Victor Roelens was the first Catholic missionary bishop of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By nature, he was authoritarian and pragmatic, hard and obstinate. A Belgian, he was born at Ardooie in the Diocese of Bruges, western Flanders. His father was a gardener employed by the Count de Jonghe and Roelens inherited his respect for, and love of, manual work. From 1873 to 1879 he attended Tielt College and then studied philosophy for a year at the seminary of Roulers. In September 1880 he entered the novitiate of the Missionaries of Africa at Algiers, and after theological studies at Carthage in Tunisia, was ordained priest by the founder, Cardinal Lavigerie.
For seven years Roelens was employed in Europe and the Near East. He worked mainly in Belgium, setting up the anti-slavery committee there, and then taught at the Greek Melchite seminary of St. Anne’s Jerusalem. Roelens shared this Jerusalem experience with several other bishops of Equatorial Africa who, like him, started seminaries for training African priests. In 1891, Roelens was appointed to Upper Congo, and travelled to Lake Tanganyika with the tenth caravan of the Missionaries of Africa, reaching the lake in the following year. Upper Congo became a separate jurisdiction in 1893 with Roelens as administrator. When it became a Vicariate Apostolic in 1895, Roelens was appointed its bishop, the first of the colony. He returned to Belgium and was ordained bishop at Malines by Cardinal Goossens.
Roelens took over Upper Congo at a difficult time. The whole area was devastated by slave traders and open fighting continued during his first two years. After the arrival of Belgian military officers and the installation of a German outpost on the eastern side of Lake Tanganyika, slave raiding finally ceased around 1893. Four years later, however, the massive mutiny of the Congo Force Publique caused violent unrest in the area, and it was not until 1908 that it was finally put down. Between 1903 and 1907 widespread epidemics caused thousands of deaths, and nineteen out of forty-two missionaries were among those who died. When Roelens took over, there were two mission stations in the vicariate, Mpala and Moba (the future Baudouinville) and a few hundred Christians. Murumbi was founded by Roelens on his arrival. In the absence of effective administration by the Congo Free State, the mission stations became “city states” in their own right, offering a measure of protection to the local population, and possessing their own police, courts, currency, and militia. “This is my republic,” exclaimed Roelens on one occasion, “and I am its president.”
Various consequences followed from this state of affairs. One was that the missions continued for some years to be reception stations for orphans, ransomed slaves, and other casualties of violence. In fact, education in Upper Congo revolved around institutional orphanages and Christian settlements long after such things had disappeared in other parts of Africa. Another consequence was that the Catholic Church was in such a strong position when the colonial administration was effectively established that it virtually shared civil power with the state. The 1906 concordat with the Vatican allocated substantial areas of land to the church, as well as subsidies for Catholic schools. The atrocities associated with the exploitation of wild rubber in the Congo did not occur in the Upper Congo vicariate, but when they began to be made known, Roelens believed them a calumny against the Belgian king. Roelens was decorated many times by the Belgian government, and he must have come near to Leopold II’s ideal of a Belgian Catholic missionary. However, he did not see eye to eye completely with the government, especially on the subject of military youth camps and trade schools, and he feared the influence of freemasonry in government circles. In 1908, he took the important step of convening, and presiding over, a meeting of Catholic religious superiors at Leopoldville (Kinshasa).
Another important consequence of the socio-cultural vacuum in Upper Congo when Roelens took over, was his scepticism towards African culture and traditions. Although, after a lengthy experience in Africa, he claimed to understand the psychology of the African, he had little interest in, or sympathy with, the African way of life. This was in contrast to the attitude of his brother bishops in Tanganyika and Nyasa (Zambia/Malawi). In particular, he deplored the way children roamed naked and were left by their parents to fend for themselves. He therefore determined to withdraw school children completely from the influence of the home. The church, he believed, had to be “master of the youth.” Although he respected Lavigerie’s caution against creating “black Europeans,” Roelens’ aim was to assimilate Africans within a “superior” Christian, Belgian culture. As one observer has remarked, his policy was a form of social engineering. He also believed in strong arm methods, using a system of rewards and punishments to ensure that parents sent their children to school. “The rod,” he was fond of saying, “was born in heaven.”
In 1893 Roelens started a catechist training centre at Mpala, and this moved to the new mission station of Lusaka in 1905. Under government impulse, it eventually became a teacher training centre. The schools and orphanages of Upper Congo remained firmly in the hands of the church which attempted to shield the pupils from secular influences. Roelens drew up a catechism in Swahili and enunciated his missionary policies through rigid circulars and instructions to his missionaries. A junior seminary stream developed alongside the catechist centre at Lusaka. In this, the students were allowed to learn French, as well as Latin, and classical authors, such as Cicero, were studied. In 1907 a major seminary was started at Baudouinville, and this produced the first Congolese priest, Stephen Kaoze, who was ordained by Roelens in 1917. The success of the seminary and the perseverance of Kaoze probably owed more to the support of Roelens’ auxiliary bishop, Auguste Huys, than to Roelens himself.
Huys died in 1931 and Roelens received Morlion as coadjutor in 1939. When Roelens resigned in 1941, after forty-six years as bishop, his vicariate had 52,000 baptized Christians, eighty-four outstation chapels and 391 village schools. He spent his last six years of retirement in study and prayer. Dying at the age of 89, he had outlived more than sixty of his missionaries. Although he was a controversial and in many ways an unattractive character, Roelens was a major founder of the Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Aylward Shorter M.Afr.
Roger Heremans, L’Education dans les Missions des Pères Blancs en Afrique Centrale 1879-1914 (Brussels: Editions Nauwelaerts, 1983).
Victor Roelens, (ed. Antoine, N.) Notre Vieux Congo 1891-1917, Souvenirs du Premier Evêque du Congo Belge, 2 vols, (Namur: Editions Grands Lacs, 1948).
Friedrich Stenger, White Fathers in Colonial Central Africa - A Critical Examination of V. Y. Mudimbe’s Theories on Missionary Discourse in Africa (Münster, Hamburg, London: Lit Verlag, 2001).
This article, submitted in 2003, was researched and written by Dr. Aylward Shorter M.Afr., Emeritus Principal of Tangaza College Nairobi, Catholic University of Eastern Africa.