From 1982 – 1991 Br. Leonard Elder, SCJ, was a missionary in the African country of Zaire.
On November 17, he returns for the first time in 23 years.
Much has changed, even the name of the country. Since 1997, Zaire has been known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a return to its historical name.
And BROTHER Leonard is now FATHER Leonard. One of the reasons he returned to the United States was to pursue a call to the priesthood.
“God, through the voices of many people [in Africa], called me again to pursue studies for the priesthood,” said Fr. Leonard.
He first came to the SCJs with the desire for ordained ministry. After graduation from the minor seminary (Divine Heart in Donaldson, Ind.) he entered the novitiate.
“But I then I decided that I didn’t want to be a priest,” he said.
Instead of professing his first vows, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. In some ways, his time of military service was an extended period of discernment. After four years with the Air force “I asked to return to the community as a religious brother.”
Fr. Leonard professed his first vows in 1967.
He volunteered for the missions when the U.S. Province was preparing a team to serve in Lesotho, a small country surrounded by South Africa. At the time, he was the assistant novice master.
The Lesotho project was indefinitely postponed but Fr. Leonard was still open to the missions. When asked to consider going to Zaire he quickly said “yes!”
Fr. Leonard joined a group of SCJ priests and brothers from 11 countries. They included Fr. David Maher and Br. Jerry Selenke, American SCJs who have since passed away.
His first assignment was at the Centre Monsignor Grison in Kisangani where “I was asked to repair the building and turn it into a functioning retreat center.”
He later served at the mission in Babonde in the Diocese of Wamba.
Fr. Leonard says that what he enjoyed most about his years in Africa “were the challenges; learning new cultures, languages, and the daily struggles to overcome the lack of almost everything I was accustomed to using.
“However, joined with those challenges was discovering a people eager to celebrate God’s love and to share in their lives and struggles.”
A turning point in Fr. Leonard’s vocation came when he was recuperating from a back injury suffered while repairing a bridge. Orange cones and DOT repair crews are not frequently seen on Zairian roads; often missionaries do necessary repairs themselves.
During his convalescence Fr. Leonard began to once again discern a vocation to ordained ministry.
“My time in the Congo certainly helped in preparing for ministry as a priest,” he said. “The first-hand experiences in the mission chapels gave me many insights into the working of God’s graces.”
He had hoped to return to Zaire after ordination, but an escalation of the country’s armed conflicts made it difficult to do so.
In part, it is in remembrance of the country’s conflicts that Fr. Leonard is returning to Africa. On November 26, SCJs from around the world will come together in Wamba to remember and celebrate the lives of 28 members of the Priests of the Sacred Heart who were martyred during the Simba Revolution. Bishop Joseph Wittebols and six other SCJs were killed in Wamba on November 26, 1964.
The commemoration ends four days of remembrance and celebration hosted by Congolese SCJs. A bittersweet moment for the congregation, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Congolese Province. The Priests of the Sacred Heart have had a presence in the country for 117 years but it wasn’t until 1964 that a province was formally established.
When Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, SCJ, provincial superior, asked if someone would like to represent the U.S. Province at the commemoration, Fr. Leonard saw the perfect opportunity to return.
“Two of the things that I am looking forward to is seeing a few of the men I worked with and assuring them by this visit that they and their ministry have not been forgotten by me,” said Fr. Leonard. “I’d also like to see if some of the work that I did is still functioning.”
Fr. Leonard joins Fr. Charles Brown, SCJ, province mission secretary (Fr. Charlie served in the Congo from 1985-87) and Fr. Steve in a three-week visit to the country.
We hope to share photos and other information from them during their travels. Much will depend on the possibility for internet connections.