by Dr. Eugene Fisher Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Fisher: Why did you become a Servite?
Father Mel: Vocations do not come out of a void, but emerge from a certain background and in response to a perceived call or example of an influential figure.
I was born in 1938 to Thomas Loftus and Bridget Igoe who were originally from small farms in Mayo in the West of Ireland. My father was involved in the 1919-1922 War of Independence against British rule. He was later interned during the subsequent Civil War (1922-24) and as one on the losing side, he was let know in no uncertain terms that he would find no employment in the new Free State.
He decided to emigrate to the USA in 1924 and ended up “batching” with other emigrants from his home village on the south side of Chicago. He worked on building sites in the emerging suburbs, e.g. Hillside, and later applied to join the Chicago Police force. He was turned down because he refused to pay the conventional bribe. In Chicago, he met his future wife who was from the same village. She was in domestic service for a Jewish family. They married in St. Bernard’s Church in 1932 and went back to Ireland on their honeymoon. They never returned to Chicago. While home, there was a change of government in Ireland and former republicans were welcomed into the civil service, police, and army by President DeValera. So he joined the police force and served as a detective, special branch before applying for and attaining the post of Captain of the Guard at the Irish Houses of Parliament, Dail Eireann. He continued in that post until his retirement in 1964. We were a family of six children: three boys and three girls. The first three were born on the farm in Mayo shortly after my parents return from America. The other three, starting with me, were born in Dublin.
We grew up in a staunch Catholic family and lived close to the parish church, St. Michael’s, Inchicore. Our’s was a working-class neighborhood and most of our neighbors were “born and bread” Dubliners. Our parent's values and life style differed from that of our neighbors since they were of staunch farming stock. They were frugal and tried to never be in debt. They were appalled at the “city slickers” penchant for buying things on higher purchase. They also were very nationalistic and tried to speak Gaelic in the home (we children were not so enthusiastic). My two older sisters (twins) joined the Mercy order in 1950. My other brothers and younger sister became a journalist, lawyer, and TV producer respectively.
My education began with the Sisters of Mercy (kindergarten), Irish Christian Brothers (primary), and Irish Christian Brothers for high school where I graduated in 1955. As a young boy in primary school, I joined the altar boys in the local parish. So my first experience was of a Fr. Clark who was responsible for us altar boys and was very popular. My first contact with religious was with the OMI’s who had a large church complete with a large Lourdes shrine some two miles from home. As young boys, we liked to visit that church for special devotions and processions in spring and summer. One priest who impressed us was a Fr. Devine!
My first encounter with a Servite was with my cousin Fr. Joe Loftus who passed through Dublin in 1948 after his ordination in Rome. For us boys, he was like some actor from Holly-wood, tall, handsome, and a great storyteller. We would sit enthralled by stories about the family in Chicago and Rome. You could also ask him questions! We were used to a rather aloof clerical church and he was a revelation. It was our first experience of priests who were different.
He later returned to Benburb Priory in N. Ireland to teach philosophy. So quite often he and his colleagues would visit our home. These Servites were all the same – they had the common touch. I think that was when I started to think that I might have a vocation. Although, I was in high school at the time and my priorities were somewhat different: football, girls, and studies – in that order. But the seed had been planted. I finished high school in June 1955 with no idea of what I was going to do. In those days University Education was beyond the reach of most parents. Since I was still young, I toyed with the idea of repeating my final year in school, not to improve my grades but to play more football. In the end, it was a family crisis (my older brother absconded to England) that forced me to face reality.
My father sat me down for a serious talk, with references to how my older brother had messed up. “So young man, what do you want to do?” I gave some vague answers. Then he surprised me ad asked: “Have you thought of the priesthood?” So the seed that had been sown some years before started to germinate. I admitted that I had thought of it on and off. He advised me to write to Fr. Joe Loftus who was then in charge at the Inter-national college, Louvain, Belgium. He responded and in his letter made two profound statements.: “I kind of knew that one of you had a vocation but I didn’t think it was you!” and “If you do enter and ever think this is not the life for you, don’t be afraid to leave.” No pressure!
Dr. Fisher: Please provide an overview of your seminary training.
Father Mel: Servite Priory, Benburb, N. Ireland; By August 1955 I was a postulant in Benburb Servite Priory, Tyrone, N. Ireland. There was a bit of culture shock: not just leaving home for the first time, but crossing a border for the first time. Since N. Ireland was under British rule, it seemed a little strange. Whereas in Dublin post boxes and other public utilities were coloured green, in N. Ireland they were red. Then the police wore different uniforms and (were definitely not friendly) and I saw British soldiers for the first time. I wondered how my father felt about that given his past history.
My postulancy lasted only three weeks (today it takes much longer) and we were “vested” and started novitiate in September. At the time we novices were segregated in a different wing of the priory and apart from chapel and meals we had no contact with professed students. After profession the following year we began our two years of philosophy. I was not a good student and did not particularly like Philosophy (all in Latin). So I did the minimum to keep up. My biggest learning during philosophy, apart from our spiritual formation, was learning how to type and editing the student magazine.
I learned at the feet of Michael Farrell who later became the editor of the National Catholic Reporter! In those days at the end of philosophy, there was a selection process. The brightest students (usually two) were sent to the Servite International Colleges in Louvain and Rome. The “rest” were assigned to the Servite Priory Lake Bluff, Ill. I was excited about going to the USA and meeting all the aunts and uncles and cousins of both my father and mothers’ side of the family.
On the 4th of July, after a rather sumptuous dinner in honour of American Independence, our prior, Fr. John Mullane, said he had an announcement to make. He said he had received a telegramme from the Prior General, Fr. Alphonsus Monta’ stating that two of us were being assigned to Rome and their names are… I was one of them. I was in a state of shock, my dream of America was in ruins. I was later to learn, that “the road less traveled” chosen for me, “made all the difference.” So I learned that what you most desire may not always be the best thing for you.
St. Alexis International College, Rome: 1958-1962
After a three-week holiday with our families, Dermot Keary and I set off on our long trek to Rome. In those days flying was out of the question. So we took a boat from Dun Laoire to Hollyhead (Wales). Then a long train ride to London, where we toured the city all day before taking the boat train to Dover and crossing over to Calais at night. Another train took us to Paris where we arrived at about 6:00 a.m.
Our next train from Gare de Lyon was at 9.00 p.m. We wandered around Paris the whole day without a word of French. We were starving but were afraid to enter a restaurant since we had little money, it was in Irish pounds and we wouldn’t know what to order. Finally, at about three in the afternoon, we went into a small bar along the Seine and luckily had a waiter who knew some English.
He recommended we have a ham sandwich and a beer. Both were enjoyed immensely. Our progress from Rome to Paris was in two stages; Paris to Turin, overnight at the Servite Parish, and then on to Rome. In Turin, we were fortunate to find Fr. Albert Mndebele from Swaziland who took us in hand and got us on the train the following day. We arrived in Rome at about 6.00 p.m. right into the cacophony of rush hour in Rome. We were met by Fr Kevin Tansy who took us to the American Bar for a snack.
Then, complete with our suitcases was introduced to the phenomenon of Rome’s public transport: pushing and shoving when getting on, crowded in like sardines and standing all the way. By the time we arrived at St. Alexis we were weary and just fell into our beds.
The school did not begin until the end of September so we had time for some sightseeing. The usual attractions: St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, the Coliseum, and catacombs. Rome can be still sweltering in September and wearing our heavy habits increased the degree of discomfort. The language was a problem but in the meantime, we were introduced to other aspects of Italian culture: pizza, wine, and pasta asciutta!
When our theology began, we first years were on our own. There were fourteen of us: 2 Italians, 2 Canadians, 2 Americans, 2 Irish, 2 English, 3 Brazilians, and 1 Scot. So I was thrown into the melting pot of a multi-cultural community. The first six months were really very difficult, struggling to cope with the language. (Today Italian classes are required before theology). Luckily (!) all classes were in Latin (and textbooks) but very often the explanation was in Italian!
In those days, because of the scarcity of funds, the whole student body went on holiday together. For three years we went to a place called Carsoli in the Abbruzzi. The so-called “villa” was an old rundown Franciscan hermitage with just the basic necessities. But we made the most of it. Mornings were devoted to language studies and afternoons to sports. On return to Rome from Carsoli, I felt much more confident in facing the second year of theology. I found that Latin was a great base for studying other languages, e.g. French, Spanish and Portuguese.
My favourite subjects: Sacraments, Church History and some courses in Mariology. My greatest regrets: a lack of a good grounding in Scripture, Liturgy, and homiletics.
Dr. Fisher: What was your first assignment?
Father Mel: While in my 3rd year of theology our Provincial, Fr. Louis Courtney visited our college and interviewed us students with a few to recruiting volunteers for the Zululand mission (foundation in 1948). I was the only one to volunteer. But by that time the Apartheid government was restricting the entry of missionaries, and Catholics in particular. So in September 1962 I found myself in Chicago on a Friday evening.
A large group of relatives met us at the airport and it was great to be able to put some faces on people I had heard about during childhood. On Saturday and Sunday, my cousin, Fr. Joe took me to meet some family members. Sunday’s visit turned out to be a real family gathering, with two purposes: to bid farewell to Fr. Joe who was leaving to take up his new appointment as superior of the Australian foundation and to welcome me to Chicago. It was a great night. Monday morning found me standing in front of a freshman class in St. Philip’s High School doing religious education. My class was a mixture of one-third whites, a third black, and a third Spanish-speaking.
My Rome experience came in handy. That was all. I had absolutely no teacher training and no knowledge of the American educational system. I survived the year but the following year I was appointed assistant vocation director to Fr. Don Gantley. I must say that I really enjoyed that job since it involved a lot of travel and I visited places as far away as St. Louis, St Paul, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia. I found students very responsive in most high schools but I have no idea how many I recruited. Come early in 1964 word came through that I had been granted an S. African visa.
The first stop was at Mtubatuba which was then becoming the administrative centre of the Zululand mission (previously it had been Ingwavuma). There were four Servites in the community, three priests, and a brother. The priests were responsible for about 12 outstations (Mass centres) and one primary school. The brother was responsible for the mission repair shop – all cars were serviced and repaired there. At that time most of the cars were 4-wheel drive Land Rovers.
The next day we moved on to Good Shepherd Mission, Hlabisa with 3 Servites in the community. After an overnight stay in Hlabisa, I was driven the next day to my new assignment, Our Lady of Ingwavuma – I call it my first coming, and my present assignment, my third coming!). There at Ingwavuma, there was a community of four: three priests and a brother. The superior of the community (and also of the Zululand Mission) was Fr. Mick O’Shea, OSM, later to become the first bishop and Vicar Apostolic of Ingwauma. The mission had about 14 Mass centres and three primary schools.
From my reading of Fr. “Punchy” Calkins articles in the Novena Notes and his subsequent books I felt a certain familiarity with Ingwavuma. But I had no idea what I was getting into.
I quickly started Zulu classes under the guidance of Fr. Declan Doherty. In spite of my proficiency in a few foreign languages, nothing prepared me for Zulu. It is known as a Southern Bantu or Nguni language belonging to the same family as Xhosa, Swazi, Shangaan (slightly), Ndebele, and Ngoni (Malawi). It has no resemblance to any European language so you can’t guess the meaning of words. It is called an onomatopoeic language, very tonal and built up from roots called ideophones. There are 11 classes of nouns.
Words are changed at the beginning when moving from singular to plural instead of the European way. It is a very beautiful and expressive language with a surprisingly large vocabulary (I’m still learning). In the first week, just to get me out of the house and experience a little immersion Fr. Declan took me to visit home. He tried to brief me on the protocol: initial greetings, a sweeping out of a hut, laying down of mats, an invitation to enter, sit on a mat on the floor.
Then the entry of family members, initial silence formal greetings one by one, and only then conversation began. Clearly, time was not a problem. I had no idea what Fr. Declan was saying but I imagine he was introducing this new priest. In spite of all my philosophy, theology and language studies I felt like a little child and a complete incompetent in this new culture! I even had to be told how to sit! For three months, language classes continued, with me “home alone” studying grammar while Fr. Declan went about his missionary work.
He would return in the evening and after supper we would have our classes. Just as I was beginning to make some progress (I found I could communicate with the small children because they spoke slowly) I was assigned to Mtubatuba. It was a great disappointment because I was just settling in.
Mtubatuba was the only town in our whole mission area. It was a small commercial centre with a bank, post office, railway station and two dubious “hotels.” The economy was built around sugar cane (a fairly large sugar mill near the mission) and forestry. The land was divided up into tribal trust land (so called “native reserves”) and farm land and forestry. Workers on the farms and forestry were mostly local with a good number from Malawi and Mozambique. They lived in what were called “compounds”, most of which were in a miserable condition. Most of the farmers were English speakers and most government officials were Afrikaaners.
Dr. Fisher: Please comment on the Political and Social Environment in Zululand
The Apartheid government came to power after the general election of 1948. It immediately got busy implementing its policies of “separate development” (Apartheid). According to this “doctrine” all peoples, Black or White, could reach their development and fulfillment within their “own areas.” So land was divided up into Black and White areas, social facilities, schools, universities (yes even churches) were segregated. The implementation, clearly was first done in the cities and centres of population and industry and mining.
The government public service was gradually taken over by Afrikaaners who could be trusted to implement the new policies. Slowly it was extended to the rural areas. The first crucial issue for the Verwoed, the architect of Apartheid (“we did not discover racial separation – it was started by the British. We have only made it more logical and efficient”) launched an attack on mission education since these schools were preparing children for an impossible future: “there is no room for Black children in White society”. In order to implement their own educational construct, Bantu Education, the government removed all subsidies from mission schools. No more funding for school buildings run by Churches, no more salaries.
Most churches crumbled under the pressure but the Catholic Church soldiered on until the 1970s. Some dioceses launched massive funding campaigns overseas. With the advent of “homeland governments” (tribal based) an opportunity opened up for compromise and accommodation so as to keep schools going. The “homeland governments”, in general, welcomed the churches’ input especially in the field of education and health care (hospitals and clinics). But they too, after a while, started “flexing their muscles, and gradually took over schools and hospitals. In some ways, although this signalled the end of an era and the missionary style of work, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise – a “felix culpa.”
The rest of the political history is well documented. The process moved from the establishment of satellite “homeland” (tribally based) governments, to protest (1976 Soweto uprising), to civil unrest in the 1980s and the establishment of trade unions and the MDC (Mass democratic movement) in the 1980s to the political violence leading up to the 1994 elections. In general, church personnel did not suffer as much as political leaders, but were constantly under surveillance by security police, the infamous “Special Branch”, restricted in its work and on occasion the banning and deportation of church personnel, be they lay or clerical.
In spite of its granite exterior, the Apartheid government was very sensitive to criticism or scrutiny from outside the country. They did not want “confrontation” with churches, especially with the Catholic Church which had a world wide base and vast influence in the international political scene. In the end, Apartheid was brought down more by financial and trading sanctions than by armed struggle. When the financial pressure became too much (refusal of loans from inter-national banking) the government caved in. President DeKlerk, was forced to negotiate and release Nelson Mandela. His contribution was that he convinced his supporters that the “game was up.” He too is now enjoying the fruits of freedom.
Dr. Fisher: Please provide a background on the Church history where you worked.
Father Mel: Much has been said above about the Church’s presence in an antagonist political environment. So I will briefly outline the various stages in pastoral planning over the years. Some missiologists give the three phase formula: Mission stage, rapid growth stage and the stage of local church.
1. Mission Stage
As mentioned, the Zululand Mission was established in 1948, comprising two territories: the northern half which was part of the Diocese of Manzini, Swaziland (staffed by Italian Servites), and the Southern half which was part of the Diocese of Eshowe (staffed by German Benedictines). The main emphasis was on setting up Catholic schools and health care facilities. Most of the church resources went there. So the main mission, with its schools and/or hospital, was the central point of reference. Then there was a network of Mass centres (called outstations) in the more rural areas. Here Evangelization was done mostly by a corps of fulltime catechists paid by the Church. So since the Zululand mission had about 14 schools, the monthly salaries of teachers and catechists took up a large part of the budget. As time went on it became apparent that this system was not sustainable.
2. RAPID GROWTH
Vatican II (LG, AG, SC etc.) provided a theological basis for re-envisioning the church and mission work. This was helped by the Servite Order’s document on the missions (Opatjia General Chapter, 1971) Since we could no longer afford to pay teachers, and catechists a new model of church and ministry became essential. We started a programme of training for lay ministers, established Parish Councils and took vocation recruitment more seriously. Whereas, before most church services were held in classrooms we began a programme of building churches and small chapels in outstations (a total of 70). In all of this the laity was deeply involved.
A number of older missionaries were despondent and felt that with the end of Catholic schools the death knoll of the missions had been sounded. But our laity responded well and the first tentative steps were taken towards self-reliance. At the same time more young men were going to the seminary and the dream of a local clergy seemed possible. In this period we were promoted from a Prefecture Apostolic to Vicariate Apostolic.
Our first Bishop, Michael O’Shea, OSM, was ordained in 1991.
3. LOCAL CHURCH
Clearly, these three stages do not have clear chronological cut-off points. Elements of former stages can linger on into the subsequent stage (especially in the more rural and underdeveloped areas). One could perhaps date this stage from 1994 with the first democratic government. This period launched a new era for most S. Africans, one of self-identity and self-expression. More and more responsibilities were being assumed by local peoples. So also in the church itself.
A simple definition of a local church is one that has its own local bishop and local clergy. Usually, the presence of a local clergy comes first. And so it was; By the time we got our first local bishop, we had 8 local Servites and 7 local diocesan priests. There was a gradually shift of emphasis in the pastoral area with the advent of local priests.
What also helped in the process was that after the death of Bishop O’Shea (2006) we had the first non-Servite bishops, both of whom came from missionary congregations: Bishop Jose Luis Ponce de Leon (Consolata Missionaries, from Argentina) and our present bishop, Mandla Siegfried Jwara (Mariannhill Missionary, from KwaZulu-Natal Province). Both bishops had vast experience in their own congregations and had served in a number of dioceses in S. Africa. They came with a conviction of what is possible when one works with the laity and shares responsibility. The missionary church (stage one), while providing
valuable services in education and health care tended to foster a very dependent church. Bishop Jwara, being a local, has been able to shift responsibilities formerly assumed by the Vicariate Apostolic to the parishes, e.g. support for the clergy, servicing, and care of cars.)
An annual Isivuno (harvest festival) is organized for the support of the Vicariate (in 2020 the bishop allowed the collection to go to the parishes because of the effects of COVID). He also launched a campaign of prayer for a site for our new cathedral. We are now in the process of signing the papers for the property. Under the Bishop’s guidance, we have managed to divide the former 5 missions into 12 parishes and establish three deaneries. The future looks hopeful – in spite of COVID.
Dr. Fisher: Please share with our readers how you perceive your role in Zululand.
Father Mel: This little exercise has been a great help to me to reflect on the past 58 years I have served here. Since my arrival I have served as a rookie missionary (1964-76), mission superior (1976-1990), trainer of lay ministers (1972-1986), formator (seminary training 1990-1998), Provincial Delegate (2001-2017) and back to parish priest in 2020 (at 82 years!).
Apart from the various role models I encountered in the Order (too many to number at the fear of overlooking some) I had a number of formative experiences which influenced me greatly in my service to the Church: Group Dynamics, Marriage Encounter, visits to Brazil and other Latin American counties to study Basic Christian Communities (BCCs - 1975,1978), Formation studies in Dublin (1997-98), seminary formation (1990-1998).
Dr. Fisher: What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had on your parish?
Father Mel: It nearly closed us down in 2020. Financially we were almost bankrupt. Fortunately, some parishioners met in small groups and sent in their contributions. There was some recovery in the second half which kept us afloat. COVID seems to be here to stay for a long while. On the PPC level, we are investigating new ways of being church (after all we did it before).
Dr. Fisher: What is your favorite prayer?
Father Mel: I have several. Memorare, Magnificat, Psalms “The Lord is my Shepherd” and “Miserere”, Prayer of Tranquility.
Dr. Fisher: Thank you for your important work and this interview.