“First, we thought of having a thanksgiving celebration for Fr. Michael, an American Comboni Missionary who sacrificed much of his time serving the people of South Sudan for 40 years. We said we have to appreciate him true to the Dinka philosophy that “raan aye leec a piir,” meaning that you have to appreciate someone why they are still alive,” says Agook.
“But we said that a day is not enough to celebrate a hero’s achievements. So, we said okay, let us register a foundation in the name of Fr. Michael D. Barton that will be focusing more on education where we feel the spirit of Fr. Michael most.”
According to the alumni official, Michael D. Barton’s Foundation will focus on vocational training, first in Yirol, one of the parishes of South Sudan’s Rumbek diocese, where the Priest started a primary school before he ventured into other regions of the country, starting schools from scratch.
Born in Indianapolis just after his parents divorced, Fr. Michael took his first vows and became a Comboni Missionary in 1968 and proceeded to Egypt in North Africa for a study stint. He then embarked on a decade-long missionary life in Sudan, long before South Sudan became independent.
He first came to Khartoum in 1978 and proceeded to Juba where he was assigned Parish Priest of Kworijik, a role he coupled with teaching at St. Joseph’s intermediate school within the parish.
(Story continues below)
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“Fr. Michael only taught for one year at St. Joseph and those students are now grandparents,” reads a section of the biography of the American Cleric, which also mentions his other roles before war broke out in Juba, 11 years later, and the priest was moved back to the U.S. and assigned to visit schools and parishes in Michigan.
His second assignment to Mapuordit came in 1993 when the Missionary Cleric joined other Priests to start a school with classes one and two.
“Those first years, the school did two classes in one year. This was done for two to three years that after three years there was class seven, and then the school started a full year at a time, where they had class eight in 1996,” reads Fr. Michael’s biography.
It adds, “Fr. Michael had love for the school and saw God at work and that life was blessing him… Fr. Michael worked hard on the weekends, going out to say Mass and during the week, he taught and ran the school, where he had morning and afternoon classes.”
In 1997, Fr. Michael and his team started the Comboni High School in Mapuordit with 15 students in Form One and despite many challenges, the school had its first Form Four by the end year 2001.
Following instructions of his Superiors, Fr. Michael handed over the Comboni schools and went to Nyamlel, a populated region in the Northern Bahr el Ghazal state in South Sudan, to a mission that had been started in 1934 and abandoned in 1964. He waded through open rejection of the residents and proceeded to build numerous schools and chapels across the region.
He shares with ACI Africa the challenges that children who chose to go to school faced every day of schooling in a society that despised education.
“They faced lack of understanding on the side of their parents,” says Fr. Michael, adding that the children also walked long distances to school and braced harsh weather and diseases to be in class.
“I noticed the pain that the children went through when they got the Guinea worms. They screamed a lot but they still came to school. Their body temperatures dropped and they fell sick but they still came to school,” he says.
Fr. Michael also narrates the experience of a resilient boy who waded through difficulties of schooling to eventually become a military man.
“I saw Gabriel Thoth. He is now in the Air Force; I could see him coming to school with a Guinea Worm hanging out and showing no sign of pain but I knew he was in pain… He was attending his class, doing his homework and he was going home. That deeply impressed me. What a strong hearted, determined young man Gabriel was! And also many people were like that, sick and coming to school,” he recalls.
Hinting on his own effort to keep the children motivated, Fr. Michael says he always strived to be in school every time the children needed him.
“I never missed a day of school in Mapuordit, until I went to Nyamlel and became very sick. I was in my 60's and I missed half a day of school. I missed the afternoon classes. I had to go home and lay down.”
He adds, “Now in Magok (Northern Bahr al Ghazal), I miss days, because of other diseases, because of being old now. It has affected me more; I have to take care of my own health because young people are resilient, old people are not so resilient.”
Fr. Michel’s 40-year stay in a country that has experienced protracted civil strife was characterized by a lot of hiding in the bushes alongside other Christians, arrests and brutalities from armed groups and government forces.
Divulging his worst experiences while ministering in South Sudan to ACI Africa, the Comboni Missionary Priest recalls being arrested, looted, threatened and imprisoned, reiterating information that he shared on the Comboni Missionaries website.
“I have been arrested, looted and even put in prison and threatened. I was one time arrested and they didn’t beat me but they were angry with me and they beat Fr. Raphael Riel Chol, they beat him badly and it was because they couldn’t get to me and so they beat him, so painful,” he says.
Despite the challenges, Fr. Michael foresees a future where he will be able to build more schools and chapels. But mostly, he looks forward to a peaceful rest back home in the U.S. after spending close to half a century away from home.
“If my health breaks down, God forbid! I shall return to the USA and live in a Comboni House there,” Fr. Michael Barton says.