News from Rwanda

Friar Vjeko and St. Anthony

St. Anthony of PaduaWe marked the 13th death anniversary of our Franciscan brother Vjeko Ćurić, who was murdered on January 31st, 1998, in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. He dedicated his entire life to serving others, and then, during the difficult Rwandan post-war period, he was murdered by those he loved the most – his “Swarthies,” his Rwandans. He became a martyr and a victim of his love!

Since his arrival in Rwanda in 1983, Fra Vjeko remained in the parish of Kivumu, some forty miles from Kigali, a parish which was founded thanks to him. Together with few other friars, he worked and lived with the Rwandan people in their simple way, in the spirit of St. Francis, which resulted in great mutual commitment.

During the entire duration of the horrible Rwandan War, in which about a million people were killed, he stayed in Kivumu, where thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children were saved from certain death by him. Because of that, he is well-known throughout the country, and the film ‘Shooting Dogs’ was inspired by him. David Belton, the producer of the film, has characterized Fra Vjeko as “the African Oscar Schindler”.

Tragically, Fra Vjeko was murdered at forty-one years of age in front of the Holy Family Church in Kigali, and the perpetrators so far haven’t been identified. Fra Vjeko can certainly be counted among the numerous martyrs in the history of the Bosnian Franciscan Province. He was buried in the church he built in Kivumu and in which he served. People gather around his grave even today to pay him respect, show him gratitude, and pray to him.

The 13th death anniversary of Fra Vjeko has somehow shrouded us in the spirit of St. Anthony of Padua, the protector of preachers, the poor, travelers, fishermen, sailors, elderly people, the harvest, lost things, and famine.

Saint Anthony lived in the 13th century. He was a Franciscan, just like Vjeko, and he died on June 13th, 1231. The entire Church every year celebrates his feast on June 13th. This year, all those thirteens have closely linked Fra Vjeko and St. Anthony. But their deeds are here too.

St. Anthony used to say: “It was for you that your Saviour had spilt his blood and had given his life, and what have you so far done for him?” After that he begged his superiors on his knees to let him go to Africa, so that he could preach there. He got his permission, and in December of 1220 he left for Africa, but very soon after he’d laid his foot on the African coast and started preaching, he got sick and had to return to Europe.

Fra Vjeko also felt a calling to go to help the African people. During the entire duration of his being in Rwanda, he tried to awaken in the people he lived with, a desire to build the future of their country. Everything that exists today in Kivumu, exists thanks to Fra Vjeko. He built them a church, a dispensary, a nunnery… the once few desolate hills, thanks to him, have developed into a great parish of thirty-five thousand souls.

Today his mission is being carried on by us, the Franciscans of Kivumu, following his life’s dream. What he wasn’t able to accomplish during his lifetime, i.e. the construction of a school, was accomplished by us in his name. With each passing year we offer schooling to an even greater number of children. The presence of his spirit in Kivumu even now, is demonstrated by the fact that many villagers even today, thirteen years later, instead of Ivica, sometimes call me Vjeko. I believe that our dear Vjeko would have had a really good laugh about this one.