Fr. Stephen Huffstetter writes from Kisangani, Congo, where he and Frs. Leonard Elder and Charles Brown are taking part in memorial services in remembrance of SCJ missionaries who were killed during the country’s Simba rebellion in 1964.
Kinshasa, the nation’s capital
Yesterday we toured the capital city of Kinshasa, one of the world’s sprawling urban areas with population estimates ranging from 8 – 12 million. There is a small downtown business district but much of the city is made of smaller buildings extending many miles in every direction. I was amazed to see so many people on foot. With the average worker earning about $2 per day there isn’t a lot left for transportation. Many from rural areas have come to the city in the hopes of work and a better life. Like other large scale migrations throughout history, the ruggedness of city life often overpowers the dream.
Fr. Gabriel needed some paperwork at the central government offices. Many people had been lined up since dawn and weren’t even sure if they would get in to do their business. Here one must be patient and persistent.
We walked to the president’s house (which is white here too) and to the memorial mausoleum where Laurent Kabila [president of the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1997-2001] was buried after a bodyguard shot him down. The corners of the edifice were strong hands holding ivory tusks, with broken chains and the hope for freedom. In preparing for this trip I read up on the history of the Congo, and the suffering and tragedies from the time of colonialism until today.
When we prayed adoration back at the community house I reflected that the problems I face are small compared to the major challenges of the Congolese people. Yet our SCJs here press forward with hope and faith. We have the chance to work together and make a difference.
Today we flew into Kisangani, formerly called Stanleyville. Our group of 10 seemed a bit lost amid the noise and chaos of the airport, but our hosts had a contact who helped us navigate our way through the system. By the time I went through the security questions the only thing I was asked was if I was part of the same pilgrimage. Unlike my usual travels, there were no assigned seats. I got a window so as to look out at the vast forests and wide and majestic Congo River.
The first event in the commemoration of our 28 SCJ martyrs from the 1964 rebellion was an evening prayer and rosary at the site of 12 of the graves. Several sisters working in the area also died, and leadership From their communities honored them as well. Fr. Claude Bédard, a former missionary from from Montreal, also made the pilgrimage. He hasn’t been back to Congo for almost 30 years. When two of the sisters he used to work with recognized him we witnessed a joyful, tearful reunion. Prayer was in French, which I haven’t spoken since high school, but by the fourth decade or so I had the last part of the Hail Mary down.
We visited the Monsignor Grison center, which the U.S. Province helped renovate. In an area where many hotels and accommodations haven’t recovered from war and civil unrest, this complex serves not only as a center for retreats and spiritual development, but as a conference center as well. It is connected to St. Gabriel parish, on the shores of the vast Congo River. We first gathered for adoration, the adjourned to a reception area for an evening social. One room is dedicated to the 28 martyrs, and also had pictures of all the foreign missionaries who have served here. Fr. Charlie Brown and Fr. Leonard Elder laughed to see how they looked in their youth. Charlie remarked, “this is where I grew up and became a priest. We also prayerfully remembered people like Fr. Dave Maher, Br. Jerry Selenke, Br. Frank Miller and Fr. Frank Hudson. A table held ordination and profession pictures of our native Congolese vocations. This province is young and growing and the sixth largest in the congregation.