Journalist, writer and RTE presenter, Rowan Hand, has produced a 436-page tome that is at once a personal memoir and a eulogy to the work of the Society of African Missions and the OLA Sisters in Africa and India.
It is a book that anyone with SMA and OLA connections would want to own. It is a timely reminder of the 2nd Golden Age of Irish Missionary history which, for over a century, saw Irish men and women selflessly travel far beyond Europe to the great continents of Africa, Asia and South America. It is a reminder of an Age that is, sadly, fast receding.
The book is beautifully crafted, with a lyrical text that allows the very soul of the poet and humanitarian that Rowan Hand is, to touch and move, sometimes to tears, its reader. And the artistry of the author is also evident in hundreds of colour images that Hand has captured during his many visits to Africa and India.
The book begins with a pre-prologue acknowledgement of the contribution The Credit Union Movement made to rescuing Ireland’s poor from the grip of moneylenders in the 1950s; followed by the important contribution that the Irish League of Credit Unions International Foundation made to fledgling Credit Union movements in Albania, Belize, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Russia and Sierra Leone, in subsequent decades.
The book is a veritable feast of moving stories, local anecdotes and yarns that are generously interspersed with the names of SMA and OLA missionaries. Perhaps the most heart wrenching is a pilgrimage made by Rowan Hand from Chennai to Coimbatore, in the footsteps of SMA Founder, Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac.
Hand reminisces that it was here, 150 years ago, the SMA founder got into trouble because “he took exception to the Indian caste system and put the noses of the Jesuits out of place because of his desire to change things.” Across pages 212-213 there is a moving photograph of the author, postrate before an altar, with the caption: “In the place where the founder of the SMA had gone before. I am on hallowed ground.”
This is a journey that began as a young idealistic man who has now achieved the vaunted status of being a great-grandfather. It is a journey from doubt to ‘a believer in the God of Love.’ And that journey is interspersed, lovingly and respectfully, by SMA and OLA missionaries whose contribution to India and Africa will be forever remembered in this magnificent memoir.
And should the reader think that this reviewer is exaggerating, the greatest testimony comes from one who benefited from the generosity of Ireland, expressed through our missionary tradition. The Foreword to ‘CARITAS ET AMOR … in the footsteps of love’ is written by Bishop Bulus Dauwa Yohanna, Vicar Apostolic of Kontagora, Nigeria. Here is an extract of what he wrote:
“Many people were inspired to form Religious Institutes and Societies of Apostolic life with one particular charism or the other. One of those inspired was Melchior de Marion Brésillac. In 1856 he founded… the Society of African Missions popularly called the SMA Fathers. He believed strongly in equality and sought to establish local churches with indigenous clergy… The fruits of their dedication, determination, commitment and sacrifices made by these great missionaries can be clearly seen in the strong indigenous churches established in Nigeria and other African countries…
“The tremendous work done by the Society of African Missions in the areas of spreading the Gospel, education and other areas of human development, cannot be quantified. They went into the remote and difficult areas that had been neglected, in order to spread the gospel and bring the light of Christ…”
The book is published by Gullion Media, Newry. It is available from the SMA Publications Office, Blackrock Road, Cork. €30 plus €14 for postage and packing. All proceeds go to Fr O’Catháin’s work in Kontagora.