes in Liturgies, Theology, Holy Scripture and Church History began. Catechists and evangelists attended some of the instructions also. Our little diocesan seminary lasted for some four years until Bishop Harris (who in '45 succeeded Bp. Kroll) reopened Cuttington in a fresh location, then transferring his candidates thither. We never have questioned the Bishop's wisdom in gathering his students thus in one place, though Father Packard, Father Parsell and their assistants did miss the young men after they had gone. In any event, we at the mission felt glad to make even a small contribution to the diocese and its future clergy.

In '41 Father Parsell had gone to South Africa for furlough. [128/129] In order to reach Liberia from the States, Father Kroll had found it necessary to travel by way of Cape Town. Thus Father Kroll from West Park and Father Parsell from Bolahun met in Cape Town. The quality and quantity of church work in that province impressed them greatly, but more especially the large, flourishing centers maintained by the Cowley, Mirfield and Kelham Fathers. From each of these they gathered new ideas for Bolahun. That was all as it should be, though disaster met them on the return. Right after dinner on Easter Eve, April 4, '42, their ship was torpedoed about 150 miles south of Cape Palmas and sank almost at once. Fortunately all the passengers by moving expeditiously climbed into the lifeboats and thus saved their lives, though losing all their luggage. After the steamer had sunk the submarine rose to the surface and inquired whether the boats had food and water sufficient to see them to land and then slid off in search of further prey. That was a strange Easter for all in those little boats, crew and passengers alike, being tossed about on the boundless sea. After five days they put in at Cape Palmas, where the people did all they could to relieve their destitute condition. Fathers Kroll and Parsell became the guests of the hospitable Roman Catholic priests who treated them most courteously, and after a few days saw them on a plane for Monrovia. The Fathers in due time returned to Bolahun to resume their life and activities as usual.

In a native village the calamity most dreaded is fire. During the dry season especially great care has to be exercised. Not infrequently the chief will restrict times and places for cooking in order to lessen the hazard. Back in the days of tribal wars a favorite trick was for the attackers to throw flaming torches over the stockades to set the grass roofs of the besieged town afire. That is just how the old Bolahun was destroyed in 1910, and the inhabitants scattered. One night while Father Hawkins and Father Campbell were staying in Masambalahun there arose the frightening cry, "Ngombui" (fire), but fortunately some men [129/130] quickly ripped off the thatch in time to halt further conflagration. But on the night of April 5, '45, the town burned. Our teachers' house alone escaped of all the 200-odd huts and other buildings, and it did seem like a miracle. The dry grass roofs burn like tinder, and once the flames had got beyond control the destitute people stood about with nothing to do but survey the ruins of their homes. This was one of the largest Bandi settlements and the disaster brought much hardship. Of course the mission as well as all the neighboring villages offered what help they could, but Masambalahun has never been the same since. For years the population had been about half Moslem, and this group decided to rebuild on the same spot, while the heathen Bandis chose an ancient site not far off which they named Fangunda. The total number of inhabitants and houses of both these towns now do not add up to what Masambalahun used to be.

Before we forget it, this might be an appropriate place to tell of the deed to our mission land. As we have related already, chiefs and people had granted us permission to establish ourselves at Bolahun, which naturally included the "bush" and farm lands adjacent. But from the very beginning we had had repeated palavers with individuals who claimed ancestral rights to burn the brush and plant rice on what we understood to be mission property. Successive Bishops and Priors had tried to obtain a formal grant from the Liberian Government, not that we begrudged anyone his agricultural rights, but that we might know what were ours definitely. In '42 we were able to get the services of a licensed surveyor. Mr. Clements, but his work had some technical flaw which made it not acceptable to the authorities in Monrovia. Our consistent policy has been one of friendly cooperation with officials of the civil Government, so there was nothing else for us to do but sit down and await developments. Bolahun is a far distance from Monrovia, about a two-weeks trek no matter which way one might choose to go.

Negotiations were necessarily slow. But when His Excellency President Tubman came to spend Palm Sunday with us, the Father Prior broached the subject to him again and was rewarded with the premise that an official surveyor would be sent at once. On the basis of this survey the Liberian Legislature without further delay granted us title to about 200 acres and sent us the deed. This came as a permanent cure for our annual headache over land tenure, not just a little aspirin tablet with which we had been forced to content ourselves previously.

To record all the comings and goings of missionaries and others would clutter up the main sequence of our story, but we must pause to mention Dr. E. P. Veatch. He had come to Liberia in the mid-thirties to assume charge of the Methodist Hospital and Dispensary at Nana Kru, which is east of Monrovia on the coast. He was then engaged by the Firestone Plantations to do special research work in sleeping sickness, which had become a menace to the nation. This dread disease is carried by the tsetse fly. Dr. Maass had found just one case of this trypanosomiasis during his stay; but by the late 30's it had grown to epidemic proportions all up and down the country. The labor supply on the Plantations was dwindling markedly, and for a while it looked as though the story of certain areas of Central Africa might be repeated in Liberia. It became increasingly obvious that something definite had to be done, and promptly.

Dr. Veatch decided to make Bolahun his center, for the country is well populated and a stable reservoir for labor elsewhere. We felt only too glad to welcome him, for we had no resident doctor just then. Dr. Veatch and his family moved in and we can never forget his fine spirit of helpfulness. Each one of the doctors who has stayed here has made his substantial contribution to the medical work, but to Dr. Veatch we pay special tribute, for he filled in when during the war it was impossible to secure the services of any doctor at all. His brilliant research [131/132] work and his many thousands of tryparsamide injections at Bolabun and other centers halted the plague that it was. So long as the tsetse flies swarm about the streams and swamps the menace of sleeping sickness still remains. One such fly, after biting an infected person, can easily infect a dozen others. Hence, the first objective is to control the flies if possible, and then to attend to those who have been stung by them. To Dr. Veatch we owe a debt incalculable for life itself to us personally as well as for the welfare of the surrounding populations.

During the decade in which Father Kroll held office as Prior it was a matter of strengthening the stakes. In spite of the crippling restrictions imposed by war conditions the new church had been built and opened, but because of disrupted communications and the inevitable shortage of supplies there was but little chance for expansion. Regular mission patrols could be maintained by the Fathers and Sisters, and with the loyal, effective help of the catechists and evangelists. Perhaps this came as a blessing in disguise. The schools for boys and girls were prospering. The hospital never had so many patients. Real study of the native dialects progressed as far as the assembling of dictionaries in the form of card indexes and the compilation of grammar for Bandi, Kisi and Loma. Local problems of organization and of church discipline received serious attention, and with most beneficial results.

In '40 the outstation at Vezala, an important center among the Lomas, was opened for work, and with a resident teacher and a catechist. In that year our most dependable evangelist, Cyprian Ambulay, was stationed at Kpangehimba, an important Bandi town five or six miles to the east of us. In '44 the Bishop again asked us to assume responsibility for Pandemai, for Father Dwalu had retired from active service. Among the Kisis, always friendly and eager for the Gospel, a permanent station was inaugurated at Foya Dundu in '45. From each of these centers, as well as from Bolahun itself, services and instructions were [132/133] held in neighboring towns, over 40 of them all told. These instructions began normally with stories from the Old Testament and an explanation of the bearing of the ten commandments in personal life. This introduction led up to the life and teaching of our Lord, as one might expect, and so on to the teaching of the Church and the meaning of the sacraments. It must be remembered that nearly all the catechumens were illiterate, so the Fathers and the Sisters studying together worked out a uniform, quite simple set of lessons. These courses contained material enough to last for several years, until the candidates had been confirmed and were ready to become regular communicants. Normally this meant four or five years, depending upon when the Bishop could get here to administer the sacrament of confirmation.

Thus it came to pass that at the end of 25 years of effort, somewhat blundering and uncertain at first, the mission had become firmly planted, had taken root solidly and was bringing forth fruit abundantly. Of discouragements we had faced a plenty. Delays as always proved highly vexatious. But the reward of solid accomplishment more than repaid all that, for we had claimed and won many souls for Christ. Modern monks and nuns had given convincing demonstration of the power of the everlasting Gospel of God in a heathen land. Laboring amid difficulties of which the reader may have caught a glimpse, quite isolated from anything that might be called civilization or the normal stream of church life, we had accomplished our main objective of making the Name of our Blessed Lord known and reverenced and of incorporating hundreds into the life and joy of the world-wide Christian family.

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