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Catholic Archdiocese of Cape Coast, Ghana

Catholic Re-entry to the “Mina” Coast in the 18th & 19th Centuries

January 10, 2016
1. Initial Attempts in the 17 th Century : 

When the French began to trade with the Guinea coast, the Prior of the Dominican General Novitiate in Paris had also been charged with the care of the missions of the West Indies. To this, the Propaganda Fide added the new mission in West Africa. And so, in 1687, Fr. Moisset set out to open a mission at Komenda, where the French Dominican missionaries had built a small church against Dutch warnings and threats. The Dutch, accordingly, organized local attacks on the French to foil the mission at Komenda.
 
2. The Coming of the SMA Missionaries to the “Mina” Coast : 

The Dutch ceded all their holdings in the Gold Coast to the English in the Treaty of The Hague in 1871; and in 1872, the English occupied the El-Mina castle. In 1874, a new charter created the Gold Coast Colony , consisting of the Gold Coast and Nigeria (Legos). This was a political and an administrative region, and it extended from river Niger to river Volta. Ecclesiastically, this region constituted the Benin Vicariate ; and it had its center at Ouidah. The Mina coast (now Gold Coast) politically and administratively belonged to the Gold Coast Colony . Ecclesiastically, however, it belonged to an area, which was under the jurisdiction of the vicariate of the “two Guineas” (Senegambia – Sierra Leone). Thus, while the Gold Coast (Mina coast) ecclesiastically belonged to the vicariate of the two Guineas , administered by the Holy Ghost fathers, politically and administratively, it belonged to the Gold Coast Colony , sections of which (eg. Ouidah and Lagos) were already being administered by the SMA Fathers. The Mina coast, therefore, belonged politically and administratively to one region ( Gold Coast Colony ), while ecclesiastically, it belonged to another circumscription the vicariate of the two Guineas). The SMA Fathers sought to simplify the situation by asking Propaganda Fide to entrust to them the mission of the Mina coast (Gold Coast) too. 

The SMA Fathers were a missionary society founded in Lyons, France. In 1856, a French Bishop who had returned to France from India, founded a congregation of missionary Priests and Brothers for missionary work among “the most deprived/abandoned peoples” (les plus abandonnes) . He was Bishop Marion de Brasillac; and his missionary congregation was the Society for African Missions (SMA).

The SMA Fathers had succeeded the French Dominican and Holy Ghost Fathers in the mission territory of the vicariate of Benin since 1861, and they had established mission centers in Ouidah and Lagos. The jurisdiction of the SMA Fathers did not extend to the Mina coast (Gold Coast). It belonged to the Holy Ghost Fathers of the vicariate of the two Guineas . The Holy Ghost Fathers however, had not begun a mission in the Gold Coast; but the SMA Fathers who wanted to start a mission in the Gold Coast did not have the permission of Propaganda Fide to do so.

It was not until 1877, that Sir William Marshall's letter to the Tablet in England pushed the Propaganda Fide over the edge to entrust mission in the Gold Coast to the SMA Fathers. Sir William Marshall, in a letter to editor of the Tablet , had written:

“I write from a part of the world, the West Coast of Africa, in which England now has almost exclusive interest and power, but for which the Catholics of England, Clerical and Lay, have as yet done nothing …… on the whole of the Gold Coast there is not a single Catholic Priest or mission of any nation” (R. Wiltgen, Gold Coast Mission History ….., 133-134). 

3. The Role of the Holy Ghost Fathers: 

In 1878, the Propaganda Fide asked the Superior of the Holy Ghost Fathers, from their long presence in the area, to assess the chances of mission in the Gold Coast. The Holy Ghost Superior, Fr. Schwindenhammer, sent Fr. Louis Gommenginger, the head of the Sierra Leone Prefecture to do this assessment.

In 1878, Fr. Gommenginger landed at Cape Coast, traveled to Kumasi and there met the King, Mensah Bonsu and the Queen Mother in private audiences. Both asked for missionaries in Kumasi. (The missionaries were associated with education and schools). From Kumasi, Fr. Gommenginger traveled to Accra to check out the possibilities for a mission at Christiansburg. Thence, he traveled to Elmina and then on to Sierra Leone.

On July 16 1878, Gommenginger sent his report to this Superior in which he observed the following: 

• Town and villages of 3000 – 2500 inhabitants were not rare, and they were either fetishists, Muslims or Protestants (Basil Mission and Methodist). 

• Kumasi was inland and had a suitable climate; but it was financially impossible to start a mission there, because of the high cost of transportation from the coast (ships and ports). 

• Accra had good communication links; but it was unhealthy. 

• Cape Coast was not a clean town. 

• El-Mina , with 5000-6000 people, had been the center of Catholic faith before. The people were tidy and industrious. The town was scenic, healthy and with good communication links inland and abroad. 

El-Mina, therefore, was Fr. Gommenginger's choice; and for him mission in the Gold Coast could not be delayed any longer. He wrote:

“Think of it, we Catholics were the very first ones…… to take roots in the Gold Coast, and yet now we have not even a single missionary in the land. The Protestants themselves cannot figure it out. When they saw me arrive, they felt surely the sole purpose of my coming was to open a Catholic mission. Personally, I am convinced that the opportune moment has arrived. It is time for us to take up again the work began so propitiously by our missionaries of the …. 15 th century, and then interrupted so inexorably by the ascendancy of the Dutch. Conditions have changed and obstacles have in part been removed. God and souls are calling us back to the Gold Coast” (R. Wiltgen, Gold Coast Mission History ….., 138).|

There would, indeed, be a response to the “ call of God and souls” for a return of Catholic mission to the Gold Coast, but it would not be made by Fr. Gommenginger and the Holy Ghost Fathers. It would be made by the SMA Fathers, with a mandate from the Propaganda Fide

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