We know that, by turning everything to their good, God co-operates with all those who love him, with all those he has called according to His purpose. (Romans 8: 28)
These were the opening words used by Fr Michael Hannan SJ in his sermon at the Solemn Concelebrated Mass at the Church of the Sacred Heart, Wimbledon, 2 March 1977 for the seven missionaries who were murdered in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) 40 years ago, on 6 February 1977.
St Paul’s Mission, Musami, about 60 miles northeast of Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare in Zimbabwe) was founded in 1923, and under a succession of dedicated and energetic superiors it expanded over the next 50 years. A large complex of primary schools developed and in due course a secondary school was added. The original church was replaced by a new one capable of holding 3,000 people, and the clinic grew into an 80-bed hospital run by the Dominican Sisters. It was the largest mission station in the Archdiocese of Salisbury, catering for over 2,000 students. At the beginning of 1977 there were seven Jesuits on the staff of St Paul’s, assisted by a community of five Dominican Sisters and a local community of 14 members of the Little Children of Our Blessed Lady.
In February of that year, two of those members of the Jesuit community were absent. A document in the Archives gives a brief account of the Jesuits who remained and, fatefully, became victims of the tragic events there:
During Father Hackett’s absence Fr Martin Thomas, who taught in the secondary school, was acting as superior. He was forty-five years old and had been in Rhodesia for thirteen years. He had spent several years at St Michael’s Mission, Mondoro where he was also superior and had come to Musami in 1974.
Fr Christopher Shepherd-Smith was the youngest priest in the Jesuit community. He was born in East Africa in 1943 and was educated at St Mary’s College, Nairobi. His mother described him as ‘belonging to Africa’ and before ordination he had spent some years in Rhodesia studying Shona, missiology and social science. He was ordained in 1974 and shortly after returned to Rhodesia and went straight to Musami where he remained until his death. His work on the Mission was the pastoral care of the African people in the scattered Mass centre in the surrounding countryside.
The priests were helped in their work by … Brother John Conway who turned his hand to everything but with a special priority in keeping the Mission transport on the road and the other essential machines in running order … From the earliest years in Rhodesia Brother Conway exercised are markable influence over young children who seemed to find something in his gentle, happy, Irish disposition that appealed strongly to them.
A third priest, Fr Dunstan Myerscough, who helped the superior of the mission in its day to day administration, was 65 and had spent some 30 years in Southern Africa. He survived the ordeal, and witnessed the tragic events.