Cameroon: God's own Sailor

Cameroon: God's own Sailor


The story of Duncan MacGilvray, Mill Hill Missionary Brother.

'Join Mill Hill and see the world!' You occasionally hear this take-off on a well-known advertising slogan in Mill Hill Missionary circles. But when Duncan MacGilvray applied to join the Mill Hill Missionaries at age 37 he had already sailed the oceans and traveled around the globe.

Sitting on the balcony of the Mill Hill guesthouse in Bamenda, NW Province, Cameroon he recalls sailing into the port of Mumbai, India on one of his journeys serving as a mechanic in the engine room of a freighter.

"The sight of women prostitutes chained up in ‘cribs’. The abject poverty in areas close to the harbour: it was an absolute shocker. It tore my heart out".

The desire to do something about this tugged at his heartstrings. But what difference could he make? The vague awareness of being on a search which had been with him since his teens gradually sprang into focus. He wanted to put himself wholeheartedly at the service of others, not just for a brief stint as a volunteer, but as a life-long project. The strong religious faith inspired by his mother – a convert – gave further direction.

Back in England he started to take concrete steps. An exploratory visit to the Franciscans in Manchester, a few days with the Benedictines in Ampleforth. Somewhere along the way he picked up a leaflet of the Mill Hill Missionaries. He had met some Mill Hill Missionary students when staying with his sister in Barnet. They had been struck how full of life they were. So he took up contact and was invited down to Mill Hill for a few days of mutual getting-to-know-each-other.

When later that year – it was 1983 – he received a letter from Mill Hill to start his training to become a missionary brother crunch time had come. He had not yet cut his ties with the merchant navy. "I still remember it very clearly, that day on the quay at Liverpool. I decided I had to cut off other options and 'burn my boats behind me'. I made my definite choice". He sold the house he had inherited from his mother and joined the formation programme.

Patrick Lonkoy DRCongo student and Duncan

The rest is (formation) history.

DR Congo

His first experience of mission was with the Mill Hill missionaries in the diocese of Basankusu, DR Congo. Still a trainee missionary brother he discovered the joys and challenges of missionary life in the depths of the Congolese rainforest.

An ocean of green in exchange for the deep blue sea he so cherished.

It was to become an experience he would have loved to prolong. But after two years he had to return to Mill Hill. His mind was made up. In June 1988 he made his life-long commitment as a Mill Hill Missionary brother.


His next port of call was The Philippines. In this island nation he was hardly ever out of earshot of the sound of waves. Accounts, maintenance work, odd jobs, trekking, he moved into a role of jack-of-all-trades.

And he enjoyed it to the hilt. He learnt to sail a fisherman's twin sail outrigger. Then, one day as he was riding the waves off Caluya Island, he felt the tug of his seaman's heart. And off he sailed to a far distant Mission post without informing his missionary companion……with rather disastrous consequences. When he eventually returned he found his belongings outside on the street. Move!

And move he did.

Church at Port Stanley

The Falklands

After ten years of missionary service in the Philippines a call came for him to cross the Pacific and the Southern tip of the South American continent.

"Come and help us prepare our centenary celebration".

The tiny Catholic community of the Falkland Islands was readying itself for this memorable event which was due to take place in 1999. The church at Port Stanley was badly in need of a facelift. Not unlike St Paul on the shores of Asia Minor Duncan heeded the call.

But you cannot chain a seaman to the shore for too long! After all Mgr Anthony Agreiter mhm at Port Stanley had charge of what is probably the largest diocese in the world: it included the island of Tristan da Cunha, halfway across the Southern Atlantic, and St Helena, close to the African coast. So when one day a wandering, somewhat forlorn sailor proposed to visit these two islands in his lobster boat Duncan was hooked. He got the green light from Mgr Agreiter and off they sailed in Roger's ramshackle vessel accompanied by the latter's teenage son Jonathan and his dog. That they survived through heavy weather in an only marginally seaworthy vessel to tell the tale is a true miracle. All the way to St Helena!

From there a proper ocean liner would carry him back to The Falklands, he thought. But soon after he boarded the RMS St Helena at the eponymous island the alarm was raised. Fire on board! It took a while to control. As he looked over the railing into the distance he spotted the ramshackle lobster boat which had carried them safely across the ocean all those days without a hitch. What irony!

His assignment in The Falklands completed Duncan returned to his roots. Time for a pause. Not far from Liverpool's fondly remembered quays he took time off for a welcome spiritual M.O.T. at St Beuno's in North Wales.


Cameroon came calling next. That was in the year 2002. And so, here we are, sitting on this balcony-with-a-view in Bamenda, Cameroon, talking. Duncan carries his 71 years gracefully. I sense a generous heart that yearns for deeper human contact in a caring ministry – the sick, the aged, the physically and mentally challenged. But for now there is an electricity failure in the kitchen and the Sisters' water system leaks…. Yes, Lord!

Fons Eppink mhm

At Cistercian Monastery Mbengwi

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