For twenty-six years Adolphe Lechaptois was missionary bishop of the Tanganyika vicariate, now the Catholic dioceses of Karema, Kigoma, Mpanda and Mbeya in Tanzania. He was born on June 6, 1852 at Cuille in France and attended the seminary of Laval with Gerboin, the future Vicar Apostolic of Unyanyembe (Tabora). He entered the Society of Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) in 1872, and taught in the junior seminary at Algiers for two years before beginning his theology studies. He was ordained by Cardinal Lavigerie in 1878. For the next five years he alternated between teaching at the junior seminary and assisting the master of novices at Maison Carrée. In 1883 he was briefly appointed an assistant general for the Missionaries of Africa, but in the following year he became the master of novices. In 1886 he was appointed regional superior of Kabylia in Algeria, where he was active in the promotion of the Christian villages. Finally, after more than a decade of work in the formation centres and villages of North Africa, he received his first appointment to equatorial Africa in 1898.
Portugal, at this time, was laying claim to the Shire Highlands of southern Nyasaland, and Lavigerie hoped to begin missionary work in the area under the auspices of this Catholic power. Lechaptois was appointed pro-vicar of Nyasa and travelled to the southern end of Lake Nyasa (Malawi) via the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. Here he founded the mission station of Mponda in December 1890, beginning a medical and teaching apostolate among the Yao people. Within a very short time he had 116 regular pupils at the mission. Instruction was given in the local language, not in Portuguese. This missionary initiative was overtaken by events. An Anglo-Portuguese agreement of 1890 ceded the whole of Nyasaland to Britain and a British protectorate was declared. Lechaptois was obliged to close Mponda in 1891 and move to Mambwe in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), which was then the responsibility of the British South Africa Company.
In July 1891 Lechaptois was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Tanganyika and Administrator of Nyasa (Mambwe). He was the third Catholic bishop of an area surrounding Lake Tanganyika, now lying in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. His predecessors had been shortlived. Charbonnier lived seven months and Bridoux one year. Lechaptois established himself at Karema, the former Fort Leopold, and immediately visited the stations of Upper Congo: Mpala, Mrumbi and Kibanga. The whole area was then in turmoil, due to the depredations of Afro-Arab slave traders, and there was little that could be done other than to fortify the mission stations and to run orphanages for the ransomed children and other casualties of slavery. In 1892 Lechaptois handed over Upper Congo to Bishop Victor Roelens, a Belgian Missionary of Africa who ruled this vicariate for thirty six years.
In 1895 Lechaptois attended the general chapter of the Missionaries of Africa in Algiers and finally received episcopal ordination from Bishop Dusserre in France. He returned to Karema with a group of Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, the first missionary sisters to work in the area. Between 1895 and 1901, he founded five more mission stations: Kala, Zimba, Utinta, Mkulwe and Galula. In 1895 Lechaptois accompanied Joseph Dupont to Mambwe as the new superior of the Nyasa mission. Two years later he ordained him Bishop of the Nyasa vicariate at Kayambi. The early years of the twentieth century saw an emphasis on schools and the beginnings of an outreach beyond the orphanages and Christian village settlements. This was partly spurred by Moravian incursions into the eastern part of the Catholic vicariate, in spite of the delineation of missionary spheres of influence by the Germans. Attempts by Lechaptois to enter the Moravian sphere were blocked by the colonial authorities. By and large, however, Lechaptois enjoyed the support of the German colonial government, and by 1906 had 77 schools in the mission centres and outstations of the vicariate. These comprised 2705 boys and 2231 girls. There were also five orphanages, one of them for girls. The famous doctor-catechist, Adrian Atiman, directed the school at Kala. Lechaptois moved the catechist-teacher training centre from Mambwe to Utinta on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. In 1899 it was moved again to Karema where the teachers studied alongside candidates for the priesthood. In 1912-1913 the teacher-catechists were moved to Zimba and the Karema centre developed into a junior seminary. By 1915 there were fifteen Latin finalists and two seminarians were ready to begin philosophy and theology. Utinta was reopened by Lechaptois as a major seminary under the direction of Joseph Birraux, his future successor as bishop and superior general of the Missionaries of Africa from 1936 to 1947. Delayed by World War I, the first two African priests of Tanganyika were ordained from Utinta in 1923, one of them being Joseph, the son of Adrian Atiman.
Lechaptois was a good superior to his missionaries. A man of great zeal, inherent goodness and simplicity, he visited every station annually. Although marked by the paternalism of the time, his love for his people and fellow workers was genuine. He was also a scholar who bought, read and wrote books. For his ethnography of the region, published as Aux Rives du Tanganyika in 1913, he received the Prize of the Geographical Society of Paris in 1912, and the Society’s silver medal. The work demonstrates his positive appreciation of the people of the region, their character, traditions, arts and organization. Lechaptois, one of the missionary founders of the Catholic Church in Tanzania, died of a stroke in 1917.
Aylward Shorter M.Afr.
Roger Heremans, L’Education dans les missions des Pères Blancs 1897-1914 (Brussels: Editions Nauwelaerts, 1983).
Adolphe Lechaptois, Aux Rives du Tanganyika (Algiers: Missionaries of Africa, 1913).
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.