Henri Streicher was an important Catholic missionary bishop in Africa, who was instrumental in obtaining the first African Catholic priests and the first African Catholic bishop of modern times. Adrian Hastings, the historian, quoted with approval in 1994 the verdict of Celso Constantini that Streicher was “the greatest missionary of the twentieth century.” Streicher was born at Wasselonne in Catholic Alsace on July 29, 1863. He joined the Society of Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) and was ordained priest in September 1887. His first appointment was to teach Church History and Bible for two years at the Greek Melchite Seminary, run by the Missionaries of Africa in Jerusalem. Then, for another year he taught Systematic Theology in his society’s scholasticate at Carthage in Tunisia. This early experience of seminary teaching convinced him of the importance of training an African indigenous priesthood, a conviction that was shared by other missionaries in Uganda, who had profited by the Jerusalem experience, Bishop John Joseph Hirth, Bishop John Forbes and Father Auguste Achte.
Appointed to the Victoria Nyanza mission in 1890, he arrived at the beginning of 1891 and was immediately posted to Buddu in the south of the Ganda kingdom. In the civil war, that accompanied British annexation in 1892, the Catholic loyalist majority was forced to move to Buddu, and, shortly after peace was made, Streicher, who was called “Stensera” by the Ganda, founded the mission station of Villa Maria. In 1894 the Victoria Nyanza mission was divided into three. John Joseph Hirth, former bishop of the whole region, was given Southern Nyanza. Since the Missionaries of Africa were French-speaking, and most of them French nationals, the English Catholic Mill Hill Missionaries were given the eastern portion, designated “Upper Nile.” The remainder was designated “Northern Nyanza” and entrusted to Bishop A. Guillermain, who appointed Streicher to Rubaga in the Ugandan capital. Guillermain died suddenly of a haemorrhagic fever in 1896 and Streicher was nominated his successor the following year, receiving episcopal ordination from Hirth on August 15th at Bukumbi, in present day Tanzania. Streicher was bishop of Northern Nyanza for thirty six years, and made Villa Maria his headquarters.
Streicher’s diocese covered the whole southern and western portion of modern Uganda. The evangelization of the western Nyoro and Toro kingdoms had already been started by his predecessor. In 1901 he commenced work in Ankole, and twenty years later in Kigezi. When he took over the diocese, there were 30,000 baptized Christians. When he retired in 1933, there were 303,000. There were, moreover, 46 African priests and 280 African religious sisters. Intelligent, energetic, authoritarian and independent, Streicher was a superb organizer. His diocesan synods were meticulously prepared. All the resolutions were drawn up by him beforehand ! Synodal participants were simply required to vote “yes” before being allowed to seek explanations from the bishop afterwards.
Since the Ganda royal family was now in the hands of the Anglican mission, Streicher became in many ways a “royal” focus for Ganda Catholics, a veritable prince-bishop. The Catholic chiefs had moved to Buddu where they did the bishop’s bidding. Evangelization was conducted through the influence of these chiefs, with the help of Ganda catechists. Just as chiefs in the past had sent their sons to the royal court to be the king’s pages, they now sent them to the seminary to be “pages” of Streicher. In the minds of Ganda Catholics, the church possessed a structure that resembled their own kingdom. In the photographs, we see Streicher, with his French imperial beard, a lean, regal figure, enthroned upon the royal leopard skin, or wearing a black and gold princely robe over his soutane.
Streicher’s overriding aim was pastoral, to help his people become convinced and exemplary Christians. The running of schools was a major part of his strategy, since experience proved that educated Christians were more persevering. Missionaries ensured that there was a long and careful preparation for receiving the sacraments. Knowledge of the alphabet was required in order to enter the catechumenate. Literacy was a requirement for baptism. Streicher insisted that there be a school in every parish centre and every village outstation. In 1902 he started a training college for teacher-catechists. His French missionaries, on the whole, knew no English, and, in any case, Streicher banned the teaching of English in his schools, so that Christians would not be tempted by the secularizing influence of urban living and government employment. It was only with extreme reluctance that he allowed English to be taught in his seminaries in 1916. It must be said, that his attempt to shield his flock from worldly dangers was misguided and ultimately unrealistic. Moreover, as a result of this policy, Uganda was fast developing a Protestant elite and a Catholic peasantry.
Such fears also played a part in Streicher’s reluctance to commence secondary education in the diocese. However, he realized the importance of a “school for chiefs,” in which the medium was English. This was the origin of a fee-paying, government subsidized, secondary school, St. Mary’s Rubaga, founded in 1906, at a time when the Anglican Church was already sponsoring four secondary schools in the country. Streicher was equally reluctant to allow Catholic teaching orders into his diocese, and saw this as a possible threat to his own authority. In 1924, however, nine years before his retirement, he invited the Canadian Brothers of Christian Instruction of Ploermel to restart the prestigious school of St. Mary’s Rubaga, at Kisubi and to start other schools in the diocese. When Bishop (later Cardinal) Arthur Hinsley, came to Uganda in 1929 as Apostolic Visitor, for the purpose of encouraging Catholic education, Kisubi was already the showpiece of the diocese. Streicher also invited Canadian missionaries who could speak English, and several of these became bishops. One was John Forbes, the first Canadian Missionary of Africa who became his auxiliary in 1918 (he died suddenly in 1926). Another was Edouard Michaud who succeeded him as Vicar Apostolic in Rubaga. Yet another was Archbishop Joseph Cabana, who became Archbishop of Rubaga, when Michaud died in 1945. In 1924 also Streicher responded to the recommendations of the Phelps-Stokes educational commission, by founding teacher training colleges for men and women at Bikira and Bwanda respectively.
If there was ambiguity in Streicher’s education policy, there was none in his determination to foster seminaries and the training of indigenous priests. This was his declared priority on the day of his episcopal ordination. “To get one indigenous priest is for me more important than to convert ten thousand people,” he declared in 1929. When he became bishop, Streicher inherited a seminary at Kisubi on the shores of Lake Victoria. In 1901-1903, because of the sleeping sickness epidemic, the seniors were moved to Bikira and the juniors to Bukalasa near Villa Maria, to be joined again soon after by the seniors. In 1911, the senior seminarians crossed to the nearby hill of Katigondo, the seminary which up to today has given nearly one thousand priests to Africa. From this seminary in 1913 came the first two African priests of modern times, Bazilio Lumu and Victoro Mukasa Womeraka, ordained by Streicher himself at Villa Maria.
The beatification of the Uganda Martyrs in Rome in 1920 was another important achievement, prepared by Streicher and attended by him in person, together with two confessors of the faith who had narrowly escaped martyrdom in 1885-1886. For the rest of his reign, Streicher occupied himself preparing his missionaries and the diocese for African autonomy. This was already accepted in principle when he retired in 1933. His diocese was divided into two vicariates: Rubaga and Masaka (Buddu). Streicher had forced the pace of African autonomy and this was the cause of considerable ill-feeling among the missionaries. For six years, an African Vicar General administered Masaka. Then in 1939 Joseph Nakabaale Kiwanuka, a Ganda Missionary of Africa from Masaka, was appointed its first African Bishop. Streicher assisted Pope Pius XII on October 29th at the consecration in Rome of Kiwanuka, as Vicar Apostolic of Masaka and first African Catholic bishop of modern times. Streicher himself was honoured by the pope, firstly in 1914 with the right to wear the cappa magna of an archbishop and then in retirement with the actual title of personal archbishop. Retiring to Ibanda in his former diocese, Henri Streicher died on June 4, 1952, after receiving the last rites from Bishop Kiwanuka. He is buried in the church he built at Villa Maria.
Aylward Shorter M.Afr.
J. Cussac, Evêque et Pionnier, Monseigneur Streicher (Paris, 1955).
Adrian Hastings, The Church in Africa, 1450-1950 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).
Roger Heremans, L’Education dans les Missions des Pères Blancs en Afrique Centrale 1879-1914 (Brussels: Editions Nauwelaerts, 1983).
John Mary Waliggo, A History of African Priests (Nairobi: Matianum Press Consultants, 1988).
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.