A big cathedral in a remote town in the equatorial rain-forest? It is not a new idea. The Mill Hill Missionaries who came to the Congo back in 1905 took on the challenge of an area twice the size of Belgium along the Lulonga, Maringa and Lopori rivers. Gerard Wantenaar MHM became Prefect Apostolic of the area in 1926, leading the pastoral work and giving priority to education (in his time the number of students rose from 6,000 to nearly 37,000.). The arrival of four more brothers accelerated the building programme. Between 1929 and 1942 nine new ‘missions’ were established and nine new churches built of baked brick. After a successful Church building in the same style in Baringa, the impressive Basankusu Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul was opened in 1943. Bro. Jan de Koning MHM managed this feat in spite of the isolation due to World War II, and the scarcity of cement. This meant for instance that the foundations were in brick too. He foresaw that it would last 50 years. In fact it stood for about 70 years.
The people of Basankusu were justifiably proud of their Cathedral, the city’s most impressive monument. The towers were the first part to cause problems, and Bro. Piet van Vliet MHM supervised their dismantling, saving enough bricks to build a church in another part of town. But unfortunately, more recently, expert opinion indicated that the cracks and subsidence, that had been worrying the authorities over the years, were such that there was a likelihood of some collapse and danger to life and limb. So reluctantly the Cathedral was demolished in 2012.
There was some debate on how to replace it. Under Bp. Joseph Mokobe Ndjoku’s leadership, a decision was made to rebuild the cathedral to the original complex design, keeping the same dimensions, but using different materials. This was honouring the original vision of Bp. Wantenaar and the extraordinary work accomplished by Jan de Koning, but also appeasing those who were upset by the demolition. The option to use concrete foundations and pillars and cement-block walls ensured that the building would not crack and collapse within the next 70 years; but it also contributed to it being an expensive building. The work was supervised by engineers/architects from Kinshasa and carried out by workers from Basankusu and elsewhere.
There was of course some debate about the appealing for funds. One side insisted on the importance of concern for the poor; the other stressed the value of having a symbol of faith and hope which acknowledged the importance of God’s presence among us. I would opt for a ‘both-and’ approach rather than an ‘either-or’ one. Pastoral care and social justice (including paying the workers properly) should not be sacrificed. But the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (Esdras) sets a precedent; then, throughout the world people accept spending on things like football stadia…! Within the diocese the faithful have been very generous. Mill Hill has contributed something. But I think the bulk of the funding has come from Rome and Germany.
Now the newly built Cathedral is completed – roofed, plastered and painted, floored, decorated… and ready to be inaugurated on 21 October.
The immediate preparations have been very prayerful and no doubt the troubled country’s need for a peaceful resolution of its political and social problems will be stressed. On the Saturday, the visiting bishops will be administering the sacraments of confirmation and matrimony in the various churches and chapels round the town that have been in use while the cathedral was being built. There will be a procession in the afternoon. Bp. Wantenaar’s mortal remains, exhumed from the town cemetery are being transferred to a tomb in the cathedral. Bp. Willem van Kester MHM and Bp. Ignace Matondo, first Congolese bishop of Basankusu, will be remembered too; and I expect the crosses remembering the first team of missionaries to arrive will be highlighted.
The Consecration of the new edifice will take place on Saturday. Then there will be the first and solemn Eucharistic celebration inside the cathedral on Sunday. Deo gratias! May Saints Peter and Paul bless the local Church, locally and in its missionary out-reach.
John Kirwan mhm