History of the Catholic in Botswana

The Botswana people always had that inmate sense of the divine common to all humanity: they believed in a Supreme Spirit of Modimo, and an after-life and venerated their ancestors. It was not till the early 19th century that they heard the message of Christian revelation and love and it was first brought to them, in those distant days, by the London Missionary Society’s two famous Scots – Moffat and Livingstone. In the wake of their early and painstaking endeavours, many others were to come but this brief review has to concern itself with the work of the Catholic missionaries in this country.

The Superiors of the missionary congregation of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) commissioned an experienced missionary who had worked for 18 years in India to come to work in present day Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Fr. Henri Depelchin came with 11 other Jesuits, 5 brothers and 6 Priests from four countries. They arrived in Botswana crossing the Limpopo River at Pallah Camp south of Mahalapye in July 1879.

At the camp site of Hardekoolboom, Brother Joseph Hedley, SJ climbed a tree and carved a cross on it, announcing the presence of the Catholic missionaries in the land in July 1879. It is to be noted that David Livingstone had left his own mark on the same Leadwood tree earlier.


On their way to Shoshong the Jesuits were overtaken by a Protestant missionary, William Skykes on July 6th. He took the news of the approach of the Jesuits to Shoshong the capital of the Bamangwato. When Catholics finally reached Shoshong on the 23rd July 1879, they met the Paramount Chief, Kgosi Khama, the 36 year old Christian Chief of Bamangwato. His capital was a huge village of about 10,000 people. Kgosi Khama was cool in his reception of the missionaries and did not even care to open the letter of introduction they had brought with them. This was the result of the overriding influence of the London Missionary Society, especially James Hepburn the resident missionary and the visitor William Skykes. Kgosi Khama was concerned that two different missionary groups preaching the same gospel might lead to conflict and undermine Christianity itself. Kgosi Khama thus refused the Catholic missionaries permission to stay in his territory and it was only upon Fr. Delpechin’s offering the chief a rifle (Martini-Henry) he relented and allowed them a temporary stay. The Jesuits camped outside the village and were visited on several occasions by Kgosi Khama as well as his brother Khamani, but they were denied permanat residence.The Jesuits reluctantly departed Shoshong on the 28th July 1879 for King Lobengula’s Ndebele territory after five days.


The Motloutse River was considered the boundary betweeb Khama’s territory and that of Ama Ndebele to the north. It provided much needed water for the group on their trek through the dry interior. The missionaries arrived in Tati on the 17th August 1879. Tati was at that time an important trading centre with a grand population of 19 Europeans and 21 non Europeans occupying 6 houses in all. The Jesuits were kindly received by the traders and hunters alike.

Gold had been discovered in Tati in 1867 and this led to a gold rush to the Tati Gold Fields. King Lobengula gave the Tati Concession to a newly arrived mining company headed by Sir John Swinburne. This covered only mining and had no land rights. The Jesuits initially camped on the southern bank of the river and Bro. Louis de Vylder made his final Vows on the 22 August 1879. They quickly decided to found their mission station at his place.

First mission

By September 1879, the Jesuits had built a large wooden hut with thatched roof that they called the Residence of Good Hope. During a visit to a sick Dutch priest Fr. Cronenberghs, one Boer hunter asked whether it was true the Catholics worshipped a woman rather that God? This gave the Jesuits the opportunity to explain the Catholic faith. Soon a number of people were receiving instruction in the faith and on Sundays all the Boers in residence would attend Mass and hear the sermon preached in their native Dutch language. The sick priest continued to teach the Boers who came to him and family of the Jan Engelbrecht converted to Catholicism in 1880.

The Jesuits later bought a thatched house in the middle of the village on the north bank of the river and moved to the new site on the 10th October 1889. Permission to run the mission came from King Lobengula in November. It was the aim of the Jesuits to transform the Tati mission station to an orphanage, or as it was put in those days “asylum for children.” This was never realised. Many of the Boers returned to Transvaal and the mission station was left with very few people. It turned that out Tati was a fever trap in the rainy season and the missionaries soon felt sick.

Fr. Karl Fuchs who translated key Catholic texts into Zulu in anticipation of going north to the Matebeleland, took seriously ill and died on the 28th January 1880. He ha spent five months and 11 days at Tati. He was buried on the banks of the river close to the existing European cemetery. With his death and the lack of progress in evangelization, the missionaries soon started to complain about everything. A priest, Fr. Anthony de Wit and a new group were sent from the eastern Cape to support the pioneer missionaries. Fr De Wit quickly made friends with people at the nearby Blue Jacket Mine, assisting when there was sickness in their camp. One day a miner came to see Fr De Wit on foot to thank him for helping him. Fr Anthony de Wit borrowed a horse to take his guest home. On his way back to the mission station, he rode his own horse and led the second on a leash. As the good priest was reading his prayers for the day (Divine Office) he fell from the horse and broke his neck. He was buried next to Fr Fuchs.

Fr. Prestage took over the mission station after the death of Fr. De Wit. He expanded it, building a chapel and a well some 14 some 14 meters deep using dynamite. He attempted to start a school with 13 local children, 2 white children and 3 local adults. Attendance at school was not good and Fr Prestage lacked people to evangelise as the place was thinly populated.


From Bulawayo the Jesuits reached Pandamatanga – a trading store some distance from the Victoria Falls. This was one month’s journey from the mission station in Tati. The first missionaries reached on the 25rg of June 1880. However it was Malaria infested are and became a deathbed for several of the Jesuits. Having settled there, they had services for the many Boers and coloured hunters in the area. There were few converts among the local inhabitants of the area seem to have been made. Fr Weisskopt died of fever on the 1st of July 1883 and Fr Kroot on the 21st June 1885.


Finally the decision was taken to close the mission station at Tati and Pandamatenga due to the many problem facing them. Tati was the first one to close in March 1885 and the property of the church was sold for just 35 pounds. The Pandamatenga mission was just abandoned on November 27, 1885 and most of the missionaries returned to the Cape Colony. The northern part of Bechuamaland was made part of Bulawayo Vicariate as far back as the 4th of January 1931. Around that time Bishop Amoz, the Bishop of Bulawayo tried to build a church in Francistown. However his efforts were frustrated by the magistrate at the time (who was Catholic) as he was not very helpful. In 1944 Tati Company gave the Bishop two plots in Francistown for Church purposes as a grant.

The Bishop of Bulawayo then sent Fr Urban C.M.M to the Tati area but he withdrew after two years. Although attempts to establish the church proved very difficult as evidenced by the not so successful efforts of the Jesuits fathers and later the Marrianhill missionaries, hope was never lost. The difficulty was compounded by the local chiefs who seemed inclined to work with other denominations like the London Missionary Society. There were however a dew Catholics who were baptised either in South Africa or Rhodesia. Most of these were employees of Monarch mine, colonial officers and business people.

In Francistown, Africans worshiped at Mr Kasenga’s house before the construction of the mud hut church in Area W. Mr Simon Scabe Sechele acted as the Catechist and together with Mr Kasenga played an important role in starting the Catholic Community as an outstation of Bulawayo, mass was celebrated at least three times a year by either Fr Andrew or Elmar from Bulawayo Vicariate. There was also a Catholic from South Rhodesia named Raphael who taught the Batswana their prayers in Ndebele and Latin.

Then an Oblate father from Cape Province Fr. Porte OMI (Oblate of May Immaculate) made arduous trips by ox-wagon, to Bechuanaland in 1894 and 1895 and in letters to his superiors gave a very graphic and sometimes humorous account of his journey. Perhaps his experiences seemed too daunting for no further serious efforts was made until the 1920s when Bishop Meysing made few trips north Kimberley and met the Lonergan family. Catholics settlers who lived in Gaborone ‘block.’

He purchased the Kgale farm from them and the first Catholic mission was established there. It was opened, blessed on the 25th January 1928, with Fr. Rittmuller as the first priest. In 1930, two Holy Cross Sisters, soon to be replaced by the Dominican Sisters, came to teach in Primary School that was immediately started. The School flourished and grew into the first and most highly esteemed secondary school in the country – St. Joseph’s College. A Clinic followed with a doctor in attendance and in 1935, a two year agricultural training course was also welcomed by the people.

In 1929, the Lobatse Mission, St. Teresa was established with a primary school, by Fr Ortmann OMI who was blessed by the assistance if an energetic and holy catechist , the well-known and greatly loved Mr Michael Segano. For his important work, the Pope later awarded him a Bene Merenti medal. In 1931, German Franciscan Sisters arrived to help with work expansion. In 1935, the first mission in a tribal land area was started at Ramotswa in the charge of Fr V. Kress and four Franciscan Sisters. As usual a primary School, St Conrad’s and clinic were built to serve the needs of the people. These three stations, staffed by Oblate Missionaries together with the Dominican and Franciscan Sisters and all became well known centres of health and education. Although this rapid development was pleasing, it caused problems as the Oblates suffered from shortage of personnel and they send out a call for other missionaries to take over, a call which was answered by the Passionists from St. Patricks Province. On the 7th February 1952 four Priests and four Nuns arrived.

The Southern Part of Bechuanaland

Fr. Theodore and Norbert took over the running of St. Joseph’s College and Fr. Carthage went to Ramotswa Mission whilst Fr. Urban Murphy (Later to become Bishop) set out for Francistown to start a new mission (Our Lady of the Desert). Sister Colomba, Clare, Damien and Rosina gave loyal support and turned their energies to the practicalities of schools and clinics.

During that first decade of Passionist activities two mile-stones were passed. In 1958 the first Motswana Priest, Fr. Joseph Motsumi, was ordained as an Oblate and then in 1959 Bechuanaland was raised to the status of Prefecture by Pope John XXII with Fr. Urban Murphy CP as first Apostolic Prefect. The next ten years brought even greater progress with new missions at Mahalapye, Serowe, Mogoditshane, Palapye, Mochudi and Gaborone.

Two more Batswana were ordained Fr. Boniface Setlalekgosi and Fr. Johannes Seane. In 1966, the Prefecture and its Prefect became respectively, a Diocese and a Bishop. A local order Nuns the Sisters of Calvary was founded in 1967 in Lobatse, later moved to their permanent home in Moreneg Kgale.

The establishment of the Church

In 1951, the Passionists fathers from Ireland accepted to come to work in the Bechuanaland. To this effect four Passionists Priests left Dublin for the new missionary grounds and arrived on the 7th February 1952. These were Frs. Theodore Mathews , Cathage Power, Urban Murphy and Norbet Morris. They were accompanied by four Passionist sisters Colomba, Clare, Damien and Rosina. After an intensive language course in Mafikheng, Fr Urban Murphy arrived on the 23rd May 1952 five months after his arrival in Bechuanaland to be the Parish Priest of the whole of Northern Botswana while Francistown was to be the centre of the Parish.

Since there was no priest’s house, Fr. Urban Murphy took up residence in the Grand Hotel. He arranged board and lodgings for three months at the rate of $14 per month. There was no church except the mud hut, which was used by African, and courthouse used by the Europeans and coloureds. Africans already had their Catechism instruction therefore Fr Urban turned his attention to the Coloureds. On the 26th June he got permission from the Education Officer to teach religious doctrine to Coloureds in school.

Fr. Urban now turned his attention to building a house. Tati Company gave the Church a site in the northern section of the main street. With the help of some Africans work started on building the house on 7th June 1952. On the 2nd November he left for Palapye to unearth Catholic. He found thirty one Catholics. He proceeded to Serowe where sixteen Catholics attended the Mass. Pastoral visitation was always a priority with him and he believed that the ground work for building people in their homes.

A big event for Frs. Urban and Killian, who had joined Fr. Urban in May 1953, was the appointed of Boniface Setlalekgosi as Catechist in Francistown on 31st December 1953. He was 26 years of age when he took up duties as Catechist at Francistown. To the priests this was a gift from God. At last there was someone to take some of the responsibilities of instructing the many converts.

Francistown – Seat of the Head of the Church in Botswana

On the 27th of April 1957 Fr. Urban Murphy was appointed Prefect Apostolic of Bechuanaland and made a Monsignor Francistown. The youngest of the missionaries in Bechuanaland was to be the seat of the head of the Catholic Church in the territory. Rev. Monsignor Urban Murphy CP was installed Prefect Apostolic of Bechuanaland on July 21st Bishop Schmitt of Bulawayo was the presiding Prelate in place of the Apostolic delegate, Archbishop Celestine Damiano who fell sick suddenly. It was a well-attended ceremony were all Civil Authorities od the Protectorate were well represented. Among the dignitaries were colonial officers, Mrs Ruth Khama, Mrs Tshekedi Khama abd her sons, Leapetswe and Sekgoma. The renowned success of the installation reception showed success of the installation reception showed the high esteem in which the people of all races, Catholic and non-Catholic, held Monsignor Murphy.

Ordination of Fr. Boniface Tshosa Setlalekgosi

On the 21st July 1963 Father Boniface T. Setlalekgosi was ordained a priest in the perecture of Bechuanaland. He is the second Motswan to be ordained after Fr Joseph Motsumi OMI, in 1958.

The Preparations were not without drama. On the day before the ordination, the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop McGeough got sick, he had heart attack and could not perform the ordination. Bishop Schmitt immediately arrived on Sunday from Bulawayo just in time for the ceremony. It was as if history was repeating itself. At Msgr. Murphy’s installation as prefect in 1959 the then Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Damiano got ill and Bishop Schmitt had to travel from Bulawayo to conduct the installation.

Sunday morning 21st July 1963 dawned bright and fair and by 10:00 am Our Lady of the Desert schoolyard was packed to capacity. Among the vast congregation were the Passionist Fathers, Brothers and Sisters of the prefecture, Marrianhill Fathers and Diocesan Priests from neighbouring dioceses, Notre Dame Sisters, Irish Christian Brothers, African Sisters, Leading Government Officials and Chief of the territory.

Msgr. Murphy was the presiding priest and Bishop Schmitt the ordaining Bishop. The following morning, Monday, Fr. Boniface said his first Mass before a large congregation. In July 1964, Fr Boniface joined Fr Germanus and Fr Killian in Francistown.

Diocese of Gaborone

As Bechuanaland gained her independence in 1966 with Gaborone as the new Capital change was imminent for the church as the prefecture Apostolic of Bechuanaland was to become the Diocese of Gaborone. In Francistown in Mid-August Msgr. Murphy received the phone call inviting him to be the new Bishop of Gaborone. The Bishop elect was ordained in Ireland on the day of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 14th September 1966. He returned to Bechuanaland in time for the independence celebration on the 30th September.

He was installed as Bishop of Gaborone on the 24th October 196. The installation was held at the National Stadium. Present were the country’s President, Sir Seretse Khama and his wife Lady Ruth Khama and senior Government Officials.

Archbishop McGeough, the Apostolic Delegate, who was, assisted by Archbishop Fitzerald, conducted the ceremony. Present too were Bishop Boyle of Johannesburg and Bishop Schmitt of Bulawayo.

In 1978 the Passionists decided to focus ther personnel in the southern part of Botswana. This meant withdrawing from the northern Missions and getting another religious order staff the Northern Missions. Bishop Murphy then negotiated with the SVD General in Rome to send missionaries to aid the church in Botswana.

On Friday the 27th February 1980 the first Bishop of Gaborone, Bishop Murphy died after long illness.

On the 2nd August 1981 Msgr. Boniface T. Setlalekgosi, the diocesan administrator received the four SVD missionaries at the bishop’s house and they were Frs Anthony Rebello, Victor Noronha, peter Madden and Frank Nubuasah (the Bishop of the Diocese of Francistown and also the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Francistown). On the 6th March 1982 Msgr. Boniface T. Setlalekgosi was ordained the Bishop of Gaborone.

In 1982 the newly ordained Bishop Setlalekgosi blessed in colourful ceremony the Mahalapye Parish Hall. Fr. Casmir Haran was responsible for the project.

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