The first three-year period (1983-1986)

ofmThe Vicariate began with 5 fraternities, each one of which had its own responsible person: Br. Andrea Comtois for the fraternity in Malawi, Br. Gregorio Tajchman for the fraternity in Nigeria, Br. Giacomo Bini for the fraternity in Rwanda, Br. Paschal Gallagher for the fraternity in Tanzania, Br. Heinric Gockel for the fraternity in Kenya and Bursar of the Vicariate. The members of the Vicariate were, in the beginning, 31 from 21 different Entities of the Order.

The first Council of the Vicariate, with the participation of the General Definitor Br. Anselmo Moons, was held in Nairobi from 3rd to 12th September 1983. Some fraternities were adjusted, the possibility of enlarging the Project to French-speaking West Africa, the conditions for accepting candidates to the Order and the search for, preparation and reception of future volunteers were  discussed. Br.  Giuseppe-Maria Massana was charged with initial formation in the Vicariate and, in the prospect of having new volunteers, it was decided also to open one or two communities in Uganda.

Another Council of the Vicariate was held in Malawi in March 1984. In his first annual report on the Vicariate, Br. Gualberto Gismondi signalled the difficulty on the part of the local Churches to understand the demands of the life of the Friars (“Simplicity, fraternity, poverty, are values which must still be acquired by the young Churches in which we intend to operate”) provoking, at times, dissent, equivocations and misunderstandings; the insistence of the Bishops on giving the Friars parishes, proposed as an almost exclusive model of pastoral activity; the difficulty of the Friars to learn the local languages and, therefore, the difficulty of communication with the population.

The Vicariate sought to give itself the first necessary norms for constructing the new Entity, made fraternal relationships with the Franciscan Entities which already existed in Africa, sought to carry out the task of making the Order sensitive to the “Africa Project” and tried to find the means to give preparation to the Friar volunteers who were presenting themselves. Initial difficulties of different kinds were certainly not lacking, but there were also different positive elements, among which was what had seemed the most difficult, that is, the inter-provincial fraternity.

“The international character of the community not only did not create problems, but, in the common judgement, it has been shown to be an irreplaceable value for the project and the Vicariate and an occasion of a prophetic testimony in the face of tribal tensions and nationalisms of the continent”.

Gismondi concluded by affirming: “The experience of this first year allows us to look to the future with confidence and hope and to ask for a courageous and continuous renewal of the missionary commitment expressed through adhesion to the “Africa Project”.

The second Pan-African Congress was held in Rome from the 3rd to 17th May 1984 to have an exchange of ideas and experiences in view of better cooperation in the future. Important topics, such as the formation of African Friars, the problem of inculturation and the possibilities of facing up to the material needs of the local Churches were discussed . In a subsequent meeting of the Definitory, Gismondi observed – with the approval of those present – that the Africa Project was not limited to the Vicariate of St. Francis alone, but referred to the whole continent. The entry of Madagascar, a mission of the French Friars, into the Africa Project was prepared. 

After one year of life of the Africa Project, Br. G. Gismondi again highlighted the points of the letter “Africa is calling us”, which served as constant reference points for the growth of the Vicariate: the setting up of fraternities and their primacy over work, the “implantatio Ordinis” in Africa, presence in the midst of poor and oppressed populations, the construction of simple and flexible structures and collaboration with the local Church.

The second “seminar” for the preparation of volunteers destined for the Africa Project was held in Rome from the 15th to 30th October  and the Congress for all of Africa was held that same month. It asked the General Definitory to “up-date the structures of the Order in Africa, among other things”. The Vicariate saw, therefore, new volunteer missionaries come, even though others returned to their countries of origin for different reasons and each of the following countries: Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Malawi began to have two fraternities. The first years were characterised by a rapid expansion of the fraternities with the arrival of the first native candidates to the Order and the beginning of the consolidation of the essential structures. An important encouragement came with the visit that the Minister General, Br. John Vaughn, made to Africa from the 4th to 28th April 1985.

Even in their apparent simplicity, the presence and words of the Minister were accepted as “an encouragement to remain faithful to the spirit and fundamental values of the Africa Project, an invitation to look, with the eyes of God, on this people on whom too many look upon with the eyes of self-interest, avarice and power”. He thanked the Lord for the presence of young African candidates to the Franciscan life in Malawi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania. “An audacious dream – the Vicar wrote – is a full-blooded and operative reality today. We can say that the Project and its realisation have been a great challenge and prophetic anticipation for the Order and the Church. Thanks to these, we have lived once again the enthusiasm of our origins”.

Other steps in the development of the Vicariate were: the sending of lay volunteers to some fraternities, the approval of the first Statutes of the Vicariate, the attempt to find means of financial support for the Vicariate through “contact Friars”, an increase in the number of councillors of the Vicariate from four to five members and the appointment of the first General Visitator in the person of Br. Sylvère Leblanc, of the Province of St. Joseph in Canada.

The first canonical visitation was carried out in January and February 1986 and was immediately followed by the Chapter of the Vicariate, during which the new superiors were elected: Vicar: Br. Paul J. Osborne; Pro-Vicar: Br. Giacomo Bini; Councillors: Br. Augustin Paré, Br. Claus Scheifele, Br. Finian Riley, Br. Roy Corrigan and Br. Columbano Arellano.