A series of blogs prepared by ARSI (the Archives of the Society of Jesus in Rome) in preparation for the Ignatian Year.
By Festo Mkenda, SJ - Historian
5. St Ignatius’s influence in Sub-Saharan Africa in the 17th century
The Jesuits’ withdrawal from the Kingdom of Kongo in
1555 did not bring to an end their presence in sub-Saharan Africa. St.
Ignatius’ efforts for Ethiopia were beginning to bear tentative fruit as the
Jesuits established a mission there in 1557, a year after the saint’s death. Three
years later, in 1560, three Jesuits entered regions that fall under Mozambique
and Zimbabwe today, and four others reached Luanda in Angola on the southern
border of the Kongo Kingdom.
The initial Mozambique-Zimbabwe effort lasted but
shortly, ending with the martyrdom of its superior, Fr. Gonçalo da Silveira
(1526-1561) at the court of the Monomotapa.
Before taking up the mission in south-eastern Africa, Silveira had been
Provincial superior in Goa, a post to which he had been appointed by St.
Ignatius. Probably because of this link, artists have produced visual
imaginations of Africa’s first and most popular Jesuit martyr being missioned
to the continent by the Society’s founder. While such imaginations appear
somewhat overstretched, they are not without merit since Jesuit missions on the
eastern parts of Africa were always under the jurisdiction of the Province of
After the initial debacle in Mozambique and Zimbabwe,
the south-eastern Africa mission was resumed in 1610 and lasted until Jesuits
were expelled from Portugal and its dominions in 1759. Similarly, because of
protracted Portuguese wars of conquest in south-western Africa, Jesuits could
only establish significant missions in Angola in the early part of the
seventeenth century. However, once they were able to do so, their missions
developed considerably. Luanda, on the Atlantic coast, was their main hub. From
there they extended into the interior of Angola and ministered directly to
African populations. While Mateus Cardoso (1584‒1625) translated the Cartilla
de la Sagrada Doctrina into Kikongo in 1624, António do Couto (d. 1666), an
Angolan-born Jesuit, published another catechism in Latin, Portuguese, and
Kimbundu in 1642.
Jesuits in Angola anticipated the 1622 canonization of
St. Ignatius in significant ways. The famous Colégio de Jesus (College
of Jesus) was opened in Luanda in that year. The college continued to educate
many students of Portuguese and African descent until the suppression of the
Society in Portugal and its dominions. Adjacent to the college was a large
Jesuit residence and a magnificent church in baroque style, which was designed
to mirror the grandeur of the Jesuit church of Il Gesú in Rome. Named Igreja de Jesus (the Church of
Jesus), this edifice was thought to be the tallest concrete structure in the
southern hemisphere when it was completed.
construction of the Church of Jesus, which begun in 1612, continued for
twenty-five years. Even before it was completed, the church served as the
center for special Jesuit events. The beatification of Francis Xavier in 1619
was celebrated there. Most significantly, the church was the venue for
elaborate celebrations of the canonizations of St. Ignatius and St. Francis
Xavier on 12 March 1622. This is probably the only place in Africa where the
canonization of the Jesuit founder was so magnificently marked.