The phenomenon that has been the Irish missionary movement

Opinion: Spiritans celebrate 150 years in Sierra Leone

Becoming a Christian missionary has lost the appeal it once had for thousands of young Irish men and women who, from the middle of the 19th century, joined many of the congregations and missionary movements that flourished here until the 1980s.

Among the congregations were the Holy Ghost Missionaries, today known as Spiritans, who this year are marking the 150th anniversary of their arrival in Sierra Leone, one of their early mission locations in Africa.

The first group of two French priests and an Irish brother arrived in 1864. They settled in Freetown, the capital of a British colony, home to an ethnically mixed community of former slaves, many liberated from ships that had been attempting to transport them across the Atlantic.

There, the small group opened a church, a school and a medical dispensary and so initiated the work that would characterise their presence until the present day. The church marked the centre of their spiritual mission while the school and dispensary represented the mission’s commitment to serve the daily needs of the local community.


The beginnings were modest and the challenges considerable, not least the health risks inherent in life in the tropics, then as now. Records show that many young missionaries either died from tropical diseases, or were invalided home.

Despite those risks, over the 150 years, almost 200 Irish, English and French members answered the Spiritan call to serve in Sierra Leone.

Expansion of the mission beyond Freetown was led by two remarkable Irish missionaries; Fr James Brown, from 1893 to 1901, and Bishop John O'Gorman who served a lengthy 25 years in the country, from 1903-1928.

Both travelled widely by foot and by boat across Sierra Leone, visiting local communities.

The mission

In response to requests from local leaders for schools and training facilities, by the early 1920s the mission was operating 27 schools, several orphanages, farms and vocational training workshops.

After the second World War, as the country was preparing for independence, the mission was anxious to ensure well qualified local personnel would be available to meet growing demands in the public and private sectors.

New secondary schools and teachers’ colleges were opened along with many more primary schools, so that by independence in 1961 the mission managed almost 300 across the whole country.

Sierra Leone

Alongside the Spiritan missionaries the first two female congregations with many Irish members that contributed to the Catholic mission’s work in Sierra Leone were the St Joseph of Cluny and the Holy Rosary sisters.

Both focused on girls’ education, academic and vocational, and on health services, operating hospitals and clinics, as well as developing a range of social services, for mothers, for disabled people and for persons displaced by civil strife.

Today, the remaining sisters continue this work adding to it care for those affected by the rampant Ebola virus.

The phenomenon that has been the Irish missionary movement involved men and women of all denominations. At a human level it touched the sense of adventure that motivates young people everywhere to travel to distant lands. But, of course, the missionary sense of adventure was also motivated by something deeper. It responded to the Gospel injunction to leave brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, to proclaim the Christian message.

To those who lived by that message, it was a compelling call and for many it meant a final farewell to their families.

Today, the church in Sierra Leone is served by indigenous clergy, religious and faithful, who are informing it with their own cultural insights. But there, as elsewhere, debate continues as to the missionaries’ impact on their culture, especially when that impact is viewed in the context of 19th century European colonial expansion.

Were missionaries arrogantly imposing, or simply proclaiming what they believed to be a better, even the best set of beliefs and values?

In answering that question we might ask how should we view Patrick’s mission to the Irish, Columcille’s to the Picts, or Killian’s to the Germanic people?

Were those missions attempts at imposition?

Or rather, should we see the missionaries’ message as a challenge to other beliefs and values, and so part of the perennial quest to understand ourselves and our ultimate destiny.

Viewed in that latter sense, the missionary spirit and its message are as relevant today as 150 years ago, indeed as 2,000 years ago. Dr Seán Farren taught in Spiritan colleges in Sierra Leone in the 1960s and is vice-chairman of the Sierra Leone Ireland Partnership