Don Bosco's Charism Survives the Chaos
By Richard Demeter
|Sierra Leone, West Africa: Fr. Albert Mengon, SDB, with effervescent staff and students. |
The Salesians have been in Lungi, Sierra Leone, since 1986, when they were invited by the local bishop to establish a school there. Saint Augustine's has grown to encompass five buildings and several basketball courts. Five years ago the Salesians were also placed in charge of the parish at Lungi, including its 13 primary schools. Since then a new parish hall and residence have been built.
Although relative peace has returned to Sierra Leone, during the military insurrection that recently convulsed that West African nation, the Salesian community in Lungi found itself in the crossfire as rebels, government troops and peacekeepers battled for control of the nearby international airport.
The conflict, which erupted last May when a military coup seized power, caused such chaotic conditions in the country that last June three American Salesians (including Fr. Al Mengon from the San Francisco province) were forced to flee Lungi and seek refuge at a Salesian mission in neighboring Guinea.
From there Fr. Mengon faxed a lengthy message to San Francisco, detailing the violence and observing that some of the soldiers he had seen around the Lungi airport were former students at Saint Augustine, the Salesian secondary school in the area. "Don't be afraid, 'Fadar.' Everything will be okay," he reported them as saying. After only a few days in Guinea, though, Fr. Mengon returned to Lungi.
By mid February, troops from Nigeria had crossed the border to help crush the rebellion and restore order. Although Sierra Leone's Catholic clergy and religious applauded this development, they feared that their earlier opposition to the rebel junta would make them the target of reprisals by the fleeing rebel soldiers. It was at this juncture that Fr. Mengon faxed the following edited message to the provincial, Fr. Nicholas Reina, in San Francisco:
"Nothing bad has happened to us. When on that famous Friday the 13th, at the conclusion of the campaign of liberation of Freetown (the capital of Sierra Leone), the radio announced the arrival in a few days of the ships with rice, and the resumption of the ferry from us to Freetown, our people celebrated in the streets singing and dancing till midnight. Father Dominic DeBlase (director of the community and a Salesian from the New Rochelle Province) is eager to see if any damages have occurred to our Don Bosco Home (in Freetown).
"The same euphoria cannot be said for other parts of Sierra Leone... It seems that the Nigerians were provoked into this Freetown attack a bit too soon, with not enough soldiers to deploy in the provinces. And so it happened that while we and the people in Freetown were rejoicing, in Lunsar and in Makeni a reign of terror and lawlessness was unleashed and continues as I write. The Catholic Church seems to be the prime object of this diabolic attack.
"Of course you know of the abduction of 3 doctors, one priest and one pharmacist at the (Catholic hospital) in Lunsar. The presumption is that the hospital is ransacked and looted.... (Following their release, these abductees -- three religious of the society of St. John of God, a lay missionary and an Augustinian priest -- stayed briefly with the Salesians at Lungi.) Further up in Makeni the story is not any better; all the vehicles of the numerous churches, residences, convents are all gone. But let me stop there.... But really it is the Good Friday that precedes the Resurrection. The freedom and euphoria of our people and the people of Freetown will soon belong to everyone in Sierra Leone. The Nigerians have committed themselves to go after these rebels; the troops are arriving and they will soon go to the provinces."
At the end of February, an expanded West African peacekeeping force ousted the military junta in Sierra Leone, opened the Lungi airport, and were in pursuit of rebel troops. By March the ousted president had been restored to power.