The Beginnings of the Society of African Missions (SMA)
Invitation to Found a Missionary Society
In February 1856, Cardinal Alessandro Barnabo, the Secretary of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide (today known as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) asked Bishop de Marion Brésillac to found a missionary congregation to assist him in his new work in West Africa and to ensure stability and continuity.
On 8 December 1856, on the hill of Fourviere – at the shrine dedicated to Our Lady in Lyons, France, Bishop de Brésillac and six companions established the Society of African Missions. The special aim of the new Society was the evangelization of the most abandoned people in Africa and the formation of an indigenous clergy to care for the newly-established communities – thus enabling the missionaries to move on to evangelize others who were still in need.
Missionary Assignment in Africa
In 1858 Rome entrusted the mission of Sierra Leone to the SMA and in the same year, the first three missionaries departed for their new mission.
In 1859 Bishop de Brésillac entrusted the SMA in Europe to Fr Augustin Planque and set out with two others to join his three confreres in Sierra Leone.
Deaths in Freetown
On arriving off Freetown they were advised not to go on shore as an epidemic of Yellow Fever was raging in the town, but wanting to be with his missionaries and flock, the bishop and the others disembarked. Twenty-six days later, all the missionaries were dead with the exception of one Brother who returned to France to deliver the sad news.
Despite such a harrowing loss, the work was destined to continue, and, with the blessing of Pope Pius IX (“God be praised! The work will live. Yes, it will live!“) and the direction of Fr Planque, a new beginning was made. Another group left for Africa in 1861 and a foundation was made in Dahomey (now Benin).
Numerous deaths of young priests marked these early years of the Society, yet still it spread quickly throughout the West Coast of Africa. “The first missionaries sent to the people of Africa will not be able to achieve their ends, but thanks to their sacrifice, they will sow an abundant harvest which their successors will reap“, wrote one of those early missionaries. By the time of Fr Planque’s death in 1907, there were 296 members, 205 of whom were on the missions in 8 African countries: Dahomey (Benin), Nigeria, Algeria, South Africa, Egypt, Gold Coast (Ghana), Ivory Coast and Liberia. At this stage more than 130 others had given their lives within a few short years of reaching African soil, then known as the “white man’s grave”.
Expansion of SMA
From the beginning, the SMA drew its membership from several countries from which, after the death of Fr Planque, the following Provinces were gradually created: Ireland (1912), Holland (1923), two in France: Lyons and Est (1927), USA (1941), Great Britain (1968), Italy (1982), and the Districts of Canada (1968) and Spain (1992).
Between 1918 and 1992 the Society had also spread to Togo, Niger, DR Congo, Zambia, Central African Republic, Tanzania, South Africa, Morocco, Kenya and Angola – It also opened houses in Australia and Argentina.
Since 1983 new foundations have been made to ensure that the missionary work of the SMA to Africa and African peoples will continue. These have been in many counties in Africa, in Poland and in Asia (India and the Philippines).
Down through the years the SMA has sought to remain faithful to the spirit of its Founder, constantly adapting itself to new situations, and “always ready to respond to the needs of the times”. At the same time we remain a community of Christ’s disciples bonded together by our common response to the command He has given us:
Go therefore, make disciples of all nations;
baptise them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – (Mt. 28:19)