Project Canterbury

An American Cloister

The Life and Work of the Order of the Holy Cross

By Shirley Carter Hughson, O.H.C.

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, 1948.

Chapter XV. Story of the Hinterland.

FOR nearly two thousand years a strict command of Christ's neglected and forgotten! The statement is startling, but the fact when one realizes its truth is more startling still. The commission which He gave to His Church was a simple one, but it was exacting--"Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature." Nearly twenty centuries have passed since these words were spoken in the upper room at Jerusalem, and still there are wide areas of the earth which have never heard the sound of the Gospel.

One of these areas lay in West Africa. It was within a few days' journey of great arteries of travel and trade along which the Christian nations had for centuries been trafficking, and yet no man had undertaken to carry the good news of eternal life to the natives of the hinterland of Liberia. In 1919 the Church gave Liberia a new Bishop. When Dr. Overs [101/102] took possession of his diocese, he found that the Church had been in existence there for nearly a hundred years, and that it still hugged a little strip of coast country, with its eyes set upon itself, while millions of souls behind the forests lay in darkness, and no man had tried to enlighten them. One of the Bishop's first resolutions was to carry the Faith to these people who through all the Christian centuries had never had a chance.

While the Bishop was planning and praying, the Spirit of God, all unknown to him, was working in another field to bring to pass this consummation. The Order of the Holy Cross had long been praying that it might be allowed to have part in the Church's mission to the pagan world, and in the year 1919, things were brought to a point, and the Order began to look about for a place where such work could be done. Liberia seemed to beckon. It was a hard field; it was said to possess a deadly climate; it was without highways or railways, and a more difficult undertaking was not easy to find. It was just the place for men whose mode of life gave them freedom to go to the ends of the earth without let or hindrance. Their religious vows freed them from all ties of family, of property, and they were bound to respond to whatever call their community, through their Superior, might give. So when the Bishop and the Order came together to discuss the project, they found that the attitude of each was the answer to the prayer of the other.

[103] In offering our services to Bishop Overs, the Order made two requests. First, that we be allowed to go into the hinterland where the Gospel had never been preached. The second request had to do with financial support. On the one hand, we knew how limited were the appropriations the Church was able to give to Liberia, and on the other, we had had happy experience with the splendid generosity of the friends of Holy Cross, with their willingness--yea, eagerness--to give us liberal support for all the works we had ever undertaken. Like the Bishop, we, too, had a vision of what could be accomplished in the hinterland of Liberia, and it was a great spiritual venture that we wanted to set on foot. If the Bishop would accept us, we would not ask for any support, but would pay our own way as we went. The Bishop agreed gladly, and the work was begun. On this basis it has been carried on ever since.

The actual initiation of the Mission was a somewhat startling illustration of the freedom which the Religious Life confers on those who profess it. In February, 1922, one of the Fathers was engaged in some mission work in the west a thousand miles away from home. A telegram of a score of words was sent him, instructing him to take the first available train for the east, as he would sail for West Africa the following week. In thirty-six hours he was in New York City getting together his equipment, and five days later he took ship for Liberia. He was a Religious; there were no business [103/104] concerns to be cared for; no possessions to be disposed of; there were no family responsibilities to be adjusted ; above all, there was no will of his own to be consulted. Like the prophet of old, he could say, "Here am I; send me."

In 1922, the first venture was made. Father Robert E. Campbell, later Bishop of Liberia, was sent out with three other members of the Order. The Bishop chose for them a site some two hundred miles from the coast, a place so remote that not only had the Name of Christ never been heard, but most of the people had never so much as seen a white man. The town of Bolahun in the Gbande country was the seat of the new mission, and another year saw the erection of a church, a monastery, and a school. In spite of the natural suspicions of an uncivilized people, the response was almost immediate. In eighteen months the boarding school for boys was full, the services at the little bush church were crowded, and the monastery became the center of a work of medical relief such as these people had never known in all the millenniums of their history.

Time would fail us in a chapter of the scope of the present one to tell of the labours of love for the souls of these long neglected West Africans. They proved to be a fine, upstanding, people, whose very vices, in many cases, were the defects of their virtues. Like most African tribes their religion was practically devil-worship. Their only sacrifices were offerings made to propitiate the evil spirits which they [104/105] believed everywhere haunted the land. The message of a God who loved them was sweet to them, and the power of the Gospel soon made itself evident amongst a people who had for twenty centuries been left without God and without hope.

In 1926 St. Joseph's Hospital was opened, and its work was a revelation of what could be done to lift the burden of pain and disease from a helpless people. Until this hospital was founded there was not a place in the Republic of Liberia where a major operation could be performed, and no one can get even a remote idea of the Sufferings of these people who has not seen them himself. In one year no less than 20,000 patients were given relief, the whole number of treatments during that year being 40,000. It was not an infrequent thing to see by seven o'clock in the morning a queue of hundreds of patients stretching down the hospital compound and far out along the trail. It is in the records of the hospital that on a single day in October, 1931, over 1,200 men, women, and children were treated by the doctor and his assistants. It was a splendid method of contact, for scarcely a year had passed after the opening of the hospital when we had friends in every town for a hundred miles around. Go where we would, we would always find some one who had been the beneficiary of the relief work. He counted us as his friends and benefactors, and his testimony secured the confidence of thousands who otherwise could perhaps have never been reached.

[106] Of course, many of these could be given but little instruction during the brief time they were at the hospital, but they learned at least who the Lord Christ was, and that we were there in obedience to His command to try to help them in body and soul. The result of this was that we had, and will always have, through the length and breadth of that land thousands of unconscious missionaries who are telling their friends and neighbours of this Blessed Christ who loves them, and has sent His servants to help them. They come asking to hear something more about this divine Friend, and here lies our opportunity to tell them the story of Jesus and His love.

In 1931, five Sisters of the English Community of the Holy Name came out to Bolahun to help us with the work of the Mission. A few months after their arrival they opened a boarding school for girls. Here again doubt and suspicion had to be broken down. To the African, the education of women was an extreme of feminism which filled him with profound misgivings. Some of them said quite frankly when approached that they feared these girls would no longer when married obey their husbands, if their minds were filled with the new ideas which the Sisters had brought with them. But suspicion was allayed, and the work went on; the school has grown and increased, and in a short period we had no longer to suffer anxiety regarding the future family life of our Christian boys. Wives trained in the [106/107] spirit and truth of Jesus Christ were awaiting them.

But the school work is not the only activity in which the Sisters are engaged. They have long since made friends in the towns of the hinterland, and they make regular visits to not a few out-stations to instruct the people. Everywhere they are received with the warmest welcome and sympathy, and the great number of those who are now under definite instruction for baptism is in very large measure due to the earnest and devoted work of these Sisters. As the Fathers have said more than once, we wonder how we ever got along all those years without them.

The Mission now has above three hundred communicants, and several hundred souls who are being instructed for baptism. In at least one instance, almost an entire village has rendered its allegiance to our Lord. Nothing stands in the way of the conversion of thousands save the fewness of the workers. As it was in the days of our Lord's earthly life, the harvest is great but the labourers are few.

A glance at the field will be of interest. When Bishop Overs sent us into the interior, he said, "I am sending you not to three tribes, but to three nations." He placed us at a strategic point in upper Liberia where the three great peoples, the Gbandes, the Gizzis, and the Buzzis, have their seat. It is a beautiful country, with hills rising nearly two thousand feet on every horizon, heavily wooded, and full of bold streams of water. No one has ever made a census of this land, but within striking distance, [107/108] there must be a million people awaiting the advent of the Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. There is no limit to the work save that which is imposed upon it by lack of men and lack of means. Through all this hinterland the leaders of the people are begging us to come to them, and the work is handicapped everywhere because we have not men to send.

A picture drawn by one of the mission Fathers in the early days of the Mission still holds good as an illustration of what we have to meet continually. The scene is at the edge of a town in the highlands of the West Coast. A long trail winds out of the dark recesses of the forest. A small caravan is making its way out of the shadows. There are two white men, a half-dozen carriers, and some school-boys. There are formal greetings and the chief and the white Fathers go into solemn conclave. A hushed spirit of expectancy fills the air, expectancy buoyed up by a feeling of assurance. "Now that the teachers are here, they will certainly not go away and leave us comfortless." But as the conference is prolonged a stir of anxiety marks the movement of the waiting crowd. An hour passes and the palaver is over. Can they believe their eyes? The white men are giving instructions to the carriers, and preparations are being hastened for their departure. Have the chiefs not satisfied the demands of the Fathers? Yes, everything they want has been promised--boys to be taught, a house to be built, a wide plot of ground [108/109] to be granted, food to be supplied, and a hearing given the strange new religion they would bring. These and all other requests have been gladly agreed to, but the chiefs have been told that there is no one to send. The simple souls cannot believe it. Where are all the millions of white men who swarm the lands beyond the seas? Is there not one who will come to them for the love of God? And they are told that there is not one. The little caravan reaches the confines of the village. Trailing after them comes half the population. They stop at the edge of the forest, watching the departing strangers. Hands are lifted high in supplication, and they cry with plaintive voices, "Come and set us free; come and set us free."

No account of our Liberian work would be complete without something being included of the story of Father Allen. When in 1922 the Order decided to take up work in Africa, Father Allen, a man of seventy-two years of age, immediately and with an enthusiasm rare in a septuagenarian, asked to be allowed to go on the mission. There seemed to be no question as to what the answer to his request should be. Everyone who knew Africa agreed that no man over thirty-five should ever be sent to what in the old days was known as "the white man's grave." Malaria was rampant everywhere, and many other tropical diseases lay in wait for one who was too old to become speedily acclimated. The Father Founder, who was at that time still our Superior, had no [109/110] alternative to refusing his request. But Father Allen's disappointment seemed so keen that the Superior referred him to Bishop Overs, with the promise to give the request further consideration if the Bishop approved.

At this point Bishop Overs takes up the story. He says that Father Allen came to see him no less than nine times, urging his consent. The Bishop insisted that he would not last six months in such a climate. "Well, what does that matter?" asked Father Allen. "I am laid on the shelf at home, and if I can give six months to the work in Africa, it will be just that much accomplished." But the Bishop was resolute. On his last interview with the Bishop Father Allen said, "Very well, Bishop, I will accept your judgment, and I will not trouble you further. But, if you will permit me, I should like to say one thing before I go. Before very long you and I will be standing at God's judgment-bar, and He will say to me, 'Father Allen, did I not call you to work in Africa?' and I will answer, 'Yes, Lord.' 'Then why didn't you go?' will be His demand; and I will say, 'Lord there stands the Bishop; you ask him.' "

No one who did not know Father Allen can really appreciate this story. No man ever posed less than Sturgis Allen, or ever was further from trying to create a situation. He was a man of extraordinary simplicity of spirit. While being the personification of tact and kindliness, if anything was to be said at all, he always said what was in his mind without [110/111] any circumlocution, with the frankness of a child, and with no thought beforehand of what effect it would produce. "His plea was too much for me," said the Bishop as he afterwards told of the incident, "and I had to let him go to Africa."

Father Allen's holy persistence had other obstacles to overcome, but everything went down before his directness and the sweet simplicity of his holiness. On his way out to Africa he stopped in London intent on taking a course in medicine at the Livingstone College. Dr. Tom Jay, the head of this famous institution said afterwards that when Father Allen called on him, he saw him just as a matter of courtesy, with no intention of allowing him to work at the College which was designed only for young men who could put many years' work in the mission field. But the doctor was no more proof against Father Allen's simple-hearted holiness than was the Bishop. After half an hour's conversation he had won his way. An exception was made for him, and he spent many months gaining a knowledge of simple medical practice and primary surgery which stood him in good stead in working with the suffering natives during the seven years of his residence in the hinterland. He never had a sick day. Malaria never touched him. Several men not half his age were invalided home while he went on with his labours for God and the people, strong and serene. Several of these years were spent with no white companions, at Porluma, one of our early out-stations, a day's journey [111/112] from Bolahun. He died on Tuesday in Holy Week 1929. His was what the doctors call a physiological death. He was untouched by any disease or suffering. The old machine which had gone for seventy-nine years just ran down. He was buried in the shadow of the little mission church in the old compound at Bolahun. He had said when pleading to be sent to the mission field, "I want to lay my bones in Africa." God gave him his heart's desire. The London Church Times in recording his death declared that he was to be counted one of the great heroes of modern Christian missions.

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