The Cross is part and parcel of every Christian vocation. For each Christian, the sharing in the Cross of Christ takes on a different form. For some, the identification with Christ’s sufferings reaches the point of giving their lives as in the case of those Comboni Missionaries who wished to remain faithful to their missionary vocation ‘until death’ as taught by their Father and Founder, St. Daniel Comboni.
The following excerpt is from Supreme Witness: Comboni Missionaries Killed in the Line of Duty, an account of the lives of 25 Comboni Missionary priests, brothers, and sisters who died in the service of the Gospel in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Brazil and Mexico. You can find the book online here.
Father Angelo Arpe — Eyes full of kindness and forgiveness
Our story begins in the 1890s, when Angelo was still a child growing up in Monterosso al Mare, in the Province of la Spezia on the Northwestern coast of Italy, full of life and passionate about the sea. “I was so nimble as a child,” he recalled, “I could catch a fish with just my hands.” At the age of twelve, to the amazement of all, Angelo entered the Junior Seminary run by the Jesuits in the Principality of Monaco. From the window of his room he could see the sea. He dreamt of travelling to faraway places. One day, a Comboni Missionary and Bishop of Central Africa, Antonio Roveggio, visited the Seminary and spoke to the young seminarians about Africa with such enthusiasm that Angelo was simply captivated. In the autumn of that year, 1903, he was already in the Novitiate of the Comboni Missionaries, aged just seventeen years old. Day by day, his passion for Africa increased. However, his Superiors wondered if he was suitable for the Missions in Central Africa, given that he was so thin and delicate. Nevertheless, by 1910 he was ordained a priest at twenty-four years of age and two years later, on August 25, 1912, he left by ship from the port of Trieste on his way to South Sudan.
After a journey of almost two months, Father Arpe reached Wau on October 17, 1912. At first he encountered the usual missionary dramas of the time, “Twice our boat became entangled in the floating weeds of the river Nile, but when we travelled overland, things hardly improved. We had twenty-four emaciated donkeys on our journey from Wau to Kajoango. I wondered just how long they would last.” The donkeys were used to transport whatever was needed for founding a new Mission. On November 12, 1912, they at last reached Mboro among the Ndogo tribe. This is how Father Angelo described the scene when he first arrived, “The village of Mboro is located beneath two beautiful hills. On level ground there is the large, oval compound of the chief, together with the huts of his wives. All around there is a multitude of huts belonging to the local inhabitants; a sure sign that there is no shortage of apostolic work here. It is a splendid location. From the hill I can see a wonderful panorama. Vast plains as far as the eye can see.”
Establishing a Mission among the Ndogo people
With the help of a Brother, Father Angelo set about building a small two-room multi-purpose brick house. The two rooms had various functions at different times of the day: a school for children, office and store by day, and by night a bedroom for the Missionaries and a stable for the few goats they had bought from the locals for a supply of fresh milk. Close by they built a church with brick walls and a thatched roof. Father Angelo’s nimble and wiry frame served him well in Africa. A tireless walker, he covered countless kilometres to visit Christians scattered among the villages of the area. He remembered how, one evening, walking through the savannah a powerful tornado took him completely by surprise. During the night it rained relentlessly. The village drums were sounded at length, announcing news of his disappearance, but given the torrential rain nobody dared venture out to look for him. Early in the morning, his Confrères saw him back at the Mission, all smiles, despite being soaked to the skin.
As the years passed, the Mission of Mboro developed as the Christian community there grew and larger buildings were built to accommodate the growing numbers of the Faithful, Catechumens and school children. The arrival of the Comboni Missionary Sisters in Mboro brought a whole new world of possibilities for the women and girls of the area. It was around one of these women, Assunta, and the two men who loved her, that the drama of Father Angelo’s death began to unfold.
A promise of marriage broken
Raphael Madangere was a hunter in his forties, who supplied the Mission with fresh meat, and was married to Assunta. However, before being married to Raphael, Assunta had been engaged to someone else – a man by the name of Leo Mbanja. Leo had been called away from Mboro to work elsewhere for a year and so he entrusted his fiancée to his great friend and cousin Raphael, asking him to look after her and naturally to ward off other potential suitors. But when Leo returned to the village, intending to marry Assunta, he found that Raphael and Assunta were already husband and wife. Although stunned at this double betrayal he was a man of great faith who managed to put to one side thoughts of revenge. Leo eventually found another woman and married her. Unfortunately, she was unable to give him children. Assunta meanwhile became the mother of eight children to Raphael. It was very difficult for Leo to see Assunta and Raphael with this growing family, whilst he was not blessed with children at all. But it was not Leo’s heart that grew bitter.
Perhaps it was a guilty conscience at having betrayed the trust placed in him by Leo that became the fount of suspicion for Raphael in his dealings with his wife, Assunta. Raphael became increasingly jealous towards her, and began to suspect that she still loved Leo in spite of all the years that had passed since her engagement to him. He also began to grow very resentful at the high esteem in which Leo, the zealous and fervent Catechist of the Mission, was held by the Fathers. Raphael’s hatred of Leo grew and with it a fierce and possessive jealousy towards his wife Assunta. One day, imagining that she had betrayed him, Raphael grabbed Assunta by the throat and beat her violently, trying to make her admit that she had been unfaithful with Leo. Assunta vehemently denied the charge and fled to her parents’ home for refuge. The case was subsequently brought before a traditional court which absolved Leo and Assunta from any such wrong-doing. This only served, however, to make Raphael even more enraged. Raphael had spoken several times with Father Angelo about his suspicions. Father Angelo, renowned for his extreme goodness of heart, always did his best to calm Raphael down, by assuring him that Leo was not taking advantage of his wife and that, without any evidence, he had no cause to accuse his wife of infidelity. The flame of jealousy, however, was not so easily quenched.
Consumed by rage with murderous intent
At eleven o’clock on the morning of November 1st 1946, Raphael met Father Angelo at the Mission Office. It is not known what they said to one another. When Raphael emerged, however, he was very agitated and was gesticulating wildly. He was clearly beside himself with rage. Later that day he went to the home of Leo, where he found the door was closed. He tried the door and then hid behind the hut in order to lie in wait for his victim. Leo came out to see what was going on and was critically wounded with a spear to the chest by Raphael. The killer then ran to his own hut, collected six spears and headed for the Mission, stopping only to hide three of the spears outside the entrance. The Missionaries were in the dining room for their supper. There was a loud banging on the door and Father Angelo went to see who it was. In the open doorway stood Raphael. He immediately thrust a spear into Father Angelo which passed right through his body. With a second spear he attacked another of the Missionaries at table. He then struck the third Missionary with the remaining spear. Raphael turned and fled into the dark courtyard outside, leaving Father Angelo on the floor in a pool of blood and the two Confrères with him badly wounded.
Sadly Raphael was not finished with his deadly endeavors. He ran to where he had hidden the other three spears. Armed with these, he was making his way back into the Mission compound in order to complete the murderous work that he had begun, when he met the Headteacher of the Primary School, Placido Wako (Placido was the father of the recently-retired Archbishop of Khartoum, Cardinal Gabriel Wako). “I have done well,” Raphael said, “At last I have killed Father Angelo.” “Why have you done such a wicked thing?” asked Placido, but the only reply he received was a menacing look. A fight ensued and in the mêlée Raphael was struck by a spear and fell to the ground. Certain that he has neutralized the threat posed by Raphael, Placido ran to the Mission.
When Placido entered the house of the Missionaries, a grim sight met him and he recalled, “I saw Father Angelo on the dining-room floor all covered in blood. I knelt beside him crying and calling his name but there was no response. I went out to call for help. I had just gone down the steps of the house, when I heard a noise coming from the room where Father Angelo was lying. I rushed back only to find Raphael Madangere near Father Angelo.” Even though Raphael had a spear in his chest, he had managed to walk to the room where Father Angelo was, and to ensure the Missionary would not survive the attack had thrust a second spear directly into his heart. Placido continued, “I had no weapon to hand, neither a spear nor a knife. I jumped on Raphael and knocked him down, and managed to hold him still. Looking around, I saw a piece of wood and I struck him on the head until his body was lifeless. I then said to Father Angelo, ‘Abuna (Father), your attacker is now dead.’ Slowly turning his head and unable to speak even a word, he looked at me with eyes full of kindness and forgiveness.”
The news of the death of Father Angelo spread quickly. People began coming in from the surrounding villages, mourning with loud cries and wanting to strike the body of his assassin. Confrères from the neighboring Mission rushed to the scene only to find Father Angelo dead in a pool of his own blood with Raphael Madangere close by, a spear still in his chest, and the two other Fathers seriously wounded. From the accounts of those directly involved in the tragedy what struck people the most in the midst of such carnage were the words of Placido Wako about seeing only ‘kindness and forgiveness’ in the eyes of Father Angelo.
The body of Father Angelo was taken to Wau to be examined by the Authorities and was then brought back to the Mission of Mboro, where he had spent thirty-four years as a Missionary Priest, for burial. He was laid to rest in the little cemetery of the Mission, where it remains to this day, as a place of pilgrimage for the members of the Ndogo tribe: a people he had loved and served with dedication, from his earliest days as a priest, and with a kindness that nothing had been able to destroy.