Dear Mom and Dad is how Fr. John P. Casey began 49 letters in 1957 that tell the story of his first year on the Maryknoll Society’s mission in Zanaki, Tanzania. Fr. Casey was ordained on June 9, 1956 and assigned to work in Tanzania where he spent nearly all of his 40 year mission career. After Fr. Casey’s death in October 2018, his family generously donated his letters and photographs to the Maryknoll Mission Archives. As I organized the materials what struck me about this particular set of letters was that they are not only a detailed personal story of a new missioner’s daily activities, challenges, interactions and joys, but also an account of the days leading up to the elevation of the Prefecture Apostolic of Musoma to a Diocese and the appointment of Maryknoll’s newly ordained Bishop John J. Rudin as its head. 1957 was a significant year both individually for Fr. Casey and organizationally for the Society. I’ll let Fr. Casey tell the story through these excerpts from his letters…
It is 1230 here in Zanaki but still early morning in Lynn and you are probably still in bed. We have a peaceful schedule here on Sunday. Mass for the people is at 0900. After the Mass we talk with the people awhile and the children come looking for candy. From 1100 to 2:00 P.M. it is quiet around the mission. Then at two o’clock people begin to gather. They like to get a ride down to Musoma with us and they know that we usually leave between two and three o’clock. There are almost always more people then we have room for. Fr. Wille has a Chevrolet pick-up truck which is very handy out here and we can take about seven people besides ourselves. When we get to Musoma – about a forty minute drive – we buy our groceries for the week, pick up our mail and the go to visit the Musoma mission. If there is a good movie we stay for it. The movie starts at 0630 P.M. Afterwards we eat supper at the Musoma Mission and then return to Zanaki. Sometimes on Sunday we go up to our mission at Nyegina which is about nine miles outside of Musoma and has a nice view over Lake Victoria. Nyegina is the oldest mission in this district…
Monday, I am going to take the girl that I told you about to Kowak Mission where she will start the fifth grade. She is older than fifth grade age would be at home as she started school late, as many children do here. I baptized her last Wednesday morning before Mass along with a new baby of our catechist. Her family seems to have accepted the fact that she is going to school and aren’t making any effort to stop her now. We have to cross the Mara River to get to Kowak. We cross on a ferry which operates by men pulling a cable and pulling the ferry across a narrow stretch of water. The ferry is in the territory of Zanaki Mission and is about ten miles from here.
Musoma is going to be a Diocese soon and will have a Bishop. We don’t know yet who the Bishop will be. All the men here had to send in the names of three men whom they considered likely candidates. It is not a vote but just a poll to give the authorities a guide. Maryknoll will send the results to Rome and Rome will make the final decision.
The people have all been cultivating their gardens lately getting the crop planted. Most of the year they don’t have much work. Only at planting and harvest time do they have to really exert themselves. One of the staples of their diet is cassava which is a big starchy root of a plant. It grows easily. They plant a type of grain also and a few peanuts and other vegetables. They eat bukima every day at dinner and supper and don’t have much else. The bukima is heavy and sticky like real thick Ralston cereal. It has a doughy consistency.
I said Mass for the people this morning and there was a very good crowd present. A good number received Communion. Thus far, I have not preached but I will have to start soon. Although I like to preach, I don’t look forward too much to beginning here because it will be a difficult job to write a sermon in the language. That is an obstacle that will have to be met and overcome, though.
This morning, I gave my first sermon in Kizanaki. It is funny how quickly things can happen. Last Monday I found out that Fr. Wille was going to say Mass in another place this Sunday and since there would be no one to preach here I decided that I may as well start. I wrote the sermon in English and had my language teacher put it into good Kizanaki. I didn’t have it in Kizanaki until Wednesday and wasn’t able to get it memorized perfectly so I read it off. At least I have broken the ice and I will try to preach every other Sunday now.
The time passes very quickly here. Now we are in Lent again. The people here do not have to fast during Lent. On Ash Wednesday, I gave out ashes to the people here.
Eleven years ago this very day I parted from the Army. The years since have slipped away rather quickly. When I was in the seminary, it seemed as if those years would never come to an end. Now here I am in Africa.
After Mass this morning, a father brought his little boy to get some medicine for him. The boy had an infection in his ear and there was a lot of pus in the ear. I cleaned it out as well as I could and told the father he should take the boy to a dispensary for a shot.
It was a year ago today that I received the news of my assignment to Africa and now here I am. This past week, I have been here alone at the Mission. I had my first sick call during the week. On Wednesday…I had just finished teaching the altar boys and came out of the Church at 5:30 P.M. to find a man waiting there to tell me that a woman was sick about fourteen miles from here. I had to borrow [Father’s] car. As I was getting everything ready to go, a terrific rain storm broke. It passed over in about twenty minutes and I set off for Bukiroba, the name of the place the sick person was. When I got there, I had to hike about a mile off the road across some wet fields and muddy paths. We finally reached the little village and I went into the hut. It was just about sunset. The woman was Anastasia. I had met her before. She didn’t seem to me to be in any serious danger of death so I only heard her confession and didn’t give her the other Sacraments. She has some kind of rheumatic trouble and I guess she has been suffering quite a bit with it… That was the first confession I had heard in Kizanaki.
Today is Palm Sunday…
Palm Sunday is very popular here. The people love to get the palms and take part in the procession. This morning the Church was full. Many of the people brought their own palms with them as they grow in this country.
I am all finished with full time language study now and tomorrow I’ll have to take up some of the work of the mission. It will be difficult for a while because I still have a long way to go before I become proficient in the language. I couple of things that I’ll have to start on right away are to teach a daily class in our school at the mission and to supervise the instruction in three of the government schools in our territory.
We had a very good crowd for Easter. […] I was the celebrant for the Easter Vigil last night and we had a good crowd for that also. We really had a hot paschal fire. I didn’t have too much wood in it but when I lit it at the beginning of the ceremony it really blazed up. […] The fire got so hot that the table started to burn too. I had a hard time to keep from laughing. Everything went well after we got the fire under control.
We had a job finding lodging for all the people who came in from far places. They packed our village, school and other places. Some of them needed food, others needed bedding. Yesterday afternoon, I met two women who were just arriving. They had come from a place called Ushashi about fifty or sixty miles from here. They walked three days to get here for Easter. One of them carried a good sized baby of about two years old. This morning after the High Mass they started off for home again. I hope they found some place to stop when this heavy rain started.
Last Friday, I began my schedule of trips to visit the various sections of our territory. Fr. Wille assigned me to cover three sections, Bukiroba, Bukabwe, and Baruma. I will spend two days a week visiting these places, I leave in the morning and stay out most of the day. I have to visit the schools, both government primary schools and our own catechetical schools and go around to some of the villages to check on various cases and to encourage the [people] to come and study.
This past week, I administered the Sacrament of Extreme Unction for the first time. An old man and his wife were both sick. I went to see how they were on Wednesday. The catechist told me that there was a good path to where they lived. It really was a terrible one and I all but wrecked the motorcycle driving on it. We went in an out of big ruts, through deep sand, through swamp land. The next day I went back with the Sacraments but left the motorcycle at the Catechists village and walked. It took me over an hour to get there. I brought communion to both of them and anointed the old man. The wife wanted to receive Extreme Unction too but she wasn’t in danger of death. They are good Catholics and appreciated getting the Sacraments very much.
Today I said Mass away from the mission at one of our outstations. It is a place called Ikizu and is about twenty-four miles from here. I said Mass in an African hut made of mud and sticks and a grass roof. It is one that the people built for us to use as a place to teach and for Mass when we go there every so often. On my way to Mass I picked up some people who were coming to Mass and when we arrived I was asking them what tribes they belonged to. Out of five people I had five different tribes – Mukwaya, Muganda, Muhaya, Nandi and Musukuma. Each one spoke a different language and three of them are languages that I could understand very little of or nothing. They were all surprised that I only knew Kizanaki. The common language for dealing with all the tribes is Kiswahili which is a second language for all the people in this area but is generally understood. After I master Kizanaki I’ll have to try and learn a little Kiswahili.
The night before I left Nairobi, we got the announcement of the appointment of the new Bishop of Musoma. Fr. John Rudin has been nominated for the post. It was not a surprise as many were expecting him to get it. You met him at Maryknoll when you came down to see me off to Africa, and you also met him in the past I think when I was in the seminary. […] At present he is our Regional Superior and has been living in Nairobi. We are all pleased to have the nomination out because things were more or less hanging waiting for the news.
Since arriving back, a lot of work has started coming my way. Fr. Wille is leaving tomorrow and after that the place will be all mine for a while. A large sacrament course is just beginning and teaching that will be one of my important jobs. The sacrament course is made up of those people who live here for six months in preparation for Baptism. There will be about forty this time which is the largest yet. We are short on huts for them all and one of the things that they will do right away is to build some houses.
I think that the new men for Africa sailed from N.Y. yesterday and are now on the high seas. It has been a quick year since I left the U.S.A. last August. I will be glad to see other newcomers. Now I won’t be in the ranks of the novices anymore and I’ll see others struggling with the beginning of language study.
One of the things that I am working on now is the building of a school about twelve miles from here. Fr. Wille got the foundation in but did not have time to finish so I have it now. It isn’t too complicated, fortunately, and I hope that it can be finished soon.
Another busy week has flown by. One of the jobs I had to do was to balance the books of the mission and make out the reports for July. I had a lot of trouble getting the books to balance and spent most of my time yesterday on it. I think that it will be easier in the future since I will be used to the system and will be able to keep a record of transactions more clearly. I hate to spend time on bookkeeping when there is so much more important work to do.
The school that I am supervising the construction of at Buruma seems to be coming along fairly well. Putting the roof on will involve a little difficulty but once that is done that job will be all set.
We have about sixty people living in our village here at the mission and I am having a hard time to alleviate the housing shortage. The second new house is almost finished but we need another big one right away.
It isn’t long until the consecration of the new Bishop of Musoma. The consecration is scheduled for Oct. 3 in Musoma. Fr. Comber, the Superior General, is coming over for it and will make a visitation of the missions here at the same time. There will be a lot of activity for a while. They are planning on sending a large crowd to sleep here at the time of the consecration.
It is less than a week to the consecration now. I had to get some invitations out this week to the Chiefs, catechists and other people. I don’t know how many will actually go to Musoma for the day. There should be a good size crowd. All the children here at the mission expect me to take them down but I probably won’t be able to as there will be a crowd of grown-ups looking for a ride.
The consecration of Bishop Rudin took place on Thursday and everything went well.
Now, with a new Bishop, we will be started on a new era here in Musoma. I think that he will do a good job. He has a lot of ideas and is very interested in the work.
Today we had the Bishop out at Zanaki for his first appearance since his consecration. Today was medal day. All the school children who passed their test on the prayers came to get a medal. We have a regular ceremony for it. At the end the Bishop gave each one his or her medal and then said the Mass. After Mass, the people gave the Bishop about three chickens, some eggs, and a sheep.
Last Monday I went on a trip to the far corner of our parish. I was away over two nights… The farthest point I went to is Ikoma which you can find on the map I left at home. […] On Monday night I slept in a small African hut which we have for our own use at the catechist’s village near Ikoma. That area is one big plain and you can see for miles. It was very nice walking on the plain at night under a full moon. In the far distance, we could hear lions roaring.
The rainy season has not started yet to my dismay. I hope that it will come soon before our water gets too low. We have has some rain and I thought that the rainy season was on several times but not yet. It seems rather late this year. The people have to go some distance now to find their water because the country is all dryed [sic] up.
We have finally got rain here and have plenty of water now.
This week will mark my first year here at Zanaki. It was a busy first year but now that I have finished it, the future will be easier. I feel that I have a fairly good grasp of the situation now and am able to act with more sureness and confidence. The worst days of difficulties with the language are behind now.
We had a good crowd here for All Saints’ Day and there were a good number of communions. I ran out of hosts and just made it by breaking a number of them.
This is Thanksgiving week unless they are still shifting the date around and you have already celebrated it. Days like that don’t mean so much here because nobody else is celebrating them and the climate itself makes a difference. Thanksgiving day is associated with the beginning of winter weather and over here it will just be another day of warm sunshine.
I got some pictures back this part week and have a lot of pictures of the people here. I had one picture of two women carrying water on their head. One of them I knew, the other I could not remember. It turned out to be the mother of a ten year old girl who lives here. Her mother has been missing for almost a year because of trouble with the father. When she saw the picture she was really delighted and asked me if she could have it. It was a slide and you can’t see it too well without a viewer but it meant so much to her that I let her take it.
Well the people have finished their course and were baptized last Monday. I baptized thirty five and it was a real workout. It was like an ordination ceremony with so many people. Everything went smoothly and it was a happy day for the people. They received communion the same day as I said Mass after the Baptism. After baptisms, we had Christmas on top of us. I said Mass at midnight and Fr. Sullivan in the morning. A good crowd showed up. The women’s side of the Church was filled up about eight o’clock in the evening before midnight Mass. They wanted to be sure that they would get a place. In the Churches over here women sit on one side and the men on the other. Some of them were there a long time that night. I know a few were in there for at least six hours because they stayed through the high Mass at midnight and then remained for the two low Masses that I said right afterward. I hung up the lamp from my room from a beam in the middle of the Church and it gave a very good light throughout the whole place. By Christmas afternoon I was all tired out…