First attempts to start the Catholic Church
in Northern Botswana
The Superiors of the missionary congregation of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) commissioned an experienced missionary who had worked for 18 years in India to come to work in present day Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Fr. Henri Depelchin came with 11 other Jesuits - 5 Brothers and 6 priests from four countries. They arrived in Botswana crossing the Limpopo River at Pallah Camp south of Mahalapye in July 1879. At the camp site of Hardekoolboom, Brother Joseph Hedley, SJ climbed a tree and carved a cross on it, announcing the presence of Catholic missionaries in the land. It is to be noted that David Livingston had left his own mark on the same Leadwood tree earlier.
On their way to Shoshong the Jesuits were overtaken by a Protestant missionary, William Skykes on July 6th. He took the news of the approach of the Jesuits to Shoshong, the capital of the Bamangwato. When the Catholics finally reached Shoshong on 23 July 1879, they met with the Paramount Chief, Kgosi Khama, the 36 year old Christian chief of the Bangwato. His capital was a huge village of about 10,000 people. Kgosi Khama was cool in his reception of the missionaries and did not even care to open the letters of introduction they had brought with them. This was the result of the overriding influence of the London Missionary Society, especially James Hepburn the resident missionary and his visitor William Skykes. Kgosi Khama was concerned that two different missionary groups preaching the same gospel might lead to conflict and undermine Christianity itself.
Kgosi Khama thus refused the Catholic missionaries permission to stay in his territory and it was only upon Fr. Delpechin’s offering the chief a rifle (Martini-Henry) he relented and allowed them to make a temporary stay. The Jesuits camped outside the village and were visited on several occasions by Kgosi Khama as well as his brother Khamani, but they were denied permanent residence. The Jesuits reluctantly departed Shoshong on the 28 July 1879 for King Lobengula’s Ndebele territory after only five days.
The Motloutse River was considered the boundary between Khama’s territory and that of Ama Ndebele to the north. It provided much needed water for the group on their trek through the dry interior. The missionaries arrived in Tati on the 17 August 1879. Tati was at that time an important trading centre with a grand population of 19 Europeans and 21 non-Europeans occupying six houses. The Jesuits were kindly received by the traders and hunters alike.
Gold had been discovered in Tati in 1867 and this led to a gold rush to the Tati Gold Fields. King Lobengula gave the Tati Concession to a newly arrived mining company headed by Sir John Swinburne. This covered only mining and had no land rights. The Jesuits initially camped on the southern bank of the river and Bro. Louis de Vylder made his final Vows on 22 August 1879. They quickly decided to found their first mission station at this place.
By September 1879 the Jesuits had built a large wooden hut with thatched roof that they called the Residence of Good Hope. During a visit to a sick Dutch priest Fr. Cronenberghs, one Boer hunter asked whether it was true that the Catholics worshiped a woman rather than God. This gave the Jesuits the opportunity to explain the Catholic faith. Soon a number of people were receiving instruction in the Faith and on Sundays all the Boers in residence would attend Mass and hear the sermon preached in their native Dutch language. The sick priest continued to teach the Boers who came to him and the family of Jan Engelbrecht converted to Catholicism in 1880.
It was the aim of the Jesuits to transform the Tati mission station to an orphanage, or as it was put in those days “asylum for children”. This was never realized. Many of the Boers returned to Transvaal and the mission station was left with very few people.
It turned that out Tati was a fever trap in the rainy season and the missionaries soon fell sick. Fr. Karl Fuchs, who translated key Catholic texts into Zulu in anticipation of going north to Matabeleland, took seriously ill and died on the 28 January 1880. He had spent only five months and 11 days at Tati. He was buried on the banks of the Tati River close to the existing European cemetery.
With his death and the lack of progress in evangelization, the missionaries soon started to complain about everything. A priest, Fr. Anthony de Wit and a new group were sent from the Eastern Cape to support the pioneer missionaries.. One day a miner came to see Fr. De Wit on foot to thank him for helping him. Fr. Anthony de Wit borrowed a horse to take his guest home. On his way back to the mission station, he rode his own horse and led the second on a leash. As the good priest was reading his prayers for the day (Divine Office) he fell from the horse and broke his neck. He was buried next to Fr. Fuchs.
Fr. Prestage took over the mission station after the death of Fr. De Wit. He expanded it, building a chapel and a well some 14 meters deep using dynamite. He attempted to start a school with 13 local children, 2 white children and 3 local adults. Attendance at school was not good and Fr. Prestage lacked people to evangelize as the place was thinly populated.
From Bulawayo the Jesuits reached Pandamatenga - a trading store some distance from the Victoria Falls. This was one month’s journey from the mission station of Tati. The first missionaries reached it on the 25th of June 1880. However it was malaria infested area and became a deathbed for several of the Jesuits.
Finally the decision was taken to close the mission stations at Tati and Pandamatenga due to the many problems facing them. Tati was the first one to close in March 1885 and the property of the church was sold for 35 pounds. The Pandamatenga mission was just abandoned on November 27, 1885 and most of the missionaries returned to the Cape Colony.
The Tati village of old is located some 65 kilometers from Francistown on the banks of the Tati River. It is very close to Matsiloje village of today. Presently, the place is a game farm. The graves are visible and suitably marked. Pandamatenga is still in the same location as it was in the past.
In 2004, Bishop Nubuasah, Fathers Victor Noronha, Francis Komba, David Harold-Barry (SJ) accompanied by a group of Catholics from the Cathedral Parish of Our Lady were led by an archaeologist and historian Rob Burrett to the site of the Tati Mission in the 1880’s. There the bishop celebrated Mass to remember and to thank our pioneer missionaries who had given their lives for the gospel and whose bodies lie as seeds in the soil of our Vicariate territory