Who were the Musami Martyrs?


A memorial for the Martyrs at Musami
A memorial for the Martyrs at Musami

St Paul’s Mission Musami, about 60 miles northeast of Salisbury, Rhodesia  (now Harare in Zimbabwe) had been founded in 1923. It achieved its most impressive development  in the 1950s and 60s, thanks to the efforts of the superior, Fr Tony (Jeep) Davis, who had built schools, a hospital and sports’ facilities, including a large sports’ stadium and a swimming pool. It was the largest mission station in the Archdiocese of Salisbury, catering for over 2,000 students - mostly boarders. The key personnel on the mission were the Jesuit fathers and brothers, the Dominican sisters and a local sisterhood, the Little Children of Our Blessed Lady.

On the night of Sunday 6 February 1977 shortly after 8.00pm, a party of men in various types of uniform entered the mission and forced one of the Dominican sisters, Sr Magdala, to call the priests and brothers out of the rooms. Sr Anna was going to call one of the oldest sisters from her room but she fell and an armed man took pity on her and told her to stay behind and close her door. So she missed being killed through his kindness.


The four Jesuits and four Dominican sisters were marched out by the armed men. They thought they were going to attend a pungwe (a nocturnal meeting which was a favorite ploy of the liberation movement) but they were taken to the road near the church and lined up. The armed men pointed their guns at them and argued who should shoot and then it was quite obvious that they were going to be shot.

But they gave time for the priests to hear each others’ confessions and those of the non-priests. They told Fr Martin Thomas to take off his nice trousers and hand them over as they didn’t want them spoiled by blood. Fr Thomas complied and the gang opened fire on the missionaries. Fr Myerscough dropped to the ground when the firing started and was not hit. Fr Martin Thomas aged 45, the acting Mission Superior and an “English gentleman in Africa”, Fr Christopher Shepherd-Smith, aged 34,  very dedicated to his parishioners but “sometimes a person not easy to live with” and Br John Conway, aged 56 and a sort of Pied Piper for the children around the Mission were killed. They were all members of the British Province of the Society of Jesus.

In addition, four members of the Dominican sisters were killed, These were:

Sr Magdala Lewandowski (43), Sr Epiphany Schneider (73) and Sr Ceslaus Stiegler (60) - all German sisters - and Sr Joseph Wilkinson (55) who was from England.  

Br Denis Adamson SJ was not found by the killers. He was a local Jesuit of mixed race who was out of his room when the missionaries were called. He came across the scene after the firing had stopped and the men ran away leaving footmarks on a painted wall. A flare was later reported as seen in the night sky emanating from the Mission and others said they heard a car engine’s start.


Assisted by the local African sisters, Br Denis examined the bodies with Fr Myerscough and they took them into the nearby guesthouse. Fr Myerscough phoned the local Regional Superior, Fr Patrick McNamara SJ, who then informed the police. As the situation was very dangerous, the superior and the police only came the following morning to the mission and the sad task of removing the bodies to Salisbury began.

After the police came a large group of journalists; some of these were white members of the local press who shouted out: “Where are you bullet-proof missionaries now?", and called them “You Kaffir Buties” (lovers of the blacks in the Afrikaans language).

The massacre was an international incident and received widespread publicity.   Robert Mugabe strongly denied that his men, ZANLA, were the perpetrators, claiming it was the work of the Selous Scouts, a part of the Rhodesian army composed mainly of local blacks who used to disguise themselves as guerrillas and commit atrocities. The Rhodesian government of Ian Smith denied their involvement, though they were later known to have been involved in such incidents for propaganda purposes. The main evidence left at the scene of the murders was footprints from army boots which were imprinted on a wall as the murderers ran away, but this evidence is puzzling: why should they advertise that?

Perhaps some day one of the gang will admit responsibility for the massacre.  Zimbabwe has not had any form of Truth and Reconciliation Commission or Amnesty Committee which might have provided the opportunity for disclosures of guilt to be made in a formal way.

Why were they martyrs? The liberation war was growing in intensity, especially in the rural areas and these missionaries knew their lives were in danger. They were all given the choice of moving to the safer towns, but they decided to stay on in solidarity with the local black population with whom they identified.

[Taken from Memoirs, TED ROGERS Jesuit, Social Pioneer and AIDS Activist in Zimbabwe, Cluster Publications, Dorpspruit, South Africa]

NOTE. There were four other Jesuits killed later, Fr Desmond Donovan of the British Province and Frs Gregor Richert and Gerry Pieper and Br Bernhard Lisson of the East German Province who were working in the northern part of Rhodesia.