Zimbabwe History

A Brief History of the Carmelites in Zimbabwe


The Irish Carmelites were invited to Rhodesia by Bishop Aston Chichester, SJ, who was then Bishop of Salisbury (modern day Harare).  Bishop Chichester planned to give them pastoral care of the Eastern Highlands, a most scenic part of the country.

In November 1946, the first three Carmelites – Frs Donal Lamont, Anselm Corbett and Luke Flynn – arrived in Rhodesia.  Anselm Corbett recorded “It was 7 o’clock on a November morning when our train pulled into Salisbury Station.”  Anselm and Luke were destined to spend Christmas 1946 at St Michael’s, Mhondoro, while they learned the Shona language.  Donal Lamont remained in Salisbury with Bishop Chichester.  Anselm later wrote: “All I can remember of that Christmas is that we felt lonely.” Five more Irish Carmelites came to Zimbabwe in 1947.

In 1948 Bishop Chichester entrusted the Order with the pastoral care of Triashill Mission, the oldest Catholic mission in that part of the country.  It had been cared for by the Jesuits.  Anselm Corbett became its first Carmelite Priest-in-Charge.  The Carmelites also took charge of St Kilian’s Mission that year, while St Barbara’s Mission was entrusted to them in 1949.  Fr Andrew Wright was given responsibility for the Holy Rosary and St Robert parishes in Umtali (modern day Mutare), the main town of the region.

Development and Expansion

In the early years, roads were often a problem, especially in areas inhabited by the indigenous population among whom most missionaries lived and worked.  The favoured means of transport were the army-type four-wheeled-drive vehicles, and motorbikes.  In the rainy season, many roads became impassable because of the mud and the absence of bridges.  In 1952 Father Martin McMahon wrote: “One of our small trucks got embedded in a river, bonnet facing downstream.  We brought our famous tractor to the scene but it too got embedded, in the bank-side muck.  Some hours later we got the tractor out with the help of oxen! The tractor eventually hauled out the truck.”  This was one of the many challenges faced by the new Carmelite missionaries.  Their main missionary focus was the people of Manicaland, known from 1957 as the Diocese of Umtali (Mutare).  Almost every year from 1946 new Irish Carmelites came to Zimbabwe, until there was a peak in the 1960’s of over fifty including friars from the United States, Australia and Britain.

From 1951 onwards the pastoral responsibility of the Carmelites expanded greatly.  Many new missions were established and outstations developed, including: St Anne’s, Wengezi; St Simon Stock, Rusape; Avila, Katerere; Regina Coeli, Nyamaropa; St Thérèse, Chiduku; St Joseph’s, Harare; St Joseph’s, Sakubva; St Andrew’s, Marange; and St Columba’s, Honde Valley.

Avila Mission, north-east of Nyanga, was the first mission to be built from scratch by the Carmelites.  Fr Anthony Clarke and Br Simon Noonan went there in 1953. Fr Clarke later wrote: “Br Simon and I set out in a second-hand land rover with some supplies from Mount Melleray.  The fifty-mile journey took five hours.  We took possession of a small round hut, into which we squeezed two camp beds and a small table.  This was to be our home for many months until enough bricks were made to build a permanent structure.”

Fr James O’Shea, a former Provincial, oversaw the building of the new Priory in Umtali in 1954.  This fine building would serve many purposes in the years ahead.

In early 1953 the Prefecture of Umtali was established, independent of the Diocese of Salisbury.  The new Prefecture was entrusted to the care of the Irish Province, with Donal Lamont as Prefect Apostolic.  In 1957 the Prefecture became the Diocese of Umtali (Mutare), with Mons. Donal Lamont as the first Bishop.

Fr Mel Hill was elected the Superior of the Carmelites in Rhodesia at the Provincial Chapter of 1955.  Mel strongly encouraged the learning of the Shona language by all Carmelites coming to Rhodesia.  He taught the language himself and introduced the newcomers to Shona customs and traditions.  In 1955 Fr George Fortune, SJ, had published the first real Shona grammar and this proved to be a great help to all missionaries learning the language.  It became the policy of the Order that new missionaries would study the language and customs for at least six months before being assigned to a mission.

Regina Coeli, Nyamaropa, was begun in 1955 by Fr Senan Egan under very difficult conditions.  His first construction on the site was a multi-purpose building in which he slept, and from which he supervised the gradual development of the Mission. Senan planned its layout with meticulous care, with provision being made for the erection of a church, hospital and Carmelite residence.  He pumped water from a local river, installing filter plants to improve its quality.

The Sisters of Charity came from the Netherlands in 1957.  Two of them were qualified nurses, and Senan suggested the opening of a training school for nurses on the mission.  To do this, however, there had to be a doctor.  Doctor Irene Baroness Von Furstenberg had been attracted to working in the developing world. Shortly after qualifying in her native Germany, she came to Rhodesia and later to Regina Coeli Mission.  The Training School was established and was highly successful.

In 1956 Fr Cormac Kennedy and Br Bernard Clinch began the development of St Thérèse Mission, Chiduku.  Permission was given by the Ministry of Education to open a teacher training school there.  Bernard Clinch, who was a master builder, had completed the building of the Training School by 1957.

The Carmelites were entrusted with the newly founded St Joseph’s Mission, Sakubva, in 1958.  Initially they served it from the Priory in Umtali.  The Dutch Sisters of Charity started a one hundred bed sanitorium for the care of TB patients at St Joseph’s.  This hospital was officially opened by Lady Dalhousie, wife of the Governor General, on December 30th 1958.  In 1962 the building of a fine church was completed and Frs Conall Collier (pictured below speaking to Chita women at St Joseph’s) and Brian Kiernan took up residence at Sakubva.

Frs Paul Feeley and Charles Haggerty arrived from the St Elias Province (New York) and began the establishment of St Andrew’s Mission, Marange, in 1960.  A house had been built in anticipation of their coming by Bernard Clinch.   They started their work with the construction of a lower primary school.  The next structure to go up was a convent for the Carmelite Sisters.  A clinic to be run by the Carmelite Sisters was then built.  Marange was a hot area, low lying, windswept and desolate.  Diseases like malaria and bilharzia were rampant, so the clinic was kept busy.  Many Mass centres and outstations were opened in the surrounding areas within a short time.  Later Paul Feeley oversaw the building of a beautiful church with the assistance of Bernard Clinch.

Fr John O’Sharkey established St Columba’s Mission in the Honde Valley in 1959.  The site chosen was partly in a forest and right across the river was Mozambique.  It was a remote location and not very practical.  John was a learned naturalist and, in many ways, it was an ideal situation for him.  In 1967 Stephen Josten, from the St Elias Province, began the construction of a new building in a more central site in the area.  He retained the name St. Columba’s out of respect for John O’Sharkey.  The Carmelite Sisters now came to St Columba’s, establishing a clinic and later opening a small hospital.  A day school was developed as there were many children in the area.

The Carmelite missionary work continued to develop into the 1960’s with the foundation of three new Missions: St Peter’s, Chisumbanje, in 1961; St Patrick’s, Nyanyadzi, in 1962; St Michael’s, Tanda, in 1969.  Carmel College was established in 1964, and the Order began its association with Kriste Mambo School in 1963.

Conflict and War

While the 1950’s and 1960’s had been a time of expansion and consolidation for the missionary work of the Carmelites, the 1970’s were years of conflict and war for the entire country.  The Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) by the minority white Government in 1965 resulted in economic sanctions and further infringements on the human rights of the indigenous population.  In 1972 a guerrilla type civil war began.  The ordinary people, particularly in the rural areas and villages, paid a heavy price as the Government’s security forces sought to crush the rebels.

The Irish Carmelites found themselves in the middle of this conflict, especially in the rural missions.  They were often treated with suspicion by both sides.  Frs Tom McLoughlin and Gerry Galvin were both shot in the course of the conflict.  Tom McLoughlin was seriously injured when his truck became caught up in a guerrilla operation.  Fr Robbie MacCabe, who ministered as medical doctor as well as priest, had to leave the country overnight due to difficulties arising from medical care given to wounded freedom fighters.

Despite all of this, the Carmelites continued to minister among the people.  Two Carmelites were arrested and tried for not reporting the presence of freedom fighters on their Missions. They were found guilty and deported.

A key figure for the Catholic Church in Rhodesia at this time was Donal Lamont, who had been appointed the first Bishop of Umtali (Mutare) since 1957.  A deeply held belief in the Church’s mission to preach and witness to justice for all people dominated his thinking.  Engaging and articulate, he had denounced racial discrimination and the violation of human rights in the country even before UDI. 

His first pastoral letter in 1959, Purchased People, has been recognised as a prophetic statement against all forms of racial discrimination.  He was also a strong voice for the missionary church at the Second Vatican Council.  Despite the difficult situation in the country he fostered an ecumenical spirit in his diocese.  He developed links with other churches and with figures such as Bishop Abel Muzorewa and Garfield Todd, the former Prime Minister and Church of Christ pastor.  Health and education were areas in which this ecumenical co-operation proved very fruitful.

Throughout the 1970’s Donal Lamont was unrelenting in his criticism of the white minority government.  He wrote an open letter to them characterised by candour and compassion.  Shortly after he had published this letter, he was charged under the Law and Order Maintenance Act for allowing Religious Sisters under his jurisdiction to administer medical care to freedom fighters.

During his trial, Bishop Lamont defended the morality of his decision not to act as an informer and not to refuse medical assistance to anyone “regardless of religion or politics”.  He pleaded guilty to the charge and so prevented anyone else having to incriminate themselves by testifying on his behalf.  In October 1976 he was sentenced to ten years hard labour but was later deprived of his Rhodesian citizenship and deported on March 23rd 1977.

In 1980, after Independence had been granted, Bishop Lamont returned to his diocese and ministered there until his successor, Zimbabwean-born Alexio Muchabaiwa, was appointed.  He retired to Ireland as Bishop Emeritus of Mutare in 1983.

The Lancaster House Agreement of 1979 granted independence to Zimbabwe and brought peace to a war-torn country.  The new Government drew on a Marxist-Leninist political philosophy and the Church had to deal with this reality as it worked to renew the lives of its people.

While no religious or priest had been killed in the Diocese of Mutare, a number were shot and wounded while others were tortured and deported.  Catechists, however, had been murdered and many families had lost members in the course of the war.  In addition, great damage had been done to the infrastructure of the country.  Many roads in the Mutare area, because of its closeness to Mozambique, were still mined.  Many properties had been damaged or destroyed.


Many missions now had to be rebuilt as they had been virtually destroyed.  Fr Michael Hender extended the schools at St. Columba’s in the Honde Valley, while Fr Ambrose Vinyu (Diocese of Mutare) worked on the rebuilding of St Benedict’s Mission, which the Carmelites had taken over from the Jesuits in 1953.  Fr Jim Doyle restored St. Charles Lwanga Seminary. Grants were provided by many donor agencies.  Propaganda Fidei, the Dutch Sisters of Charity, the American, German, British and Irish Carmelites were also financially very supportive. Gradually life returned to normal but the war had taken its toll.  There were fewer Carmelites on the ground as no new friars had come from Ireland since 1972.

New Growth

By 1982 the number of diocesan priests in Zimbabwe was increasing and the two local bishops in Mutare were Zimbabwean.  Fr Tom Power, the Commissary Provincial, felt that the time was ripe to begin a Zimbabwean Carmelite Novitiate.  A start was made in a small residence on the Bvumba, close to Mutare.

In early 1985 the Novitiate moved to Kriste Mambo (pictured below), where it continues to this day.  It is now not only the novitiate for Zimbabwe but also for Kenya and Mozambique.  The first novices to make their professions there were Constantine Masarira and Conrad Mutizamhepo in 1987.  Conrad is now Councillor General for the African Region of the Order and resides at the Generalate in Rome.

Drawing up a comprehensive formation programme for young Zimbabweans joining the Order took much planning and work.  It was decided that all of their initial formation would happen within Zimbabwe.  The novitiate would continue at Kriste Mambo while a new formation community was established at Mount Carmel, Harare (pictured below), on the grounds of Nazareth House, thanks to the generosity of the Nazareth Sisters.  The students would study Philosophy and Theology at Arupe College and Holy Trinity College respectively.  All students would also undertake pastoral ministry placements from June to August each year.

The number of young Zimbabweans joining the Order gathered momentum throughout the 1990’s and has remained steady in the new millennium, so that currently there are twenty-five Solemnly Professed Zimbabwean Carmelites, with twenty Students in Mount Carmel. In 2006 Simplisio Manyika was elected the first Zimbabwean Commissary Provincial.  He was succeeded in 2015 by Vitalis Benza.

Triashill Mission and St  Kilian’s were returned by the Order to the pastoral care of the Diocese during August/September 2012, in order to allow the Carmelites to support their formation programme and to extend the variety of their ministries.  Since then, some of the younger men have been able to specialise, not only in formation, but also in education and theology.

In November 2011 it was decided to build a new priory at Nyazura, close to Rusape.  It would serve as a pre-novitiate, as a place of retreat and meetings.  It would also have a pastoral outreach within St Simon Stock Parish.  Prophet Elijah Priory was officially opened by Martin Kilmurray, then Provincial, on March 1st 2014.  The first members of the community were: Wiseman Musemwa (Prior), Louis Bouthillette and Ezevia Murambiwa.

In 2012 two Carmelite nuns, Sisters Margarita de Cristo Rey and Winfreda from the Monastery of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Machakos in Kenya, visited Zimbabwe with a view to founding a community in the Diocese of Mutare.  This foundation became a reality in 2015 when the nuns took up residence in Wiermouth outside Mutare, on a property given to them by Bishop Muchabaiwa.  The nuns have begun building a new monastery on the land suited to their way of life and ministry.

2016 saw the Episcopal Ordination of Paul Horan, an Irish Carmelite who had been ministering since Zimbabwe in 2001.  After Bishop Lamont, he is the second Irish-born Bishop of this diocese.  Paul’s ordination stands as a testament to his own work as a missionary but also to the long and enduring relationship between the Irish Carmelites and the people of Zimbabwe.

A Final Word

In recent times there has been an inevitable decline in the number of Irish Carmelites ministering in Zimbabwe.  As the number of religious and priests in Ireland decreases the Commissariat of Zimbabwe stands as a testament to the dedication and work of the Irish Province of Carmelites.  The continued growth in this side of the Province’s life and ministry gives great encouragement and hope to all who are associated with the Order.

Over the years the ministry of the Carmelites has been greatly enhanced by the active presence of lay people, priests from the Diocese of Killaloe and Sisters from various Religious Congregations.  They have also received tremendous financial and spiritual support from people in Ireland, Britain, wider Europe and the United States.

Seventy-five years ago, the first Carmelites arrived in Zimbabwe with a simple desire: to work in the midst of the people and bringing the Gospel to those most in need.  Today that mission remains the same.  Carmelites, Irish and Zimbabwean, still work in the service of the people.  We give thanks for the many blessings received from God while looking to the future with hope.

The Carmelites In Zimbabwe 1946-2017

Download our Anniversary Publication about the first 70 years in Zimbabwe

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