Rockwell Boy from Carron Takes Darkest Africa in his Stride - Fr John Hogan, C.S.Sp (1851-1885)


Rockwell College was a small school when John Hogan of Carron started as a day-student on January 12, 1866. At the time it was known as the 'Scotch College' as the motive of the French proprietor, Charles Thiebault, in turning over the property for use as a seminary was to provide priests for Scotland, where he had large commercial interests. The college had only 71 names on its rolls. Of these 17 were in the Scotch College, 5 were scholastic aspirants for the Holy Ghost Fathers, 28 were boarders and 23 were day-students.

After a year and a half the sixteen-year old boy entered the new junior scholasticate, which had opened at the Lake House. After three and a half years he was made prefect or junior master, which entailed supervising the junior lay students and teaching some lower class­es. In Autumn 1871 he went to Langonnet in Brittany to pursue his priestly studies. He suffered much from ill-health and felt his studies suffered in consequence. He later transferred to Chevilly near Paris, where he was ordained for the priesthood in August 1877.

Fr. Hogan spent a further year completing his studies and was appointed as missionary priest to Cimbabasie in Southern Africa. This mission had only just been founded and embraced the vast area known today as Southern Angola, Namibia, Botswana, e tc. This vast territory had been committed by Rome to the pastoral care of the Holy Chost Fathers, with Fr. Charles Duparquet, C.S.Sp. as its founder. The latter had come to Ireland looking for priests and funds. He visited Rockwell in 1878, where the students organised lotteries to raise funds. He was allocated two newly-ordained priests, Frs. John Hogan and Gerald Griffin, and a newly professed Brother Onuphre Cooney of Oulart, Co. Wexford.

On finishing his courses in France, Fr. Hogan returned to Ireland for a short holiday with his parents. He spent October at Blackrock College preparing for his voyage to South Africa and packing the various requisites, which were presented to him for his mission.

Africa

He landed at Capetown but had to wait for seven weeks for a boat to Walvis Bay, which was the nearest point to his destination. While awaiting his boat he availed of the hospitality of the Irish Bishop of Capetown, Dr. Leonard. In return he acted as chaplain to the local jail and hospital. During the 700 miles boat trip to Walvis Bay he had the company of a party of hunters, who introduced him to the art of using a gun and a compass, necessary skills for life in the bush.

On arrival at Walvis Bay he had to accept the grudging hospitality of the representative of a German Lutheran Missionary Society until his instructions arrived. Eventually Fr. Duparquet's ox-drawn, caravan arrived to collect him and his cargo. The 19-day trip to Omaruru was a testing introduction to life in the heart of Africa. Having left Ireland at the beginning of November, he arrived at his destination on the eve of St. Patrick's Day.

Fr. Hogan's task was to found a Christian Church among the native population. He was soon to be in charge because Fr. Duparquet spent more and more of his time on explorations. With the help of Br. Onuphre, he built a school and tried to pick up the rudiments of the native language. In mid­January 1880 they were joined by Fr. Gerald Griffin from Limerick. Un­fortunately he was not of the calibre required to cope with life as experienced at Omaruru. His fears of African diseases and the vicious inter-tribal warfare between Hottentots and Damaras forced him eventually to return to Europe. As a substitute Fr. Hogan was sent a former student of th e Scotch Co11ege, Rockwe11, Fr. Joseph Lynch, a Scotsman, born of Irish parents, who was to prove a welcome companion.

The difficulties of the situation were aggravated hy several personal·confrontations with Mr. Viche, the local Lutheran pastor, who looked none too kindly on the success of the Catho1ic mission and especially the numbers of children who were attending the mission school. Mr. Viche organised a movement to have Fr. Hogan expelled from the area, but failed. However, he made a second attempt, using force. The house of Fr. Hogan and Br. Onuphre was attacked, their effects piled on to a wagon and orders given that they be driven to Walwis. All this was in progress when Fr. Joseph Lynch arrived in poor shape from Walvis Bay, en route from India via Mauritius. It was a sad parting for the Irish missionaries after their three years of dedicated and fruitful pastoral work.

Life at Walwis Bay was pretty grim with a lack of adequate accommodation, a shortage of food and clothing and very little cash. The Irishmen continued their ministry of catechising children and made a few converts. Most of their time was spent in serious study of the Damara and Hottentot languages in the hope that an opening would come for them to resume their missionary work elsewhere in the region. The Capetown press espoused their cause and called for them to be reinstated at Omaruru.

Portuguese to the Rescue

When their expectations were at their lowest word came that the Portuguese Government had agreed to allow the Holy Ghost Congregation to open missions in Angola. Fr. Duparquet had heen to the fore in the negotiations with the Portuguese Crovernment. He hoped to open the headquarters of the new mission at Huilla, which was within striking distance of the port of Mossamedes in southern Angola. A central station at this point had two advantages: it would shorten the journey from Europe by over 1,000 miles and it was just across the river Cunene where they could he in touch with the people who spoke the languages that the Irish trio had heen familiar with at Omaruru. They would be outside the Cimbabasie Station, of which Fr. Duparquet was the Vice-Prefect Apostolic but he hoped to gain entrance into the Cimbabaasie area later under the protective umbrella this time of' the Portuguese presence.

Fr. Lynch was too weak to face the long trek overland north to Angola so it was arranged that he travel by boat to Mossamedes. Fr. Hogan and Br. Onuphre set off in the ox-drawn wagon, the 'Raphael', used previously by Duparquet, carrying their furniture and provisions. On their way they were given a triumphal entry into Omaruru despite a prohihition on thei r entering the place, signed by the Chief on the instigation of' Mr. Viche. On their journey north they were greeted by another Chief', who wanted them to set up in his locality, Ikera.

Having left Walvis Bay on April 12, l882 they finally arrived at Humhe on June 23, where they were welcomed by Fr. Duparquet, who had come down from Huilla. More importantly they were given a rapturous welcome from the people. The Portuguese authorities presented them with a residence, the local Chief provided them with an extensive fruit and vegetable garden, the women of the locality came in large numbers to help get the place in order and the men helped at providing a chapel as it was planned to start with the church rather than the school.

Fr. Hogan was delighted when he found that he was able to communicate wi th the people in their own tongue as it resemhled the language in use at Umaruru. But the prayers had to he taught in Portuguese, this being part of the price to he paid for the protection and patronage of the Portuguese authorities.

The main undertaking of Fr. Hogan and Br. Onuphre from September on was the construction of an adequate church. This was completed and the first mass was celebrated in it on Christmas Day.

As there was no bell it was decided to fire a number of volleys with available guns. In fact with the co-operation of the Portuguese soldiery, 200 volleys were fired causing commotion among the native population, who gathered the message that the Missionrries were men of importance. They came in crowds and were charmed by the hymn-singing of Fr. Hogan's girls' choir. The mass was followed by the baptism of nine children prepared in the school by Fr. Lynch. The number of chilrlren in the school had reached 40 in a short time. From then on it could he said that the liturgical and devotional life of the mission was on a solid foundation.

Angola

Once the mission of Humbe was seen to be on a solid basis, Fr. Dupaquet was already planning new foundations. The most immediate was in answer to the repeated request from a king or chief to the south of the Ovampo area at Evare. In 1883 it was decided in principle that a mission be founded in Ovampo south of the river Cunene dividing Angola from Damaraland or southwest Africa, and another to the east in the Amboellas region. Both these missions would he in the jurisdiction of Cimbabasie but still, hopefully, under the protective arm of the Portuguese, if required.

On June 17, 1883 Fr. Duparquet arrived at Humbe from his headquarters at Huilla, bringing with him the personnel and equipment to establish the mission south of the Cunene. Among the party was an Irish brother, Gerard Claffey from Moate who had entered the novitiate at Blackrock in l866 and had spent some years in Portugal as a member of the community at Braga. By now he was conversant with Portuguese, so he was a valuable accession to the team. As the rainy season had left the river Cunene impassable for the juggernaut, Raphael, and as a long delay was expected, Fr. Dupaquet sent Fr. Hogan with a small group of helpers and with a more mobile form of transport to make soundings.

On their way the small party had many temptations from local chieftains to stay and start up missions but they pushed on to inspect the site at Amboellas. They found it a beautiful, fertile and seemingly very healthy area, reminding them of Huilla. They left for Humbe on August 25, 1883 and reached it only on October 2, which brings home to us the slowness of travel.

At the end of July l884 the new mission was opened at Oukananda in Ovampo. A few days later Frs. Hogan and Lynch and Br. Onuphre and Portuguese Br. Rodriquez set off for their more remote mission, taking with them some of the most senior students and a team of Boers as drivers of the Raphael and its team of 16 oxen.

On arrival at Amboellas there was much work to be done. The school was started immediately. In his spare time Fr. Hogan set about constructing a church and Br. Onuphre worked on erecting three separate dwellings and work areas. Fr. Lynch, whose health left a lot to be desired, concentrated on catechical work. Br. Rodriques fulfilled the obligation of teaching a modicum of Portuguese to the children. Letters say they had a visit from eight kings or chiefs, who expressed themselves very content with progress. It would appear from the extant report that the compound, including buildings and grounds, were a model of what a mission centre should be.

One thing, however, became an acute problem, the shortage of food. The had many mouths to feed, having brought along the senior students from Humbe. They could not bring a big store of provisions on the first trip as so many other things had to he transported. It would take time for their garden to produce what was needed. So, Fr. Hogan decided, wet season though it was, he would have to set out with the big wagon to Humhe, where he expected to pick up provisions which would have to be delivered from Huilla. He too Br. Onuphre with him.

Death

They got to Humbe alright but had to wait ten days for the provisions to arrive from Huilla. Fr. Hogan and Br. Onuphre seemingly spent a good part of the time at the swamps near the river. To the consternation of all they contracted fever. However, once the wagon from Huilla arrived it was felt they had to return without delay to feed the hungry at the mission. The ground was very sift underfoot due to the heavy rains. 'Raphael' sank too deep in the mud and had to be abandoned for weeks. Luckily they were not too far from home and made the rest of the journey on foot. But, the ordeal had taken too great a toll of Fr. Hogan's reserves of energy. He was confined to bed with a severe fever, so severe that Fr. Lynch administered the last sacraments.

Dedicated nursing, however, led to his recovery. On February 20 he wrote to Fr. Duparquet that all was well with him, that the work was going ahead sweetly and that the local people were very supportive. He tried to resume work as usual but suffered a relapse. Within two days he succumbed to a persistent fever, dying at the age of 34 on March 10, 1885.

His death came as a shock to the people on the mission. The person most affected was Fr. Lynch, who was himself in very poor health. In fact he was so shattered by the experience that he too passed away just four weeks later, at the age of 32 years. Br. Onuphre managed to keep going though very ill with fever. Br. Rodriquez was confined to bed. What might have finished Br. Onuphre was that a band of heartless local people came after the death of Fr. Lynch demanding with threats, as they brandished spears, they they pay the customary 'fine', before he would be allowed to inter the body in local soil. He bought them off with two pairs of trousers and a few shirts, and survived. He eventually died on St. Patrick's Day, 1893, aged 43 years and was buried beside his confreres.


Conclusion

In I878 Fr. Hogan, in a letter to the Superior General requesting the favour of heing professed as a member of the Holy Ghost Congregation, said he had no special preference as regards his appointment: he was ready to serve where God asked once he was a member of the Society. In contempporary letters to his family we find similar sentiments of total commitment to his chosen vocation. He needed such commitment because, when he was appointed to Cimbabasie, he was being appointed to the unknown. In a letter written on the boat to Cape town he was to complain that he had been given absolutely no briefing on where exactly the mission was and what kind of work he might be expected to do. The authorities in Paris did not know the answers to these questions.

When he arrived at Walwis Bay no instructions awaited him. While awaiting them he was grudgingly accommodated by a representative of the German Lutheran Mission Society. He felt totally lost and depressed. Later he had to contend with the vicissitudes of mission existence and the enmity of the Lutheran pastor, Mr. Viche. Viche and his fellow Lutheran pastors organised a concerted campaign to have Fr. Hogan expelled. They forbade the children to attend his school or his religious services and had the local Chief issue written orders to him to quit..

Most of our knowledge of Fr. Hogan and his mission comes from the reports of Fr. Duparquet. But Fr. Hogan, as the local superior, had to do his share of reporting to Paris and to Fr. Duparquet. This amounts to a sizable amount of correspondence. Those who have studied it like Fr. Sean Farragher, C.S.Sp. and Fr. Bernard Keane, C.S.Sp. say that it seems to reveal a temperament, open, affable, entirely devoid of personal recriminations, sensible, practical, but, at the same time, no softie. At a time when Africa was still the Dark Continent to outsiders, Fr. Hogan comes across as a man totally in love with the continent and its people and taking them in his stride just as if he were in his native Tipperary. At the same time he was trying to unlock the secrets of the African countryside, its rivers and plantations, in order to establish the kind of headquarters that would offer the best service.

By the time fever struck him down at the early age of 34 years, Fr. Hogan was already prematurely old and grey. The years of hardship had taken their toll and his resistance soon gave way. His only consolation on his death bed, so many miles from Carron and Rockwell, was that the last rights were administered by fellow Rockwellian, Fr. Lynch, and that he had the company of another Rockwellian, Brother Onuphre Cooney.


Supplement Nationalist Centenary 1890-1990, p 124