Remembering the Musami Martyrs, 40 years on

A plaque at St Paul's Mission recalls the Musami Martyrs of 1977
A plaque at St Paul's Mission recalls the Musami Martyrs of 1977

Today, Jesuits worldwide - especially those in Britain and Ireland - are marking the 40th anniversary of the Musami Martyrs, a group of three Jesuits and four Dominican Sisters who were murdered at St Paul’s Mission in Zimbabwe (which was then Rhodesia).

St Paul’s Mission Musami lies about 60 miles northeast of Harare (formerly Salisbury), having been founded in 1923. Over the next 40 years, it developed considerably, with schools, a hospital and sports’ facilities, including a large sports’ stadium and a swimming pool. Jesuit fathers and brothers, some Dominican Sisters and a local religious order, the Little Children of Our Blessed Lady, ran what was the largest mission station in the Archdiocese of Salisbury, catering for over 2,000 students - mostly boarders.

Rhodesia had declared itself independent from the United Kingdom in 1965 and a republic in its own right in 1970. What followed was a brutal guerrilla war involving two African nationalist organisations, ZANU, under Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU fighters. It was within this violent scenario that the missionaries of Musami fell victim exactly 40 years ago.

Solidarity with the local populationThe memorial to the Musami Martyrs

“The liberation war was growing in intensity, especially in the rural areas and these missionaries knew their lives were in danger,” explained Fr Ted Rogers SJ, in his memoirs Ted Rogers - Jesuit, Social Pioneer and AIDS Activist in Zimbabwe. “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.” Shortly after 8pm on Sunday 6 February 1977, a party of men in various types of uniform entered the mission and rounded up four Jesuits and four Dominican Sisters. They were marched outside and lined up near the church where they were shot - although one of the Jesuits managed to escape injury.

The Jesuit martyrs - all members of the British Province of the Society of Jesus - were Fr Martin Thomas SJ, who was 45 years old and the acting Mission Superior; Fr Christopher Shepherd-Smith (34), who provided pastoral care for the African people at the scattered Mass centres in the surrounding countryside; and 56-year-old Br John Conway SJ, a popular Irish missionary, especially with the children of the Mission, whose special role was as mechanic. The fourth Jesuit, Fr Dunstan Myerscough SJ, fell to the ground when the firing started and was not hit. The Dominican Sisters included three Germans (Sr Magdala Lewandowski, Sr Epiphany Schneider and Sr Ceslaus Stiegler, and Sr Joseph Wilkinson (55) who was from England.  

Atrocities and propaganda

“The massacre was an international incident and received widespread publicity,” wrote Fr Rogers in his memoirs. “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.”

St Paul's Mission, MusamiAccording to a local newspaper report at the time: “Rhodesian forces are hunting the guerrillas, whom the authorities say belong to Mr Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). A police spokesman said the group was believed responsible for a series of incidents, including the murder of several black civilians … Police said today they had recovered more than 100 cartridge cases fired from Russian-made rifles and a machine-gun.”

More information about the Musami Martyrs is preserved in the Jesuit Archives. Meanwhile, today, we continue to pray for the repose of their souls and for the safety of all missionaries who strive to bring the Gospel of Christ to all areas of the world, despite personal danger to their own lives.