Roman Catholic Missions to Sierra Leone in the Nineteenth Century

Roman Catholic Missionaries in Sierra Leone in the Nineteenth Century

Seán Farren

(This article is published in the Journal of Sierra Leone Studies, Vol.2, No.2, 2013)

From early in the nineteenth century Christian missionary activity, first in West Africa and later in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, became a significant feature of most European Christian churches. Sierra Leone was one of the first West African settlements to experience sustained evangelisation by European missionaries, to begin with by Protestant missionaries, mainly Anglicans and Methodists. Roman Catholic missionaries did not arrive in Sierra Leone until towards the middle of the century. This article discusses and assesses the early phases of their missionary endeavours in the country.

Phase 1 – Pre-1860

While evidence exists of some Roman Catholic missionary activity along the West African coast from the early seventeenth century, it was desultory and lacked organisational drive.[1] It was not until the nineteenth century that determined efforts were made to develop concerted missionary activity among communities living along that coast. At the time new missionary congregations were being established in several European countries to meet the challenge of Christian evangelisation which easier access to coastal communities offered. Congregations like the Holy Ghost, today known as the Spiritans, the Society of African Missions, the White fathers, and the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny, all French foundations, date from this period and by the middle of the century their missionary endeavours in Africa were gathering pace.

The arrival of Roman Catholic missionaries in Sierra Leone occurred in a rather round-about way and they came from the USA, not Europe. In the early 1820s many religious and philanthropic groups in the USA, especially the American Colonization Society[2] which campaigned for the liberation of enslaved people, supported the establishment of what became the independent state of Liberia as a home for former slaves, somewhat along the lines followed in Sierra Leone several decades previously. In the course of debate around this proposition, the Roman Catholic Bishop John England of the diocese of Charleston wrote to Pope Gregory XVI in 1833, suggesting that missionaries be sent to the ‘free blacks’ of Liberia.[3] Eventually, in 1841, the Vatican asked the bishops of Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York to send missionaries from their dioceses to Liberia. Among those to respond was Fr Edward Barron an Irish priest who was ministering in Philadelphia at the time and who was an associate of the Holy Ghost congregation.

Barron was appointed a bishop and left for West Africa in 1841 accompanied by a Fr John Kelly from New York and a lay catechist from Baltimore. His jurisdiction was extended from Liberia to include Sierra Leone and the whole of West Africa and he became known as the “Bishop of the Two Guineas,” a generic name given to the sub-Saharan region of the West African coast. Bishop Barron’s contact with Sierra Leone was, however, brief. He visited Freetown in 1842 where he met a small and, according to Fyfe, ‘a priestless Roman Catholic community chiefly Jolof and a few recaptives from Portuguese colonies’.[4] Unfortunately, Bishop Barron became seriously ill soon afterwards and resigned his jurisdiction leaving no permanent mission behind.

Sixteen years elapsed before another attempt was made to establish a mission in Sierra Leone. Then, following the creation of the Vicariate of Sierra Leone in 1858,[5] a group of three missionaries from the recently formed Society of African Missions, arrived in Freetown from Dakar in January 1859. They were all French and were joined, in May, by the founder of the society, Mons. de Marion Brésillac accompanied by two other missionaries. Tragically, all but one of this group succumbed to yellow fever within six weeks of each other and, with their deaths, ended the first planned Roman Catholic mission to Sierra Leone. In a spirit of what today would be described as ecumenism, the funeral rites for last of the group, Mons. Brésillac, were presided over by a priest of the Anglican community in Freetown.  The surviving member of the group returned to Dakar and the mission closed.

Phase 2 – Mission Revived

The next phase of Catholic missionary activity in Sierra Leone commenced when, in 1863, the Holy Ghost congregation[6] assumed responsibility for the mission at the request of the Office for the Propagation of the Faith, the Vatican body charged with overall responsibility for the Catholic Church’s missionary initiatives. That office described the territory in very unflattering terms as having ‘a pitiless climate, a native population degraded by long years of paganism and characterised by the worst features of a tropical seaboard, a campaign of the most intense opposition organised by the native sorcerer, the Mohamedan Almany and Protestant proselytiser’.[7] However, contrary to this image, Sierra Leone, a British Crown Colony since 1808, had been developing its own very distinctive character, and by the middle of the century had a mixed population of approximately 15,000 living in Freetown and the surrounding peninsular territory, many descendants of former slaves liberated from their slave ships by naval patrols stationed at Freetown. From the early days of the colony, the authorities had encouraged European missionaries to go to Sierra Leone with the result that by the middle of the nineteenth century a number of Protestant churches were firmly established in Freetown, and were conducting schools, while Fourah Bay College functioned, primarily to train a local clergy.

The Holy Ghost congregation had among its principal objectives the evangelisation of sub-Saharan Africa and was to become one of the largest Roman Catholic missionary societies working in Africa over the next one hundred and fifty years. However, the congregation’s early members being mainly French, it was realised that to work effectively in those parts of Africa like Sierra Leone that were coming under British control, the congregation needed English speaking members. With that objective in mind the congregation established a number of secondary schools in Ireland, then part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, predominantly English speaking and Catholic. There it was hoped young men could be attracted to the congregation.

The arrival of the congregation in Ireland coincided with and contributed to what would become a remarkable growth in missionary activity that would eventually take Irish men and women to the four corners of the world, mainly the English speaking world and, in particular to British colonies in Africa. That missionary movement was encouraged by the huge emigration from Ireland that followed the tragic famines of the 1840s and which created large migrant communities in America and Australia, and also by European imperialist expansion into Africa and elsewhere across the globe. Interest in the Catholic Church’s missionary activity was encouraged by the establishment in many parts of the country of support organisations like the Association for the Propagation of the Faith whose aims included fund raising, helping to recruit potential missionaries, and spreading information about the work of various missionary congregations.

The Holy Ghost congregation’s first foundations in Ireland were made when a number of French members opened schools in Dublin (1859), and at Rockwell in County Tipperary (1864). However, when the congregation assumed responsibility for the Sierra Leone mission there were, as yet, few Irish members and, until the early years of the twentieth century, the mission would consist of more French than Irish members. In 1864 the first four Holy Ghost missionaries arrived in Freetown, led by Fr Edouard Blanchet, who was accompanied by Fr Koeberlé, Bro. Wurm and an Irishman, Bro Mathews. Fr Blanchet’s missionary career was to be, in nineteenth century West African terms a very long one, though not all of it in Sierra Leone. He didn’t retire until in 1892. Fr Blanchet had previously worked at St Louis, in what would later become the Senegal, while Bro Mathews had worked in the Gambia.

Before discussing their work in Sierra Leone, it may be helpful to offer a brief account of the approach to evangelisation which informed Catholic missionary activity of the period.

Approach to Evangelisation

Like all Christian churches, the Catholic mission’s basic motivation was a concern for the eternal destiny of people and its conviction that membership of the Roman Catholic Church was the key to ensuring that destiny would be in Heaven. To this end, it was also a mission, ‘which while it acknowledged its European cultural trappings also recognised the need to cultivate local leadership’.[8] According to James Dunne, the approach of the Holy Ghost missionaries was set out by one of the congregation’s founders, Fr Francis Liebermann, who ‘had insisted to his missionaries that a self-sustaining Christian community had to be rooted in the mentality, customs and culture of the local community. Missionaries were to avoid disturbing these customs and were to lead the people to be more perfect in their own way according to their own customs’.[9] Consequently, Liebermann directed his missionaries to spend their first year listening, observing and learning local languages and, as part of their approach, were to become involved in education, agriculture and technology.[10]

So, while the main missionary emphasis was on ensuring as far as possible the ‘eternal destiny’ of those to whom the Christian gospel was preached, practical ways of winning local converts had to be found. These were mainly through the establishment of schools, orphanages and medical centres. Among those targetted were former slaves, particularly in Sierra Leone. The founder of the St Joseph of Cluny congregation a number of whose members would establish a mission in the country, Mother Anne-Marie Jahouvey devoted herself to this task. Mother Jahouvey had visited Freetown in 1823 at the invitation of Governor McCarthy where she had reorganised the Liberated African hospital and had cared for victims of yellow fever that was raging at the time, and of which she almost became a victim herself.[11]

The extent to which Liebermann’s advice was heeded and local customs respected by his missionaries, whether in Sierra Leone or elsewhere, is a matter of judgement.

Mission established

On February 12th, 1864, the four Holy Ghost missionaries came ashore at Freetown and were given residence in premises at Rawdon Street where they slept on the bare floor for sometime due to a lack of furniture. On the following Sunday, they said mass for a congregation of fourteen Catholics though the total number of Catholics in the town was said to be between sixty and seventy. The house in which they lodged was later leased by Fr Blanchet at sixty-four pounds a year and the first chapel was established there. In 1865 Fr Blanchet opened a primary school at Rawdon Street and named it after St. Edward the Confessor. Due to the lack of Catholic teachers, he hired Protestant teachers until the following year when Bro Claver, a native of Mauritius, arrived to take over responsibility as school principal. Fr Blanchet also provided a small dispensary from which he distributed medicines every morning.

A year later, two Irish men, Fr Thomas Bracken and Bro Christian Foley arrived to strengthen the mission. Fr Bracken, replaced Fr Koeberlé who had died quite suddenly. By then the Rawdon Street premises had become too small and on October 13th, 1867, work commenced on a permanent mission house at Howe Street. The building was completed in 1868.

Bro Foley only stayed a short time before returning to Ireland in 1869 and, tragically, Fr Bracken died within eight months, leaving Fr Blanchet as the only Catholic missionary in Freetown. In his short period in Freetown Fr Bracken had become quite well known, especially among the Irish soldiers attached to the West Indian Regiment stationed there for whom he was chaplain. His funeral was an occasion of mourning not just among the Catholic congregation in the town, but more widely as well. According to Blanchet ‘The funeral of Fr Bracken was a triumph for the Catholic Mission. We never realised till then how much sympathy the whole population of Freetown had for us’.[12]

In a letter to his superior in Paris Fr Bracken described a typical day for a missionary.[13] He rose at five, said morning prayers, celebrated mass, read his breviary (book of prayers), took breakfast, and spent the rest of the morning reading, writing, receiving visitors, and preparing for his instruction classes, before having lunch and taking recreation (mainly resting in his room). In the afternoon he would go for a walk during which he would visit local people, members of the European community, the hospital and the army barracks. Instructions of persons preparing for the sacraments took place in the evening about seven, at times well attended, at others frustratingly poorly attended. Dinner followed and then, after evening prayer, he would retire.

Bracken and Koberlé’s early deaths underlined the fact that life expectancy for Europeans in Sierra Leone was frequently very short, although there were notable exceptions such as Fr Blanchet. Following Bracken’s death, over succeeding decades several other missionaries succumbed after quite short periods in Sierra Leone. The effect of their loss was to impede the work of the mission, especially in education.

Girls’ Education

In 1866 three Sisters of Cluny arrived in Freetown. Like the Holy Ghost congregation, the Cluny sisters were anxious to recruit members from Ireland and, in 1864 had established their first school there.[14] Two of the three were Irish, Srs Kearney and Sheridan. Such was the novelty of the sisters that when they arrived five ‘gendarmes’ were needed to prevent the crowd that had gathered from ‘envahir l’église’ (invading the church) to see the ‘sisters of mercy’.[15] The main focus of the sisters’ work was to be the education of girls and soon after their arrival they established a primary school.

The two mission schools quickly attracted considerable numbers of pupils, especially from among the poorer sections of Freetown’s society. According to Fyfe ‘The Roman Catholic mission looked after the poor more than the Protestant churches which, based so firmly on the prosperous  laity, tended to succumb to the temptation … of ministering too much to the self-esteem of the successful’.[16] From an enrolment of 113 in 1868 the boys’ school expanded to 212 a year later, while the girls’ school grew from 80 in 1867 to 200 in 1869. Reports on the two Catholic schools compiled as part of a survey of the colony’s education provision by a J. Stuart Laurie, an inspector sent from London at the British government’s request, reveal that the boys’ school had three teachers, one educated in Mauritius, the second educated in Ireland, and the third, a lay person, educated in Barbados.[17] The school had 114 registered at the time of Laurie’s visit and offered the following subjects: English language, composition and grammar, history, reading, writing, drawing, arithmetic, scripture, Christian ‘politeness’ and singing. Annual expenditure on the school was recorded as £180.

The girls’ school was described as catering for boarders as well as day scholars. The former were charged £2 per month if full boarders and £1 if half-boarders. A similar range of subjects to that in the boys’ school was offered with the addition of knitting. There were 65 pupils registered at the time of the survey and the staff consisted of the two Irish sisters. Annual expenditure on the school amounted to £120. In neither school were tuition fees levied and in both schools the textbooks in use included titles from the Irish National School list as well as from that of the Irish Christian Brothers, texts then widely used in the English speaking world.

In these early years the reputation of the Catholic mission’s schools was such that at a meeting of principals of Protestant schools in 1872, the Director of Public Instruction was reported as saying, ‘If I had any advice for the Government it would be to confide our schools to the Catholics. It was among them that I noted progress and only among them’.[18]

Inter-Church Rivalries

The reputation of the Catholic mission did not, however, remain unsullied. Given Sierra Leone’s already quite developed Protestant presence the arrival of Roman Catholic missionaries was the cause of some suspicions and tensions heightened by more general events in the Catholic Church at the time. Catholic missionaries regarded their Protestant counter-parts to be teaching profoundly erroneous interpretations of the Christian message, and had, therefore, to be challenged in whatever ways possible.  They aimed therefore, to seek conversions not simply from among non-Christians, but from among the Protestant community as well. They did so, wherever possible, not only by preaching the ‘true’ faith, but also by trying to demonstrate a better quality in the services they provided compared with those offered by other missionaries, especially in their schools. Comments like those of the Director of Public Instruction together with the enrolment of Protestant pupils strengthened their schools’ reputation especially that of the girls’ school.


In some Protestant circles, attitudes towards the Catholic mission were, at times, quite hostile – the initials RC were often translated to read ‘Roman cockroaches’ while others viewed the missionaries as ‘jesuits’ ‘who would stop at nothing to achieve their goal’.[19] Fueling the rivalry between the churches was the Catholic determinations to win as many converts from Protestantism as possible. Writing about the Protestant pupils who had enrolled in the convent school, Sr Marie-Therese claimed that they would soon become Catholics, noting that ‘elles ne savent pas meme ce que c’est le protestantisme’ (they do not know what Protestantism is).[20]  Her companion Sr Kearney claimed that it was only the Protestant ministers and, by implication, not the ordinary people who were ‘furieux contre nous. Ils disent toute sorte de mal contre nous. Surtout, ils dissent que nous sommes des idolatres et que nous obligeons tout le monde a etre catholique ( .. who are furious with us. They speak all sorts of evil against us. Above all, they say we are idolaters and want to make the whole world Catholic).[21]

In these early years inter-church tensions were directly raised by a letter issued by Pope Pius IX in 1869 as part of his preparations for the Vatican Council then about to be convened in Rome.  Addressed to ‘all Protestants and non-Catholics’, the Pope wrote ‘we cannot restrain ourselves on the occasion of the future council from addressing our apostolic and paternal words to all those who, though acknowledging the same Jesus Christ as Redeemer and glorying in the name of Christians, nonetheless do not profess the true faith of Jesus Christ, and do not follow the communion of the Catholic Church’, and he called on them to recognise the error of their ways and to acknowledge that the Catholic Church was the one true church of Jesus Christ.[22] Fr Fritsch, Bracken’s successor at the Catholic mission, circulated an English version of the letter in the hope that it would ‘bring forth the most salutary fruits of salvation in the hearts of all those who shall read it with a reflective and unprejudiced mind’.[23] On the contrary the letter provoked considerable hostility from the Protestant churches. A series of thirteen sermons was preached condemning the letter at Christ Church, Pademba Road. In one, the Principal of Fourah Bay College, Rev. Henry J. Alcock, claimed in quite extravagant terms: ‘… that mere zeal will no more prove him (the Pope) right or myself, than it would prove a worshipper of the Indian idol Juggernaut right, who after spending his life serving that false god, ends it by crushing himself to death beneath the wheels of his car’. [24]


After the positive start and the respect for the mission demonstrated at Bracken’s funeral, this controversy put the Catholic Church in Freetown on the defensive, and, to a certain extent would contribute to a decline in enrolments in its newly opened schools. Nevertheless there were also those who recognised that the Catholic missionaries were working hard at getting to know the people of Freetown. Writing about these early years in an unpublished Chroniques des Missions, the unnamed author quotes a local journal which stated that the missionaries, ‘gagnent l’esprit de la population par la bonté, l’indulgence et l’affection de la population qu’ils lui témoingnent et de plus ils ne sont pas aveuglés par les étroits préjugés de couleur’ (…win the minds of the population with their charity, with the indulgence and affection which they manifest towards them, moreover they are not blinded by the narrow prejudices of colour).[25]

Phase Three – Mission Develops

Despite this hostility, the mission continued to develop. It received a boost when Governor John Pope Hennessy (1872-3), an Irish man and a Catholic, and his wife became regular participants in church services, albeit for a very short time. Their attendance conferred a form of unofficial acceptance of the mission into the colony’s life. Notwithstanding this boost in status, developing the mission was slow work, not least because the toll on missionaries’ health was severe. Furthermore, internal tensions surfaced occasionally, suggesting that relationships between members of the mission were not always smooth and, at times, were quite fraught. Mission superior, Fr Gommenginger, who arrived in 1873, wrote to the Mother House in Paris that it would be better, despite the shortage of missionaries, if one or two of his colleagues should leave Sierra Leone voluntarily, or be recalled because they were not, in his opinion, suitable for missionary work.

One missionary who fell foul of his superiors was Bro Eugene Sullivan, who served in Sierra Leone in the 1870s. A highly regarded teacher in the boys’ school, he strongly complained to the Mother House about the mission’s failure to provide secondary education. Despite being told that secondary education was not a priority in the mission’s plans for evangelisation, he argued its importance, and warned that the Catholic people would be the losers for not having educated men in public life as a result of this inaction. Bro Sullivan pressed his case but was later transferred to a new mission in Monrovia where he died some years later.  It would be nearly fifty years before second level education would be provided by the mission. Meantime Catholic boys and girls who sought second level schooling were obliged to attend schools under the auspices of other agencies and other churches. The absence of a second level school probably explains some of the failure to recruit any Sierra Leoneans to the Catholic clergy until well into the next century, whereas the rival Protestant churches had for long been educating local clergy.


Later the behaviour of a Fr Muller caused a number of parishioners in Freetown to sign a letter to Paris complaining and asking that he be called home.[26] The letter talked of the ‘very sad and awful conduct of our present Acting Superior Fr Muller’ who had berated the choir boys for singing a wrong note during the benediction service. The fact that there were several Protestants present who, as the letter also states, ‘were laughing heartily’ only added to the scandal. The letter recommended that Fr Muller be replaced by ‘our well dear Fr Cosgrove’, an Irish missionary. Perhaps not surprisingly, Fr Cosgrove had himself been the subject of some criticism by Muller in one of the latter’s reports to the congregation’s superior in Paris saying that he was ‘not a missionary’.


In 1888 Fr Haas complained that the sisters needed to control their budget and that they were not observing their congregation’s religious rule, describing it as ‘une letter morte’ (a dead letter) and that they lacked ‘la charité mutuelle’ (sisterly love).[27]  Other concerns provoked a letter dated 9 April 1891 from Fr Boyce to the Holy Ghost Superior in Paris.[28] In it Boyce complained that the boys’ school in Freetown was being badly managed; that the principal teacher was a Protestant separated from his wife and living with a Catholic girl. Boyce also referred to money being spent foolishly on buildings and spoke of the principal of the girls’ school as having no English despite having lived in the country for ten years. He also claimed that Fr Blanchet, the superior in Freetown, was unapproachable on these matters and suggested he willingly tolerated laxities.

A year later, a Fr Tom O’Carroll wrote bitterly about what he had heard being said about him in Paris, apparently by Fr Lorbor, his local superior.[29] He had decided to maintain his silence for the sake of the mission but now that his priestly role was ‘en jeu’ (at risk), he would do so no longer. It is never completely clear from the correspondence what O’Carroll’s problems were, though a fondness for alcohol may well have been the issue.


Living as they were in very small groups with few social outlets and in climatic conditions that posed serious risks to their health; it is hardly surprising that such tensions and conflicts would arise. However, despite these problems, the mission progressed as the number of Catholics gradually increased. The Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the foundation stone of which was laid in 1884 and towards the cost of which many of Freetown’s Protestants contributed, was solemnly inaugurated in 1887 in the presence of the colony’s dignitaries including the acting Governor and the consular representatives of France, Germany, Portugal and Spain. At the inauguration ‘a fine sermon’ was preached by Fr. Frawley.[30] Fr Frawley wrote about the ‘people coming in great numbers to be instructed’ saying that ‘last year we instructed sixty adults and hope to exceed this number this year’.[31] On a personal note and with no hint of any tensions, he added that ‘since coming to Sierra Leone I have been very happy … I like this mission very much’.[32]


The provision of educational opportunities was still the mission’s main social service, but the favourable start in the late 1860s and early 1870s did not persist, at least not in the case of the boys’ school which lost its earlier good reputation.  In 1888 Fr Haas complained that the school was ‘not clean and that attendance was low’.[33] Consequently parents were sending their children elsewhere. Another petition, signed by over forty prominent Freetown Catholics and submitted to the Superior of the Holy Ghost congregation in October 1890, pointed to the serious decline in numbers, from 200 to 20 and claimed the education provided was of the ‘lowest standards’.[34] The petition deplored the fact that Catholic parents were sending their children to Protestant schools and that there were ‘no Catholic young men holding any social positions with whom young ladies leaving the convent could marry’.  On the contrary, the girls’ school was described as thriving with many Protestant parents choosing it as the preferred institution for their daughters’ education. Indeed, according to an associate professor at Columbia Teachers’ College in the US who had visited Sierra Leone, ‘The best mission school seen here and the best primary school in all of West Africa was St Joseph’s Convent for girls under the direction of Irish Catholic sisters’.[35] With such a reputation for the girls’ school, it was no wonder that the petitioners were pressing for improvements to the boys’ school. Their letter recalled the days when Christian Brothers taught in the school and requested their return. Change came with the appointment of a new superior of the mission.


Phase 4 – Pro-Vicar Apostolic James Browne


In 1894 after Fr Blanchet had retired, another petition called for the appointment of a bishop, Irish or English (obviously a native speaker of English was preferred).[36] The petition acknowledged the good work of Fr James Browne who had arrived in Freetown in 1893 as mission superior following ministry in Ireland, Trinidad and the USA. Browne who would serve for the next ten years was to prove an energetic leader of the mission and was the obvious choice of the petitioners. However, the petition was not responded to and, while appointed superior, Browne was not immediately appointed as bishop, though he would be some years later.[37]


Under Browne’s leadership boys’ education improved and mission stations were established in the Protectorate, declared in 1896. Early attempts to establish such stations had not met with any success. One attempt in 1881 at Benty in the Melacorrie region met with considerable opposition from Protestant missionaries in the area and it was considered prudent to withdraw.[38] A mission at Rio Pongo in the North, which Fr Gommenginger established in 1876, also struggled and did not become a permanent establishment.  Within the colony a mission station at Murraytown was opened in 1880 and it too struggled for a considerable period before eventually being firmly established. The main mission station to be established outside of Freetown before Browne’s arrival was developed by Fr Blanchet at Bonthe on Sherbro Island in 1893. There, schools for boys and girls as well as an orphanage were established, the latter under the care of the St Joseph of Cluny sisters. However, the sisters were unable to provide personnel for the orphanage for very long and concentrated instead on the school.


Browne made exploratory visits to several areas to talk with local people about establishing schools and missions. He describes one such visit by canoe up the River Bum when he was accompanied by a Fr Touhy, who could speak Mende.[39] Everywhere they went they were asked to open schools. As result an out-station to Bonthe was established at Bamani in 1897, the first of several to be established over the following decade.


Browne was eventually appointed Pro-Vicar Apostolic in 1898 with the authority of a bishop, a much delayed acknowledgement of the growth of the mission and of Browne’s energetic contribution to that growth. His letters reveal a man of considerable enthusiasm with an urgency to get things done.  He frequently wrote with a scarcely revealed frustration of the need for more missionaries, of the need to replace those who died unexpectedly, or those who had to be allowed home to recuperate from illness and fatigue. One of Fr Browne’s letters reveals the commitment to building and the need for tools.[40] He wrote asking a Br Regis who was preparing to travel to join the Sierra Leone mission and who had worked with him in Trinidad, to bring with him ‘an inch chisel, a couple of turn screws and a couple of bradawls and gimlets’. He also requested table knives, a table lamp (oil) with a good reflector, three dozen Sacred Heart medals, school songs, canticles and hymns and, in a p.s., added ‘a small harmonium for our school, price five or six pounds’.

Browne had contact with a society in Paris that raised funds for the missions for which he annually completed a detailed questionnaire providing information about the mission’s work. He frequently wrote about his visits into the Protectorate, and the conditions of the ordinary people. He described the homes of the Mende being poorly constructed, and not well kept. He also mentions cannibalism and domestic slavery still practised in some places and hoped they could be eliminated. Emphasising the demand for schools, he told of the large attendance of local chiefs at the opening of a mission chapel at Mogumbo in 1900, and of the enrolment of many children in the school alongside it.

Hut Tax Wars

Although missionaries benefitted from European colonial expansion, they did not always find themselves in agreement with the policies or decisions of the colonial administrations. In Sierra Leone, one of the consequences of Britain’s extension of its jurisdiction beyond the original colony was the decision to impose a new tax, the ‘hut tax’, to pay for the new administration. The tax was a house tax but, however necessary the colonial administration viewed the tax, the implication for those affected was that they did not own their houses, an implication widely resented. As a result the tax was resisted and a bitter conflict broke out led by the Temne chief, Bai Bureh, in the North and by several Mende chiefs in the South and East. While resentment of the ‘hut tax’ was directed against the colonial authorities, missionaries in a number of places also suffered in the ensuing violence, notwithstanding the clear opposition some expressed towards the tax.  In 1898 Fr Browne wrote that the ‘hut tax’ was harsh and unjustified’, but he and others also spoke out against cannibalism and slavery. This criticism was resented by those responsible for the practices and placed its critics in considerable danger.[41]

Fr Tuohy, based at Bonthe, wrote an account of the situation there following the outbreak of the war.[42] According to Tuohy violent resistance to the tax occurred when the colonial authorities started to imprison chiefs who were leading the anti-tax protests. Attacks on European owned property on the mainland forced many to flee down river to seek refuge at Bonthe. People gathered at the mission for protection against the feared arrival of rebel forces. Luckily, the failure to acquire a sufficient number of boats to take the rebels to Bonthe spared the refugees. Once the uprising had been put down, missionary activity resumed in the areas affected without any apparent long-term effects.


After a sustained presence of forty years by the close of the century the Roman Catholic mission in Sierra Leone had developed firm roots, not just in Freetown and Bonthe but also in several locations in the Protectorate. When Browne died in 1903 permanent mission stations were functioning at Moyamba and Mobe with a number of out-stations attached to each. To these would soon be added stations at Gerihun in 1904, and at Serabu and Blama in 1905. In the colony, apart from Freetown itself, mission stations were located at Ascensiontown and Murraytown. The Catholic mission then consisted of eleven priests, four brothers and eleven sisters caring for a total Catholic population of nearly 3,000 with 900 children enrolled in their schools.

From the humble and inauspicious beginnings in 1864 when Blanchet and his companions stepped ashore to establish the first permanent mission growth had been slow but steady. Relationships with the wider community were now quite harmonious, another contrast with the situation just a few decades earlier. With respect to the latter it had been of significance that several of the colony’s governors after Hennessy had also been Catholic and had regularly attended Catholic services. The missionaries had reciprocated and had gradually abandoned the more stand-offish earlier approach which had kept many of them apart from the wider European and African communities. As happened when Fr Bracken died, but on a far greater scale, Browne’s funeral occasioned a very large demonstration of public respect for him and the Catholic mission.  Civil authorities, merchants, traders of Freetown and the army – for which he had acted as chaplain, and members of non-Catholic communities joined their Catholic citizens at the ceremonies.[43] Leading Catholics in the colony wrote to Paris paying tribute to Browne saying ‘we cannot let this occasion pass without placing on record our high appreciation of the services he has rendered in furthering the cause of the Catholic religion, namely by the opening of missions in the hinterland and by bringing together that bond of friendship between our separated brethren and the Catholic Church’.[44] It was a fitting tribute not just to Browne, but all who served the mission over the previous half-century.


Note on author

Dr Seán Farren is a visiting professor at the School of Education in the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, where he lectured for twenty-eight years prior to his retirement. His research interests include the history of Irish education on which he has published extensively in academic journals, book chapters and in his book The Politics of Irish Education 1920-1965 (Belfast, 1995). As a former elected member of the Assembly of Northern Ireland and minister in the Northern Ireland executive (1997-2007), Dr Farren has also published extensively on the political situation there, his most recent publication being SDLP: the struggled for agreement in Northern Ireland (Dublin, 2010). Dr Farren, who taught in Sierra Leone in his early career, at Bo and Kenema, is currently researching Irish-Sierra Leonean connections and has published the booklet Slave Traders, Governors and Missionaries:  Irish-Sierra Leonean Connections 1750-1960 (Dublin, Sierra Leone-Ireland Partnership, 2011).

Dr Farren can be contacted at



[1] Kup, Peter, A History of Sierra Leone 1400-1787, London, 1961, p.67.

[2] The American Colonization Society (in full, The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Colour of America), founded in 1816, was the primary vehicle to support the return of free African Americans to what was considered greater freedom in Africa. It helped to found the colony of Liberia in 1821–22 as a place for freedmen

[3] Dunne, James, Creoles and Catholics in Freetown 1864-1896, unpublished dissertation, Fordham University NY, 1993. Copy in archives of Irish Spiritans, Dublin.

[4] Fyfe, Christopher, History of Sierra Leone, p. 288.

[5] Vicariate is the title given to an ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the Roman Catholic Church which has not yet become a diocese.

[6] The Holy Ghost congregation was an amalgamation in 1848 of a society, founded in 1709 In Paris by Claude Francois Poullard des Places, with a congregation founded by Francis Libermann in 1842.

[7] Dunne, op.cit.,chap.1.

[8] Dunne, op.cit., chap.3.

[9] Dunne, op.cit., chap.3.

[10] Quoted by Edward Hamelberg, ‘The History of the Catholic Church in Sierra Leone’ in Centenary Souvenir of Holy Ghost Fathers in Sierra Leone 1864-1964 , Sierra Leone, 1964, p.35.

[11] Fyfe, op.cit., p.151

[12] Hamelberg, op.cit., p.36.

[13] Letter, in French, dated Fete de la Circoncision, Janvier 1867, in Boite 12 I i 16, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.

[14] Mount Sackville School, on the western outskirts of Dublin.

[15] Letter from Blanchet to Mother House, in Boite 12 I i 16, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.

[16] Fyfe, op.cit. p.326.

[17] CO/267

[18] Report cited in communication to the Holy Ghost Mother House, Boite 12 I i 16, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.

[19] Observer, 14 Feb. 1867.

[20] 11 Nov. 1867 in Boite 12 11.2a.1, Archives des Spiritains, Paris

[21] Ibid, July, 1867.

[22] Boite 12 I i 16, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.

[23] Boite 12 I i 16, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.

[24] Course of Sermons on the Errors of the Roman Catholic Church preached at Christ Church, Pademba Road, Freetown, 1869.

[25] cited in ‘Apercues de la mission’, 1931.Boite 12 I i 16, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.

[26] Boite 12 I i 16, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.

[27] Letter from Fr Haas to the Mother House, 10 May 1888, Boite 12 I i 16, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.

[28] Boite 12 I i 16, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.

[29] Boite 12 I i 16, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.

[30] Boite 12 I i 16, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.

[31] Letter to Mother House, 3 September, 1886, Boite 12 I 1, 2a 3, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Haas, op.cit.

[34] Boite 12 I i 16, Archives des Spiritains, Paris.

[35] Walker, RF, The Holy Ghost Fathers in Africa, Dublin, 1933.

[36] Boite 12 I i 16, Archives des Spiritains, Paris

[37] Farragher, Seán, ‘James Browne’ in Irish Spiritans Remembered,

[38] Boite 12 I i 16, Archives des Spiritains, Paris

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Letter from Fr Tuohy in Les Missions Catholiques, Bulletin Hebdomadaire, 1 July, 1898, published by the Office for the Propagation of the Faith, p.301.

[43] Farragher, op.cit.

[44] Boite 12 I 1,1a7, Archives des Spiritains, Paris

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