Missionaries of Africa founded the village of Karema with five hundred redeemed slaves

Karema, First Mission

On the 17th Aug, 2023. Bishop Eusebius Nzigilwa of the Diocese of Mpanda, western Tanzania, invited the Missionaries of Africa to attend a celebration at the parish of Karema. The Bishop wished to re-consecrate the recently renovated church. In addition, he wanted to inter the remains of a predecessor, Bishop Adolphe Lechaptois, in front of the altar. Bishops from the suffragan dioceses of Tabora who included the recently announced Cardinal Protase Rugambwa, coadjutor of Tabora Archdiocese, also attended.

Karema had been a Belgian military station founded by Captain Emile Storms. In 1884 Captain Storms subsequently handed it over to the Missionaries of Africa who had arrived to evangelize the Vicariate of Tanganyika, when he returned to Europe. The Missionaries of Africa founded the village of Karema with five hundred redeemed slaves. The former Papal Zouave, Leopold Joubert, reached there in 1886 to offer protection. Dr. Adrian Atiman arrived in 1889 and remained the medical doctor and catechist until his death in 1956. His small house can still be seen close to the Church of Karema.

 Bishop Lechaptois was not the first bishop. Jean-Baptiste Charbonnier who was ordained bishop at Kipalapala, Tabora, on the 24th Aug, 1887 by Archbishop Livinhac (the first bishop to be ordained south of the Sahara) was the first Vicar of Tanganyika. Bishop Charbonnier died at Karema on 16th March, 1888. He was succeeded by Bishop Leonce Bridoux who had been ordained bishop by Lavigerie in Paris in 1888. Bishop Bridoux died in 1890.

 Adolphe Lechaptois was appointed Bridoux’s successor. After ordination as priest in 1878 he was to spend the next ten years in North Africa, teaching in seminaries and in the promotion of Christian villages. He reached Karema in 1891 during a time of great insecurity and remained as bishop until his death in 1917. He visited and established missions in present day Sumbawanga and Mbeya and also on the west side of Lake Tanganyika before the Apostolic Vicariate of Upper Congo was established with Bishop Roelens in 1892. Adolphe Lechaptois attended the General Chapter of the Missionaries of Africa in 1895 and was not ordained bishop until 20th May, 1895 by Archbishop Prosper Dusserre. He returned to Karema in 1895 with the first community of MSOLA Sisters who settled at Karema. Their original house is still standing, now occupied by the Sumbawanga Sisters.

 Aylward Shorter has written a short but detailed biography of Adolphe Lechaptois and referred to him as “a man of great zeal, inherent goodness, and simplicity who visited every station annually”. Lechaptois established Catechist training centres and the first seminary at Utinta which neighbours Karema on the Lake. He was also interested in the culture of the people and wrote “Aux Rives du Tanganyika” in 1913 which demonstrates his appreciation of the people of the region. For this he won a prize from the Geographical Society of Paris.

 Bishop Lechaptois founded the first Sisters’ Congregation in Tanzania, the Sisters of Our Lady Queen of Africa, in 1903. The MSOLA Sisters became their mentors and formators. As his remains were being laid to rest before the altar many of the Sisters were present singing in the church.

 Bishop Lechaptois died on the 30th Nov 1917 and was succeeded by Bishop Joseph Birreaux who had been the rector of the Seminary at Utinta and was later Superior General. In 1946 Bishop James Holmes-Siedle became Bishop of Karema. Previously it had been known as the Vicariate of Tanganyika. In 1958 it was renamed the Diocese of Sumbawanga with the transfer of headquarters to Sumbawanga under the Tanzanian Bishop Charles Msakila.

By: John Slinger, M.Afr.