, 30 April, 2020 / 4:15 AM
St. Mary’s Modeco, one of the parishes in Tanzania’s Catholic diocese of Morogoro was closed early this week following an incident of desecration during the early hours of Monday, April 27, and Mass is being celebrated at the parish hall, Priests ministering at the parish have told ACI Africa.
“The Apostolic Administrator of Morogoro Diocese, Fr. Lazarus Msimbe was here on Monday and having consulted with the Apostolic Nuncio and the Bishop responsible for Liturgy at the Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC), closed the Parish church,” the Assistant Parish Priest, Fr. Pius Onyango told ACI Africa Wednesday, April 29.
Fr. Pius, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (Spiritans), narrated the events leading to the closure of the Parish church, relying on the account of the security guard on the night of the robbery and desecration.
The Monday 1 a.m. incident involved at least seven men who accessed the church premises through the back gate after one of them jumped over the wall and cut the padlock, “giving access to the gang,” the Kenyan-born Cleric said, adding in reference to the gang “They were violent on the watchman.”
“They broke into the Church, struggled to remove the tabernacle from the wall where it was fitted, broke into the sacristy where they took the key to the tabernacle,” Fr. Pius recounted and added, “The tabernacle had three ciboriums with the Blessed Sacrament.”
Apart from the tabernacle, the gang made away with “the sound system that we had purchased less than six months ago at a cost of TZS.850,000.00,” he said, an amount equivalent to US$365.00.
The criminals also gained access to the parish offices, throwing around papers and files in the office of the Assistant Parish Priest. From the office of the Parish Priest, “they broke into the money box and took away some TZS.350,000.00 (US$150.00) being funds for altar servers from their sale of sacramentals including medals, rosaries as well as prayer books,” Fr. Pius recounted.
“That night, there were five of us at the parish,” the Spiritan Cleric said and recalled, “We heard the dogs back, which is a usual thing. The watchman notified us after the gang had left. I think the dogs prevented them from coming to the house. We are all safe. We thank God for that.”
“At the moment in accordance with Church regulations, our church is closed until further notice,” said Fr. Pius, adding that one possible option would be to open the church during the Solemnity of Corpus Christi in June.
Since the closure of the church, the Parish hall is being used for the celebration of Mass, observing directives put in place to curb the possible spread of COVID-19.
“A pew of seven people sits four people at most. We have encouraged the wearing of face masks. At the gate, there is handwashing with soap and we have sanitizers,” Fr. Pius explained adding that unlike many African countries, the celebration of public Mass has not been suspended in Tanzania, except for a few dioceses.
On Wednesday, April 29, cases of COVID-19 in Tanzania soared to 480 after 196 new cases were reported, making the country the hardest hit in East Africa. There have been 16 COVID-19-related deaths and 167 have recovered from the virus.
Fr. Nicodemus Massong, the Parish Priest of St. Mary’s Modeco told ACI Africa that the closure of the Parish church by the Apostolic Administrator of Morogoro was based on Canon Law 1211.
Canon 1211 states, “Sacred places are violated by gravely injurious actions done in them with scandal to the faithful, actions which, in the judgment of the local ordinary, are so grave and contrary to the holiness of the place that it is not permitted to carry on worship in them until the damage is repaired by a penitential rite according to the norm of the liturgical books.”
Fr. Nicodemus said that he was “really shocked and traumatized by the incident, knowing that this isn't normal.”
“I have never come across such an incident since I was ordained priest twenty years ago: to steal the Tabernacle, a place where the Blessed Sacrament is kept is like removing Christ from the reach of the people (faithful),” Fr. Nicodemus, a Spiritan who has been at St. Mary’s Modeco parish for the last five years told ACI Africa.
“In a way our faith has been put to test and everybody is in the state of shock,” the Tanzanian Cleric said adding that the faithful were mourning in the church compound when they received news of the desecration.
Fr. Nicodemus has encouraged his parishioners to “be calm” and to take part in the novena, nine days of prayer that started Tuesday, April 28, “to reflect on ourselves if there is in any way we have wronged God, and that if there is in any way we have not been able to fulfill our responsibilities we then ask for pardon and forgiveness.”
Addressing himself to the robbers, Fr. Nicodemus said, “Let them stop stealing from the church. Let them turn to Him (God) and ask for forgiveness.”
The case is being investigated by the security agencies in Tanzania after the Regional Police Commissioner, Wilbord Mtafungwa visited the parish on Monday, April 27.
Asked if the desecration and robbery could be linked to COVID-19 restrictions, Fr. Nicodemus said, “I wouldn't like to associate the incident with the coronavirus restrictions, knowing that the gravity of restrictions here is not that much intense compared to our neighboring countries.”
He added in reference to the perpetrators, “I would think maybe they are just looking for money thinking that the Tabernacle is made of pure gold, yes, it has some amount of gold.”
There have been other cases of desecration in Africa in recent days. The oldest Cathedral in South Africa, Our Lady of the Flight into Egypt in the Archdiocese of Cape Town was desecrated Saturday, April 18 – the ciborium, a pyx, four silver candelabra, a gold-plated chalice, some money from the votive candles box and two gold plated were stolen.
On April 21, people broke into the Parish church of St. Germaine in Senegal’s Diocese of Kolda, making away with the Blessed Sacrament.
ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa