“I have come here to honour my teacher! I was in second year at Rakwaro minor seminary. The rector, our only teacher of Swahili, was absent for a number of months. And Brother Franz stepped in. To have a European teach us, young Africans, Swahili was a real spur to us to do even better than him”.
Thus Bishop Joseph Obanyi of the diocese of Kakamega, Kenya showered praise on our Golden jubilarian, Brother Franz Bischof, when he came to grace our celebratory meal with his presence.
“He built our chapel at the seminary. Missionaries have done a lot of building. I see it everywhere I go. But not only that. I have just come from the far end of the diocese of Bungoma, of which I am administrator at present. I visited a far away outstation of the parish of Amakura and was amazed at the vibrancy of the faith of the people there. The seed that was sown by the missionaries keeps growing and growing. It’s a cause of great wonder to me”.
The golden jubilarian sat there spellbound, soaking it all in. ‘Is this really about me’, you could see him think.
I had sat down with him earlier in the day to record some of his story of fifty years of loving service.
It all started early on in his life. Like so many of his generation his imagination was fired by stories he read about mission in the Missionsbote, the magazine of the Mill Hill Missionaries in his native Austria. Moreover, one of his sisters had already started on het missionary journey and so he followed.
During his time of formation to become a missionary brother he honed his skills in carpentry, welding and mechanical engineering. In 1969 he felt ready to take the plunge and committed himself to a life of service in mission.
It took a while before he saw his dream of going out ‘to the missions’ become a reality. Was it to prepare himself better, get some practical experience of a variety of mostly maintenance work, that he was given a multiplicity of tasks in Mill Hill houses in Europe? He recalls with satisfaction having sat at the feet of Fr Zacher mhm to be initiated in The Sacred Scriptures at the Missionary Institute London (MIL).
In 1977 he was appointed to Kenya – his missionary dream finally fulfilled. In the diocese of Kisii, Western Kenya, he found almost unlimited scope to put the knowledge and skills he had acquired to practical use for the benefit of the local communities. Village polytechnics, churches, a convent, dispensaries – you name it, he built them. And, for three months, he taught Swahili at the minor seminary of Rakwaro as bishop Joseph Obanyi memorably recalled above!
All the while the local church in Kisii was growing both in numbers and maturity. An awareness grew in him that the time had come to move on. Mission accomplished? When, in 1991, the leadership of the Mill Hill Missionaries in East Africa made an appeal for volunteers to engage in mission and interreligious dialogue among the Muslim dominated population of Kenya’s east coast, Franz decided to sign up.
And so he was one of a group of four Mill Hill Missionary pioneers – together with Franz there were Albert Buijs, Jan van Dijk, Cor Schilder – to move to the area of Malindi on the Indian Ocean seaboard.
Again, he found enormous scope and need for construction work to which he set himself with characteristic energy and skill in Lamu, Tarasaa, Malindi, upgrading primary school buildings, building a mission centre at Tarasaa from scratch.
What he hates most? Having to wait sometimes for additional funding to be applied for or for materials to arrive!
It was in Tarasaa also that he lived through a particularly turbulent episode. First there was the El Niño weather phenomenon causing widespread flooding in the area and leaving many people stranded in their villages without food and shelter. Then there was an outbreak of violent interethnic strife between two local tribal communities – the Orma and Pokomo. “We missionaries had the advantage of being neutral and being perceived as such. We could provide food and medical aid to both sides. It was a time of great upheaval and suffering”.
When I met Franz some years ago on a visit to the coastal area of Kenya he was in the middle of the construction of a home for abused girls and boys, a tragic phenomenon locally. The ‘Pope Francis Rescue Home’ is now fully operational and is run by Sisters of Africa.
Looking back over his lifelong involvement as a missionary brother Franz singles out with particular gratitude and legitimate pride his experience of handing on the missionary spirit to students on mission experience (MEP).
“I am proud that I was able to be an instrument in the growth of the Christian community here”. His current involvement with the jumuiya’s (Small Christian Communities) in the parish Kisumu Ndogo, Malindi, is a special inspiration to him.
But at 75 his is realistic enough to be aware that the time is approaching to withdraw from active involvement. Time for a more contemplative living out of the motto of the Mill Hill Missionaries: ‘To Love and to Serve’?
Fons Eppink mhm