This year the Congregation of Missionaries of St Charles, commonly known as Scalabrinian Fathers is celebrating the silver jubilee, 25 years of their presence and service in the African soil. Although the Congregation was founded in the late of the nineteenth century and it has spread to other continents in the earlier age after its foundation, in 1994 they felt it was the time to explore any new country in the continent of Africa. In these years, the Scalabrinian missionaries have expanded their pastoral and social projects in care of migrants, refugees and seafarers in the other geographical areas of Southern Africa. When they arrived, they settled in Cape Town, lately, they opened the other missions in Johannesburg and Nampula in Mozambique. Their presence in these areas of Africa has been of great significance to the population of migrants, refugees and seafarers, for they arrived at the right time when their services were most needed.
The pastoral ministry has been the motivation and the purpose of the Congregation of Missionaries of St Charles to open a mission in Africa. Towards the end of 1993, the Scalabrinian General Administration, based in Rome, answered the long-awaited request of the late Archbishop Lawrence Henry, for the Congregation to send a priest for Spiritual Assistance of the Italian Community in Cape Town. The Superior General, Fr Luigi Favero and his General Administration, held out a challenge to the conferrers: to take on the responsibility for a mission field in Africa. Fr Mario Zambiasi took up a challenge. He arrived in Cape Town at the beginning of January 1994, accompanied by Fr. Isaia Birollo, representing the General Administration. He was assigned as an Assistant at the Cathedral, with Monsignor Andrew Borello. His first priority was getting contact with the Italian Community and the Port ministry for the seafarers.
At the end of July, he returned to Rome to report on the importance of this new mission. At the end of November 1994, after all agreements were done, Fr. Mário took office at the Holy Cross Church, as a Parish priest of the local community, Apostleship of the Sea (Port) and the Italians. The Italian community, after so many years of expectation, had again a Chaplain and could now rebuild its sense of belonging at Holy Cross (the gathering church for the first Italian fishermen – a Crucifix was donated by them in 1911 to the Parish). The Italian Community was the first reason for the Scalabrinians in Africa. The Italian community in the Western Cape has been served by a number of Scalabrinians up to date. Among them, we find Frs Mario Zambiasi, Mario Tessarotto, Isaia Birollo, Arcangelo Maira, Michele De salvia, Giovanni Meneghetti, Gerardo Garcia Ponce, Pablo Velasquez and Filippo Ferraro. Other Scalabrinians also dedicated their lives to the community in District Six and Paarl: Florenzo Maria Rigoni, Dino Cecconi, Sérgio Durigon, Livio Pegoraro, Isaia Birollo and Giuseppe Focchesato.
Besides the Italian Community, the Apostleship of the Sea, and Holy Cross the Portuguese Community was also entrusted to the care of the Scalabrinians. Archbishop Henry made provisions soon after the contract with the Portuguese Chaplain had expired, late June 1995. This new assignment came on July 31st 1995. Fr. Mário Zambiasi, assisted by Fr Sérgio Durigon, received from the Archbishop Henry this assignment as the first Scalabrinian chaplain. During the Apartheid era, the Portuguese community was mainly concentrated around St Agnes, in Woodstock, close enough to the harbour for its big number of fishermen. The relocating of most of the Portuguese families to other suburbs of the city, caused by the increasing number of family members, better living and better basic economic and social infrastructures saw many pastoral activities developing in other realities of the Mother City. Along the years the pastoral activity grew and demanded presence and energy to the chaplains. Seven Scalabrinians were appointed chaplains to the community, namely: Frs. Mario Zambiasi, Mario Tessarotto, Sérgio Durigon, Rogerio Bettu, Ivaldo Bettin and Roman Viveros. Many other Scalabrinians assisted thanks to the constant sharing of responsibilities among themselves.
1995 saw the Scalabrinian Missionaries with 5 different assignments (Italians, Apostleship of the Sea, Holy Cross, Refugees and the Portuguese). It was a growing period with a number of challenges due to the tremendous needs of the communities and the few Scalabrinians present. The General Administration sent different confrerers to assist fr Mario Zambiasi: Frs. Sérgio Durigon Flor Maria Rigoni and Dino Cecconi. The pastoral ministry was not enclosed to the migrant’s community only. Their continuous commitment to the Archdiocese and local people has been appreciated along all the years.
The ministry to Seafarers presented many challenges to Fr Mario Zambiasi. He was assisted by the late deacons (Dick Croucher and Lucas Timmers) and a local team in ministering to the seafarers. This was an opportunity to bring Christ’s love to the world’s seafarers, to pray with them, both onboard and at the Flying Angel Centre’s chapel at the port of Cape Town, assisting them in the city hospitals, prisons and all the legal matters. The Scalabrinians put their heart in this service, in ministering partnership with other Christian denominations in the Harbour and serving seafarers as their own parishioners. Frs Sérgio Durigon, Arcangelo Maira, Jorge Guerra, Gerardo Garcia Ponce and Rico Talisic served as priests in charge, assisted by other Scalabrinians resident in District Six.
Soon after Mandela’s freedom South Africa witnessed the arrival of many citizens from the neighbouring countries. While Fr Mario Zambiasi was still at the Cathedral he assisted many refugees with translations of letters to be presented to Home Affairs. The need increased especially at Holy Cross where legal assistance was introduced as well. Classes of English, food and clothes distribution, family assistance were among the services rendered to the refugees. Fr Mario Tessarotto arrived in January 1996. He had a lot of experience in USA, Luxemburg and France where he had permission to be employed and work as a priest. His major input was to bring about skills and formation to all refugees. With the wars in the near Countries saw an increase of many refugees from other countries. The arrival of Fr Arcangelo Maira contributed to invest in the pastoral needs of the refugees as well.
The francophone community was formed due to the presence of the migrants and refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Rwanda, Cameroon and Burundi. This chaplaincy, just from the beginning has been composed of most of the refugees. Due to this particularity, Fr Mario Tessarotto who had a lot of experience behind in France, Luxemburg, USA, took it in charge and became first Francophone community chaplain. Lately, the chaplaincy has been enriched with the presence of other members from other French-speaking countries, namely; Gabon, Ivory Coast, Belgium and France. This chaplaincy too has seen numerous chaplains up to date, namely; Frs. Mario Tessarotto, Arcangelo Maira, Gerardo Garcia, Arlain Pierre, Filippo Ferraro and Pierre Onel Felistus.
The pastoral ministry of the Congregation in the Archdiocese of Cape Town was not enclosed to the migrant’s community only, but it was even opened to the local Catholic community. Thus, after few months of the arrival of the first Scalabrinian missionary in the Archdiocese, he was appointed a parish priest of Holy Cross. Since then, the Scalabrinian Fathers have overseen the Parish in District Six up to date. St Agnes is Woodstock was also given under the administration of the Scalabrinian Fathers. Their corroboration with the Archdiocese and local people has been appreciated.
Johannesburg is the harbour of migrants and refugees, it is the centre where most of the modes of transports arrive. In 2011 the Scalabrinians opened in Johannesburg, in La Rochelle at the request of Archbishop Buti. Fr Gerardo Garcia Ponce was the first priest in charge, followed by Fr Sérgio Durigon and Fr Jorge Armando Guerra, currently. Fr Ivaldo Bettin, who was the assistant parish priest of the first two, did various projects at the Parish.
The multicultural and plural national of this Parish allow the Congregation to live the Charism and reach out to the migrants and refugees’ communities. The Scalabrinians are responsible for the pastoral ministry to the local Parish of St Patrick’s and South Hills. For a period of time, they served Linmeyer Catholic Community as well. Besides pastoral ministry in the parish, they have been extending their pastoral service to the migrants and refugees serving at the office of the people on the move by the Archdiocese. Fr Ivaldo Bettin was the first Vicar for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees. Fr Pablo Velasquez in now in charge.
Having laid the foundations of the vibrant migrant chaplaincies in South Africa, the Congregation began to promote their own way of life to the young men who would like to answer God’s call embracing Scalabrinian spirituality and Charism of serving Migrants, refugees and seafarers. On this, the 25th Anniversary of the Congregation in South Africa has seen Ten indigenous African embracing Scalabrinian spirituality. One of them was ordained priest and another one will receive his ordination soon this year. Three candidates are now religious and the other four are starting novitiate this year. Two candidates are doing philosophy.
The social activities to the migrants and refugees were one of the projects that were at the heart of the Scalabrinian Fathers as soon as their arrival.
They launched social and pastoral projects to the refugees in Cape Town, regardless of the religious affiliations. The missionaries established social programs to provide services that included material assistance, school of English language, paralegal advises especially concerning documents, advocacy and a centre of studies. It grew from the time of the Cathedral or Holy Cross to the centre at the house in “the Avenue” street, in Woodstock and the Scalabrini Centre in the heart of Cape Town, in Commercial Street, near the South African Parliament. The building was purchased in 2002 by Fr Mario Tessarotto with the assistance of fr Arcangelo Maira e fr Sérgio Durigon. It was soon renovated and ready to accommodate a number of activities. In 2003 the building was officially opened by His Grace Bishop Lawrence Patrick Henry, the Archbishop of Cape Town. It was named “Scalabrini Centre”. It offers six development and welfare programmes to integrate newcomers into South African society, namely; Advocacy, English School, Employment access, Unite, Welfare and Women’s platform.
The Centre is registered under the non-governmental organisation, handed in the hands of the professional lay people to run it (Scalabrinian Agency to cooperation and development and locals), though the management board presided by a Scalabrinian priest. Fr Arcangelo Maira was the first responsible, followed by Mario Tessarotto and Gerardo Garcia Ponce, currently.
When the Fathers were confronted with the phenomenon of the non-accompanied minor refugees and migrants, their response was to open houses for them. The orphanage was opened officially on 16th April 2005 by Archbishop Lawrence and the house was named after him, “Lawrence House”. It is based in Woodstock and it can accommodate 25 residents. It serves a dual purpose: on one hand as a rehabilitation centre where the new home and a new start is offered for the children. On the other hand, it is a “halfway home” where children are equipped with skills with the intention of integrating them in the foreign mainstream society. Since it was opened it has hosted more than one hundred foreign and local minors.
The celebration of 25 years of presence of the Scalabrinians in Africa brings many realities in the mind of those who served and were served. To look back helps one realise the tremendous amount of service given to migrants, refugees and seafarers with gratitude to God for his fidelity. It helps as well to look to the future with hope and enthusiasm in serving the people on the move in the continent of Africa.