It was on Christmas, 1897, that Fr. Gabriel Grison, SCJ, first celebrated Mass at the new Dehonian mission in Stanleyville (now Kisangani, in the Democratic Republic of Congo). He and Fr. Gabriel Lux, SCJ, were the start of what has become a 126-year commitment of the Priests of the Sacred Heart to the people of DR Congo.
However, it was a commitment that came with heartache. Twenty-eight SCJs were among the many missionaries martyred during the Simba Rebellion. In 2004, the general administration established Dehonian Memorial Day, choosing November 26 to commemorate it, the anniversary of the date that Bishop Joseph Wittebols, along with six other SCJs, were martyred in Congo in 1964.
A memorial to the martyrs is in the lobby of Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology. Seeing it, Fr. Floribert Bulo Dhelo, an SCJ from the Congolese Province studying in the ECS program, was reminded that almost 60 years after the Dehonian missionaries were martyred, there is no significant shrine in Congo to memorialize them.
“When I reflect on the difficult pastoral conditions of moving from one place to another in the Congo, I have full respect for our former missionaries because I cannot imagine what it was like over 125 years ago,” said Fr. Floribert. “Their love for the mission is a strong, unforgettable example for us. They could have left and saved their lives in 1964, but they decided to stay with the people, and suffer as they did.”
Fr. Floribert wrote an extensive reflection on the need to commemorate these martyrs in a more significant way. Though he was inspired by the memorial that he saw at SHSST, he shares the reflection as we close in on Christmas, the anniversary of that first Mass, to remember not just the deaths of these SCJs, but the life that they brought to the people of Congo.
“We, as the living, the Priests of the Sacred Heart, have this responsibility,” wrote Fr. Floribert. “Our responsibility is to offer them a good place for devotion, to speak of them, to immortalize them in the Church and in society.”
Fr. Floribert is pictured above (right) with Frs. Vien Nguyen and Gustave Lulendo at last year’s 125th anniversary celebration in DR Congo.