By Br. Alfonce Kugwa and Sr. Mufaro Chakuinga LCBL
One of the oldest missions under Gweru Diocese, Loreto Mission is celebrating its diamond jubilee on 13 November 2022. The mission was founded in 1944 by the Dominican sisters who also played a pivotal role in its social and pastoral development. Loreto was the first mission in Rhodesia to be founded by a women’s religious order with Fr. Boeckenhoff as the first chaplain. The mission’s development was solely under the guidance of the Dominican Sisters, but the development of the parish was mainly under the leadership of Fr Winterhalder SMB, from the Bethlehem Mission Society, until 1978, when the Mission was closed by the Liberation forces. Then, gradually the parish was handed over to the administration of the local priests.
Loreto Mission is located some 60 km away from Kwekwe in Silobela under the Midlands Province. The mission was named Loreto signifying the devotion of the Dominican Sisters to OurLady of Loreto. Loreto, which is located in the Seventh Day Adventist dominated area has made significant strides in evangelizing the place through education, health, entrepreneurship, and spiritual nourishment. Despite the fact that the majority of the people in the community are Ndebele speaking, language has never been a barrier but an opportunity to spread the Gospel. In fact, different languages being spoken and cultural backgrounds in the area help to enrich the mission of the Church.
“Many priests testify that language has never been a barrier in reaching out to the people. This is witnessed by the startling participation of all Catholics regardless of the different languages that they speak. The local community is actually craving for the opening of more parishes around Silobela,” said Fr Porino Saga who is currently the parish Priest of Loreto and being assisted by Fr. Augustine Moyo.
Fr. Saga who has been at Loreto for seven years, stated that there is great appreciation of Catholic programmes and projects by the local community and other churches.
‘’I am now seven years in the parish and the community appreciates the Catholic efforts being exuded by the institution that has been in existence for 78 years,” Fr. Saga added.
Loreto Mission has ten parish centers and Fr. Saga said the mission would continue opening up more centers as a way of supporting the spiritual, social and economic needs of the people.
Loreto Mission boasts of a primary school and a vibrant secondary school that contributes to the emancipation of the girl child through provision of education and reduction of poverty in the country according to the National Development Strategy 1. The primary school’s roots are traced to 1945 and was once closed as a result of the war of liberation, when the whole Mission was turned into a refugee centre. Loreto secondary school success stories are connected to the administration of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart who have been at the helm of the institution since Loreto Mission has been handed over to the Diocese of Gweru after the end of the Liberation War.
However, the story of Loreto Mission would not be complete without mentioning the Dominican Sisters’ thrust to empower the deaf and dumb by opening a school for them. This social inclusion resulted in the skills development for the underprivileged of society as they became crafts men and women.
The Mission also runs St. Joseph orphanage which is supervised by Sr. Julia Lenze (OP) who has been at the mission for 36 years. Sr. Julia is passionate about taking care of the poor and underprivileged.
Loreto Mission has vast tracts of land which the church uses for agricultural production to support the school and the local community as well as to provide employment. Other developments at the mission include installation of drip irrigation, establishment of a greenhouse and introduction of dairy farming, banana plantation and a robust poultry project.
Fr. Saga attributed the success of Loreto Mission to the Dominican Sisters, Bethlehem Mission Society Missionaries (SMB), Brothers of the Sacred Heart, Bishops and all diocesan priests who passed through kuRoma as the mission is known in Silobela. Priests who served at Loreto include Fr. Boeckenhoff, Fr. Raymond Machikicho, Fr. Whiteside, Fr. Walter Nyatsanza, Fr. Hugo, Fr. Baetig, Fr. Stoffel, Fr. Inauen, Fr. Mafoko, Fr. Ngun’u, Fr. Mabhachi, Fr. Muguti, Fr. Muvhuro, Fr. Maramwidze, Fr. Masuna, Fr. Saga and Fr. Augustine Moyo.
Sr. Ferrera Weinzierl OP gives a detailed history of the development of Loreto Mission in the story below.
Loreto Mission – 1944 – 1978 and 1985 –
St John’s School and Home for Coloured Children in Avondale was becoming overcrowded and a second school was needed to accommodate the needy children. With this view in mind, Mother Auxilia Lechner OP, Mother General, went to Lower Gwelo to look at Leohurst Farm of 3000 acres, to purchase it. This farm is situated at the border between Mashonaland and Matabeleland.
On her way back to Salisbury she stopped at a friend’s house, Mrs Peaux, near Selous, to make a friendly call. The Lady asked, what she was doing in Lower Gwelo, and Mother Auxilia replied, “to start an extension of St John’s, another school for Coloured children. But Mrs Peaux immediately offered her 2nd farm (now Martindale) for this purpose, which was much nearer to St John’s. So it came about that Martindale and Loreto Mission were founded in the same year of 1944.
Mother Auxilia had already plans for an educational establishment for African Girls. Leohurst Farm was the right place for it. Only four pole-and-dagga huts were there in the middle of the bushveld when the first Sisters arrived.
Loreto Mission was the only Mission that was began and entirely run by women, the Dominican Missionary Sisters, until the closure during the Liberation War on 6th December 1978. After Independence 1980 the ownership of the whole Loreto Mission was handed over to the Diocese of Gwelo.
On the 5th August 1944, the day after the Feast of St Dominic, Srs Agnella Griebel, Cora Wegmann and Caritas Hagen set out together with Fr L. Boeckenhoff SJ, who was to take charge of the spiritual needs of the Sisters and of building. They travelled in the company of Mother Auxilia Lechner and Mother Wilhelmine Biermann OP, the superior of St John’s, to begin this great undertaking of establishing the new Mission of Loreto. Two lorries were loaded in the Motherhouse yard in Salisbury, and in Fr Boeckenhoff’s words “holy nuns were swarming about like bees carrying things, giving a helping hand and even more generously advice as to how things ought to be done and who ought to do them.“
The newcomers arrived in the late afternoon and had great fun in unloading the lorries with their curious load.
During these first happy days the new arrivals had their meals under the sunny sky sitting on boxes and “eating sausages over the thumb.”
Holy Mass was said for the first time on the 6th August in the Sisters’ hut, which served as chapel, dining-room, sitting-room, sleeping-room and store-room
Work was started immediately to get ready to receive 6 Italian Internees, who were to help mainly with the building. They arrived on 8th August. But there were no tools, no workshop no building material and what was worse, no means of transport, and worst of all no water.
Since the building site was right in the bush, many trees and shrubs had to be cleared away and a lot of game passed through the place: antelopes, leopards, zebras, koodoos, a steen-buck, ostriches, rhinos, elephants, even a lion and many snakes.
Despite all the poverty and hardships, by Christmas 1944 a few brick-houses were finished and the missionaries could move into proper sleeping accommodation and had a kitchen under a roof. The time of looking for a decent corner, where to say Hl. Mass was over and since Christmas-night the Blessed Sacrament was permanently kept there.
Right from the beginning people came and asked for medical assistance. Teeth were extracted with the pliers of the motorcar!!! Already from the first year onwards about 1200 treatments per month were administered.
Within the first month of their presence Bishop A. Chichester came to visit and urged the Sisters to begin immediately with outstations.
Among thelittle group of Pioneers, Sr Agnella was the mastermind of the future Mission, Sr Caritas lived, prayed, worked and planned, becoming manageress of the out-schools, together with Sr Theresia LCBL, Sr Cora soon began to recruit pupils for the primary School, which she headed for 30 years; 2 more LCBL Sisters, Sr Marietta and Sr Christopher, 8 Italian Internees, Fr Boeckenhoff SJ, and about 50 African men worked together to build up this great place.
In 1947 Sr Eusebia Goldbrunner OP joined the staff to begin the LORETO SCHOOL FOR THE DEAF. She was seriously Ill with Malaria in Northern Rhodesia and was sent for recuperation to South Africa. While there she was asked to do a Teacher Training Course for the Deaf and 18 months later she was called to begin teaching deaf children at Loreto. She travelled there at the end of 1946 together with Sr Valeria Fleischmann OP. By 1950 Sr Johanna Sinz came to assist her. In 1958 Sr Prudentia Hofmann, who was a very dedicated teacher of deaf children, came and in 1960 the new school was blessed.
The foundation stone of a new big Church was blessed on 24th May 1956 and the Consecration of it took place on 11th December by Bishop Haene SMB.
More Sisters joined the Loreto Mission Staff, among them Sr Hilda Kleierl.
Fr Boeckenhoff was withdrawn from Loreto already in 1947 and Fr Winterholder SMB came as the longest serving priest to Loreto; soon afterwards he was joined by Fr. Baettig SMB. These zealous missionary priests visited many outstations: St Mary’s, St Dominic’s, St Jude, Fatima, St Joseph’s and Lower Gwelo to mention just a few.
Just ‘next door’, a few kms from Loreto Mission, JAIROS JIRI SILOBELA OLD PEOPLE’S HOME was started by Jairos Jiri, an outstanding personality, who founded many homes, schools and workshops for handicapped people. The Dominican Sisters visited their friends at Jairos Jiri next door frequently and helped them wherever they could to improve their very poor living conditions. They built them benches outside their small houses, not to have to sit in the mud; they bought them mattresses, fixed their roofs and often supplied them with food and soap.
Sr Raymunda Sturm, teacher at the Secondary School, took charge of the double storey girls’ hostel, unique in this area, and looked after the boarders together with a local lady as boarding mistress. She also taught science in the new Science Laboratory and taught the first Form 4. Together with her guides she entertained the old and crippled inmates of Jairos Jiri Home, who were often lonely, and brought them gifts to make them happy (1967-1972). Sr Clementia Huber OP, who gave sewing lessons at the Secondary School and helped in the laundry and elsewhere for the Community, also cared for the inmates of Jairos Jiri Home with her group of Rangers: knitting and sewing for the poor (1974-1978).
Sr Marcella Ottner looked after the kitchen for the pupils of the Secondary School, and Sr Michaela, who cared for the poor, was teaching cookery to women and to girls’ clubs, and looked after the vegetable and fruit gardens. Sr Zedislava Kubitza was called “Gogo”, she was responsible for the convent and saw to the needs of the beggars, even sewing them quickly little dresses.
On 6th March 1969 Loreto celebrated the SILVER JUBILEE OF THE MISSION. The large new hostel for the Secondary Girls was blessed on that day by Bishop A. Haene SMB and the Minister of Education, Mr. P. Smith, as guest, granted the school the expansion up to Form 4.
Education at Loreto
When the Mission was started in 1944, there were only 29 pupils in the five primary school classes (Sub A to Std. 3), and only three children attended the first class of the School for the Deaf in 1947. In the Silver Jubilee Year Loreto was a major educational and religious centre in the Lower Gwelo and Silobela area. Some 480 boys and girls attended the central primary school; 177 girls were in the secondary school and 98 children attended the School for the Deaf. Before Loreto got its secondary school, Sr Fausta Kistler OP founded a Teacher Training School for girls. Some 100 lady teachers were trained there. Among them were Srs. Bernadette Helegwa and Kizita Khadani, who later joined the Dominican Sisters. When the Secondary School started, Sr Fausta became the Head of it and Teacher Training was stopped.
Heads of the Loreto Secondary School were Srs Fausta Kistler as first Head, Sr Hildegard Zahnbrecher from 1970 – 1976, Sr Ansgar (Sr Waltraud Eltner OP) from 1973 – Sept. 1975 and Sr Denys Weindel from Sept. 1975 till the close-down in Dec. 1978.
Sisters, who taught at the time of Sr Fausta were: Sr Mediatrix Götz, Sr Consilia Renner, Sr Raymunda Sturm and Sr Constantia Treppe.
While Sr Hildegard led the school, Sr Fausta, Sr Consilia, Sr Constantia and Sr Raymunda were transferred and Sr Therese Gmeinwieser joined the staff. During the time of Sr Ansgar, Sr Fidelis Kainz, Sr Hildeberta Hastreiter (Boarding), Sr Patricia Mc Gee and Sr Theresa Tendai Makonese came. The latter was the first Zimbawean Sister who completed her Secondary School Teacher training in Gwelo. Sr Patricia left during the time of Sr Ansgar’s headship to join a Second Order in England and Sr Theresa Tendai was transferred during the time of Sr Denys’s term.
In spite of the war, two classes each from Form 1 to Form 4, were filled to capacity and examination results could not have been better. There was ongoing development of the sports- and play- grounds, gardens and fields. More houses for teachers and workers were constructed. Two new school-blocks were built, the first for a new Head’s Office and two classrooms. The second block added to the science department one big physics laboratory, a demonstration room for experiments and two storerooms. There were even plans to increase the classes leading up to A-Levels.
The new School for the Deaf, blessed in 1969, got a further extension in 1972. Srs Prudentia Hofmann, Andrew Stroetz and Petra Feldens, trained in Ireland, took successively the headship of the school.
Thanks to the many benefactors and friends, the Sisters were able to clothe, feed and educate many of the deaf pupils, who were considered ‘useless’. A very big extension to the school for the deaf was opened and blessed in 1975, namely a tailoring workshop, additional classrooms, staff- and speech-training-rooms and an office, a laundry and domestic science Block for the girls.
One of the very gifted students in handwork and tailoring was Petros Rondoni, who after Grade 7 trained in Driefontein as Tailor and then taught tailoring to the deaf boys from 1976 to1978, until the forceful closure of the Mission.
The Primary School, still under the leadership of Sr. Cora Wegmann, had by then some of the first Zimbabwean Dominican Sisters on the staff, namely, Sr. Veronica Traquino, Sr. Kizita Kadhani and Sr. Tariro Chimanyiwa.
Nine out-schools had been opened by Loreto Mission and were now served by Rev. Fr Winterholder and Fr Pius Baettig SMB, the two resident priests on the mission. Mr. Dendere, the father of our Sr. Alexia Dendere OP, was Head Teacher at St. Michaels, one of the out-schools.
LCBL Sisters make a big contribution
Sr Christopher LCBL was one of the many dedicated teachers for the deaf and received a bookprize from Longmans for her great work. Without the generous service of Srs Francis, Elisabeth, Cornelia, Joseph, Mary, Marietta, Ernesta, Notburga, Magna, Olivia, and not forgetting the Nurses of the LCBL Sisters, Loreto would not have been what it was.
Health Services at Loreto
Nursing was a big apostolate at Loreto Clinic. There were many sick calls and in 1949 the government started a clinic only 200 m down the road from the Mission. Although a government institution, the Dominican Sisters were in charge until the closure of the Mission in December 1978. Sisters, who nursed there, were Srs Agnella, Christopher Wolf, Joan Edmonds, Finbar Kingston, Hildegard Schichtl, then known as Sr. Olga, de Corde Dietsche and Carina Arnold. In Sr de Corde’s and Sr Carina’s time there were sometimes as many as hundred inpatients, lying on beds and on the floor and often as many as three hundred out-patients per day.
Sr Fausta Kistler gave First Aid Courses to her Teacher Training Students. A number of them later became nurses and even doctors.
Superiors at Loreto Mission
Sr Agnella who was the Superior of the Community from its foundation in 1944 until 1958, was succeeded by Sr Mediatrix Götz in 1964. Sr Hildegard Zahnbrecher followed from 1970 until 1976. Sr Hilda Kleierl was the superior of the Community until it was forcefully closed on 6th December 1978.
The first Vocations to the Dominican Sisters’ Congregation from Loreto
were Srs Bernadette Helegwa, who was also a Teacher Trainee there, and Sr Kizita Khadani. Sr Tendai Makonese made her first Profession on 11th November 1973 in the Loreto Church into the hands of Sr de Pace Pauler, Mother General. Sr Alexia Dendere made her final vows there.
The unforgettable night came in the evening of 5th December 1978.
The Freedom fighters surprised the Dominican Sisters in their convent in the evening, while at recreation, and shuffled them out to the deaf boys’ dormitory in the dark night and told them, that Loreto Mission was closed and had to be evacuated the following day, 6.12.1978.
In great fear and sorrow the Sisters had to say
Good-bye to a place of 34 years of happiness, joy and sorrow, of faith, hope and love, of courage and total dependence on god.
The following Sisters left the Mission on 6th December 1978:
Srs Cora Wegmann, Michaela Wunderle, Marcella Ottner, Ludgera Olbrich, Petra Feldens, Aloysia Spangler, Bonaventura Kraus, Clementia Huber, Tariro Chimanyiwa, Veronica Traquino, de Corde Dietsche, and Hildeberta Hastreiter
The Dominican Sisters were the last ones to leave Loreto Mission after all pupils of Primary and
Secondary Schools and the School for the Deaf had left. The Teachers with their families and employed staff, who were not from Loreto, had gone first, in a great hurry and fear, long before the Sisters, who saw to it, that everyone was in safety.
Plans to continue the education of the Deaf
The Dominican Sisters immediately began to search for a place where the education of the deaf Children could be continued. Since at the beginning of 1979 the children from Emerald Hill Children’s Home were allowed to go to the nearest government school in Avondale, the existing orphanage school at Emerald Hill could be occupied by the deaf children. In May 1979 the first 88 deaf pupils and some teachers from Loreto arrived, among them Mr. Albert Karikoga, the new head of the School, Sr Tariro Chimanyiwa and Sr Bernadette Helegwa. From the LCBL Sisters, who were in Loreto, Srs Christopher, Olivia and Marietta came to Emerald Hill to offer their services to the School for the Deaf.
After Independence in 1980 plans were made to stay at Emerald Hill permanently and to build a new School for the Deaf there.
Some weeks after the Loreto Mission had been closed, the looting started. People from the villages around came to collect everything movable in the convent, the priest-house, the hostels and the schools. Even immovable things like doors and windows were torn out and taken.
The Bishop and priests in Gweru, after weeks of listening to pleading parents, gave permission to open the Secondary School at the Ascot Church for the Form II to IV. Whatever furniture, books and equipment was still intact at Loreto, was moved to Ascot and the school was re-opened. It functioned there for two years till it was transferred to the former Dominican Regina Mundi Secondary School in Gwelo. In 1980 the Dominican Sisters handed over the Regina Mundi School to the Gwelo Diocese and the Sisters of the Infant Jesus (SJI) were running it. Only Sr Jovita Thiele OP was still teaching there for some time.
Loreto after Zimbabwe’s independence – April 1980
Loreto Mission was turned into a Refugee Camp for boys and girls returning to Zimbabwe from Zambia and Mozambique. During that time the Loreto Church was terribly desecrated and treated irrelevantly. The central big crucifix above the altar was bombarded with stones, the corpse of Jesus, especially his arms and legs were broken and the wall around it badly damaged. The doors of the Church were left open and the cattle was allowed to walk through them at random. The church looked a terrible sight!
But about two years later life returned to normal. The Primary School, including the premises of the School for the Deaf, was being repaired and opened again for about 1000 boys and girls. The Secondary School soon followed suit and is now run by the Sacred Heart Brothers. The priest-house, convent and Church were restored to their former state and Bishop Chiginya solemnly re-consecrated the Church amidst great jubilation. Once more the ‘folly of the Cross’ had ended in a glorious Easter-morning.
The day after the Consecration of the Church, 31st October 1983, Sr Cora Wegmann OP died in Strahlfeld. She had never ceased to pray that the Mission, she had helped to build up with so much love and sacrifice, should be again a place where God is worshipped and served faithfully.
Return of the Dominican Sisters
In May 1985 the Dominican Sisters, Srs Andrew Stroetz, Jovita Thiele, Irenea Mair and Julia Lenze returned to Loreto to teach and to look after orphans, other needy children and the poor. They established the St Joseph’s Children’s Home, that houses today 45 children.
Sr Julia, the matron of the Home, constantly improved the Home and modernized the ablution block. She also built a dining- and study room, a kitchen and a visitors’ room and created separate accommodation for those ex-scholars of the St Joseph’s Home, who did so well in their studies, that they were allowed to continue at University level.
Sr Fadzai Matina came a little later to work as a nurse in the Loreto Mission Hospital (Silobela government Hospital) and is now the deputy matron.
At present there are only three Sisters at Loreto, Sr. Julia running the St Joseph Children’s Home and caring for the poor people in the surrounding including the Jairos Jiri people; Sr. Fadzai being the Deputy Matron of the Silobela Hospital and caring with love for the health of the children in the Home and Sr. Mary Jasi OP, who teaches Chemistry in the Loreto Secondary School.
For the Dominican Sisters Loreto Mission is a place of loving care for the Poor, be it poor, old and handicapped people living in the surroundings, be it poor school children, be it the orphans in the Home or be it the inmates of the Jairos Jiri Home. This apostolate is supported by generous benefactors and by the hard work of Sr Julia and her helpers, who run a huge vegetable garden and some fields to produce food and to have some surplus for sale, as well as give employment to unemployed poor parents.
Sr Ferrera Weinzierl OP, 2022