The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 2002, Volume 48, Number 3
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Reviews

Defining Mission: Comboni Missionaries in North America. By Patricia Durchholz. New York: University Press of America, 1999. Photographs, notes, index, xiv + 353 pages.

Reviewed by Professor Francis Njubi Nesbitt, a Kenyan professor of African and African-American politics at the Department of Africana Studies, San Diego State University.

Defining Mission, a history of Comboni missionaries in North America, should be of interest to Journal of San Diego History for its local connections to education and attempts at conversion. In 1948 Comboni missionaries took over several Native American missions in San Diego, and in 1961 established schools in the county as well as a seminary at the University of San Diego. Today, Comboni missionaries are present in 44 countries. From their small beginnings in Sudan and Egypt, they have spread to all directions in Africa, the United States and Latin America. They have a significant presence in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Zaire, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and in three countries of West Africa: Ghana, Togo and Benin. In answer to the Roman Catholic pope Pius XII’s call for new forces in Latin America, the Comboni Fathers sent missionaries to Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru where they continued to work with people of African descent in the struggle against racism.

The founder of the society, Daniel Comboni, dedicated his life to evangelizing Africans. Born in Limone sul Garda, Italy, a twenty-six-year-old Comboni arrived on the African continent in 1857 and began a series of journeys to “save Africa through Africa.” Ten years later, in 1867, he launched the Institute for the Africa Missions. In 1870 he petitioned the Bishops of the First Vatican Council to involve every local church in the evangelization of Africans. In 1872 he founded an Institute of Sisters now known as Comboni Missionary Sisters, and received consecration as Bishop of Central Africa in 1877. Dedicated to the abolition of slavery, the establishment of educational institutions for Africans and the use of indigenous Africans in the evangelization process, Comboni’s motto became, “Africa or Death.” Bishop Comboni died on October 10, 1881 in Khartoum, Sudan, and was beatified by Pope John Paul II at St. Peter’s on 17 March 1996.

The story of the Comboni missionaries in North America begins in 1939 when they were forced to leave Britain’s eastern African colonies when war was declared between Britain and Italy. The United States was chosen in an effort to recruit English speaking missionaries who could ensure the survival of the Comboni Institute’s primary interest in Africa. The scope of work was three-fold: (1) to recruit English-speaking vocations for the institute’s African interests; (2) to convert African Americans to Catholicism; and (3) to raise funds from the lucrative American province.

Author Patricia Durchholz explains how the society’s goals were convoluted and contradictory from the outset. The primary goal of recruiting English-speaking missionaries for the Comboni Institute’s operations in Africa clashed with the early decision to confine training to missionaries of European descent. Mission leaders claimed this policy was forced on them because traditional American racism made it difficult to raise funds to train African Americans for missionary work in Africa (p. 42). Thus the group created a parallel system where it was working among African Americans but at the same time trying to recruit and train Caucasian missionaries. At the same time, the North American Province (NAP) expanded into Southern California where it sought to evangelize Native Americans and Hispanics. This led to conflicts with the church’s General Administration in Rome where questions were raised about the “mission” of the NAP and its relation to the rest of the Comboni family.

These conflicts continued to fester till the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 when the Comboni mission was expanded to include work among non-African populations. The author argues that the Comboni mission in North America evolved through three distinct stages. The first stage between 1940 and 1960 was characterized by rapid growth fueled by strong support from the General Administration in Italy. During this period, the Comboni missionaries benefited from being in a country with a large number of Catholics and a thriving economy. The Superior General was enthusiastic about the work in the United States, sending many Italian priests, brothers and students to the U.S. and receiving a steady flow of funds from the missions.

It is during this period of expansion that the Comboni missionaries established a presence in San Diego by agreeing to take over Native American missions formerly run by the Franciscans at San Ysabel and San Antonio de Pala. The missionaries needed a base from which to supply a new Comboni community in Baja California, Mexico, and the San Diego diocese was in need of priests to replace the Franciscans.

The Comboni missionaries faced enormous difficulties in launching their Native American missions. The “mission Indians” were unable to support a parish because of extreme poverty. Moreover, communication posed a problem because they spoke several dialects. The relationship between the San Diego diocesan staff and the missionaries was also difficult. At the same time, there were questions about the role of Native American missions in a society dedicated to the evangelization of Africans. Nevertheless, the missionaries persevered and by September, 1958, they had opened a school for Native Americans at Pala (p. 120). The Pala Mission School received extensive media coverage in San Diego and Los Angeles, attracting support from church and city leaders. The school grew from 101 children in 1961 to 156 in 1963, and by 1969 over 200 children were enrolled in the school. This growth in Southern California was enhanced in 1960 when the institute opened a seminary at the University of San Diego campus.

During the second decade in North America (1960-1970), the General Administration’s enthusiasm waned and officials began to express doubts about the mission of the NAP. Rome sent fewer missionaries while demanding more contributions. The province’s leaders also failed to adapt to the cultural changes of the 1960s despite the flexibility urged by the Second Vatican Council. Instead, the province tightened the liturgical requirements. The combination of cultural changes in the United States, suspicion and lack of support from Rome and the conservative reaction in the North American Province led to rising frustration, a steep drop in vocations and, eventually, the closure of the seminary in San Diego.

These series of crises led to the third stage characterized by drastic cuts in spending, the closure of missions and a steep decline in membership. These complications were compounded by the new leaders of the General Administration who redirected their resources toward Africa, questioned the North American Province’s mission and even the spirituality of its members. The U.S. province also suffered in comparison to African provinces which managed to convert thousands. In time, even the most optimistic leaders doubted whether the contributions of the province would ever be recognized.

Despite these complications, the Durchholz maintains that the Comboni Missionaries fulfilled their mission to African Americans. They not only served them in parishes, but trained close to ten African-American seminarians at a time when most Catholic bishops and religious societies in the United States refused to admit African Americans to their seminaries. Today, the North American Province of the Comboni Missionaries has parishes in Los Angeles and Chicago; mission centers in Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Montclair; and thirty-nine priests and brothers, most of them over sixty years old.

Although this story of the Comboni Mission in North America fills a significant gap in the history of the Catholic church among African-Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics, it is marred by poor writing and editing that makes it difficult to read. The author seems to privilege chronology, constantly breaking the narrative thread to introduce new topics and then resuming the story pages later without warning. Those who persevere, however, will be rewarded with a greater understanding of the peculiar history of the Comboni mission in the Americas.