Francis Pfanner came to South Africa

Dan Graves, MSL

Francis Pfanner came to South Africa

The man was little more than a skeleton, yet all the monks turned to him for direction. It was on July 28, 1880, when their rickety steamer puffed into Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

There were thirty-one monks--and Francis Pfanner. But Francis was desperately ill. Sea travel did not agree with him. He had barely been able to eat during the whole trip. One thing that he could get down was salad. "I ate it with pleasure," he wrote, "but the vinegar caused an inflammation in my stomach that spread not only over all the stomach membranes but all the way up my throat and into my mouth. Even my tongue became inflamed; I actually got holes in it, so that I could not speak for pain..." *

Francis was happy to be on solid ground again. If the Trappist monks were branching out into missionary work it was largely owing to him. Just a year before at a Trappist assembly in France, Bishop Ricards appealed for volunteers to work in Africa. When no one else stepped forward, Francis said, "If no one else will go, then I will."

Originally a farm boy, Francis was known in his youth as a tough wrestler and daredevil. After he became a priest, he was sent to a village where pubs were more popular than the church. After two years of hearing his simple, practical sermons, watching the courage with which he visited typhoid patients and listening as he rebuked them for adultery, the people voted for him as their pastor. But Francis was sick. Perhaps it was tuberculosis. At any rate, he was sent as confessor to some nuns in Zagreb. His church folk wept when he left.

But Francis himself was searching for inward peace. He wandered, visiting the Holy Land and Rome. At one stop, two boatmen refused to unload the baggage unless the tourists paid ten times the amount they had agreed to. Francis still had his old wrestling strength. He leaped down from the wharf, grabbed the rascals and held one over each side of boat, threatening to drop them into the sea if they did not keep their contract. The men quickly unloaded the baggage.

For a long time, Francis sought permission to enter a monastery. In 1863 his superiors agreed. He became a Trappist. At the time, his health was shaky. But monastery life agreed with him. His body recovered and with hard work he won promotion. Eventually he was sent to a Muslim region of Bosnia. Once again, he overcame local opposition and suspicion. He led a team in strenuous efforts to teach children, manage orphanages, provide medical care and improve methods of building and farming.

The skills he developed in Bosnia served him well in Africa where needs were similar. When Francis regained his health, he became a dynamo of energy, working as hard with his spade as he expected everyone else to. Like the Benedictine monks who tamed Medieval Europe and trained its peasants in agriculture and trades, Francis and his helpers taught Africans. In spite of opposition and the unkept promises of their superiors, they opened several successful mission stations. Francis, however, resigned because of his difficulties with his superiors.

The missionaries found it difficult to carry on their work under Trappist rules. In 1909, the year that Francis died, the Pope made their work a separate order, the Mariannhill. Its motto is "Our mission field is a part of Christ's kingdom--and that has no frontiers."

*quoted from A. L. Baling's Abbot Francis Pfanner; North Ireland Press, 1979.

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