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The Times of First Catholic Archbishop of Nairobi Behind Kenya’s Top Church Institutions

The cover page of the new book titled, “Archbishop John Joseph McCarthy: A Visionary and Dedicated Missionary,” by the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi (ASN). Credit: Assumption Sisters of Nairobi (ASN)

Little can be found in the public domain about the man behind the most thriving schools, hospitals and Catholic Missions in Kenya’s Archdiocese of Nairobi and the surrounding Dioceses.

Archbishop John Joseph McCarthy, the first Archbishop of Nairobi Archdiocese who passed on decades ago is still celebrated today as a visionary leader who “evangelized with education”, building over 30 schools and training Colleges and establishing even more Catholic mission centres.

The top schools include St. Mary’s School in Westlands Nairobi where Kenya’s current President, Uhuru Kenyatta, schooled.

Archbishop JJ McCarthy is also remembered for facilitating formal education for many people when he was at the helm of the Catholic Church in East Africa. These include Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai who went to Loreto High School in Limuru.

The Irish-born member of the Holy Ghost Fathers (Spiritans) is also the founder of the Mater Hospital, one of the top hospitals in Kenya.

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To those who know about Archbishop JJ McCarthy, he is the epitome of hard work and vision. He built the Holy Family Basilica of the Archdiocese of Nairobi at a time when there was little hope that Christianity had a future in the East African country.

It is this vision that influenced the writing of the book, “Archbishop John Joseph McCarthy: A Visionary and Dedicated Missionary.”

Authored by members of the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi (ASN), one of the Religious Institutes that the Archbishop founded, the book offers the first ever detailed account of a missionary who came to the African continent when traditional worship dominated the continent’s religious space, and left behind a vibrant people of God.

“My biggest takeaway from this book is Archbishop McCarthy’s unmatched vision that he had for the African continent,” Sr. Lucy Wambui Gakere who co-authored the book tells ACI Africa.

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Sr. Lucy explains, “When he decided to build the Holy Family Basilica, there was very little hope for growth of Christianity in Kenya because many people still practiced their traditional ways of worship.”

She narrates that there were only a handful of Christians and a small church building where the Holy Family Basilica stands today but the Archbishop decided to build the Basilica that has a capacity of thousands.

“Archbishop McCarthy knew that one day, the population of Christians would grow to fill the church and that’s what we see today,” the Kenyan ASN Nun says.

The Archbishop faced a lot of resistance from the locals who felt that their traditional way of worship was under threat. But he showed resilience in a country that was experiencing primary evangelization, endured the rough terrain and even fell sick frequently from the weather, which was not friendly to non-locals.

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“Archbishop McCarthy fell sick quite often and was always going for treatment at the Mater Hospital in Ireland,” Sr. Dr. Sabina Kavutha Mutisya who put the book together narrates in the Wednesday, May 19 interview with ACI Africa.

Sr. Sabina adds, “One day, an acquaintance offered him an opportunity to ask for whatever he wanted and he requested that the Mercy Sisters who ran the Mater Hospital in Ireland build a similar hospital in Nairobi.”

Born in 1896 in Ireland, Archbishop JJ McCarthy joined the Congregation of the Spiritans in his early years. A year after his ordination in 1925, he was sent for missionary work in a school in Morogoro, Tanzania. He served as Novice Master for the Spiritan in his native country of Ireland before coming back to Africa to take up the position of Education Secretary General of the then Tanganyika Episcopal Conference.

As Education Secretary, the late Archbishop ministered closely with the colonial government to introduce new policies in the education sector, Sr. Sabina says.

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“In Morogoro, Archbishop McCarthy built a technical training college in just about five years before he went back to Ireland. On coming back, he served in the education sector and introduced many policies for growth in the sector and even wrote a book on teaching methods to enhance the experience of learners in the classroom,” Sr. Sabina who teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) says.

Following his appointment in 1940 as Acting Regent Apostolic Delegate for the Delegation in East, Central and West Africa, Msgr. JJ McCarthy moved to reside in Mombasa from where he supervised 70 Dioceses under the Apostolic delegation.

In 1946, Rome appointed Msgr. JJ McCarthy Bishop of Zanzibar; he was ordained Bishop by the then Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop David James Mathews at St. Peter Claver’s Church in Nairobi.

He served the people of God in British East and West Africa before the Vicariate of Zanzibar became the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Nairobi, with then Bishop JJ McCarthy becoming the first Archbishop of Nairobi.

He held this position until his retirement in 1971 when he handed the Archdiocese over to Archbishop Maurice Michael Otunga to oversee the Catholic Archdiocese of Nairobi.

In his tenure, Archbishop JJ McCarthy founded the ASN Congregation as well as the Religious Order of the Brothers of St. Peter Claver. There are 39 Parishes and Catholic missions, which he founded in the Archdiocese of Nairobi, in the Archdiocese of Mombasa, and in the Dioceses of Ngong and Machakos.

The Priests he ordained include those who rose to shepherd the Catholic Church in the region. Some of these include Fr. John Njenga, Fr. Urbanus Kioko, Fr. Raphael Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki, and Fr. Nicodemus Kirima, among others.

“The Church grew immensely during the time of Archbishop McCarthy. His biggest vision was to see many young men and women accept Religious Life so that the continent could be evangelized by its own people,” Sr. Sabina says.

To realize this dream, the Archbishop established Seminaries across East Africa including the Queen of Apostles Minor Seminary and St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary where young men were admitted for formation to the Priesthood. Previously, they went to Morogoro to train to become Priests.

Archbishop JJ McCarthy also took young women who had the call to Religious Life to school, the Kenyan ASN Nun narrates to ACI Africa. 

Highlighting the inspiration behind the writing of the book sold at ASN offices in Nairobi, Sr. Sabina says, “We wanted to know what kind of a person our founder was like because there isn’t much information about him out there especially on the Internet.”

She adds, “We wanted the ASN family as well as the Brothers of St. Peter Claver to know about the man who founded them and why he founded the two Religious Institutes. It is important for us in our apostolate so that we do exactly what he envisioned for us.”

The idea to write the book was conceived in 1989. It has taken members of ASN over three decades to finally put the 214-page book together. It has 10 chapters that offer the experience of Archbishop JJ McCarthy who died in 1983.

Sr. Sabina finds it difficult to explain the delay in putting the book together and having it published. She says, “Many people worked on the manuscript of this book including Sr. Gracia Muli who died in 2001.”

It has always been the desire of every ASN administration to have the book published and the dream was realized in March this year through the efforts of the current ASN administration, Sr. Sabina says.

“The 8th General Chapter that took place in April 2015 mandated the incoming Council to ensure that the book was completed,” the Senior lecturer at CUEA tells ACI Africa.

She adds, “The 8th General Council, in a meeting held in 2016, commissioned Sr. Augustine Ndila, Sr. Lucy Gakere, and I to complete the book of our founder.”

In the two years that followed, the three ASN members rummaged through files that contained information concerning Archbishop JJ McCarthy and built on the document that Sr. Gracia had put together.

At the end of September 2019, Sr. Sabina was left to bring the book to completion and she dedicated more than one year ensuring that nothing about the Archbishop was left out.

“I remember that in 2019, I took a lengthy leave from work, went back to raw data about the Archbishop in a box that has been kept for year in our office and started working on the manuscript again, going through one newsletter after the other and reading through the interviews that involved the Archbishop,” the ASN Nun says, and adds, “It was the most enriching experience of my life.”

Sr. Lucy who interviewed members of her community who interacted with the Irish-born Spiritan Archbishop details the experiences in the final chapter of the book, which was launched in March.

She says that her appreciation of the founder of her Congregation has received a major boost from writing the book and by interacting with those who knew Archbishop JJ McCarthy.

“It is like I knew the Archbishop personally,” Sr. Lucy, whose apostolate involves formation of Religious Sisters says, and adds, “I have seen how the faces of our elderly Sisters who met the Archbishop radiate with immense joy when I asked them to describe him. And from their stories, I can’t help but feel immense joy myself. I am convinced that our Archbishop was a great joy to be with.”

Those who froze their interactions with Nairobi’s first Archbishop in the archives left behind talk of an embodiment of humility, hard work and fun in Archbishop JJ McCarthy.

A story is told in the book of a Convent of Sisters in Ireland who requested the visit of a Bishop. The Sisters frowned upon seeing Archbishop JJ McCarthy who arrived dressed like a Priest.

“The Sisters told the Archbishop that they had wanted to see a Bishop and he responded that they were looking at him,” Sr. Sabina narrates, and adds, “This just showed how humble the Archbishop was. He insisted on being identified first as a Priest.”

Archbishop JJ McCarthy was also a very prayerful man, Sr. Sabina says, and explains, “Those who knew him say that he recited all the decades of the Holy Rosary every day and always adored Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.”

The two ASN Sisters who worked on the book say that the vision of their founder who drew his motto from John 10:10 “That they may have life and have it to the full” lives to date.

“The ministries of ASN always endeavor to be life-givers by loving all the people of God in the example of our founder,” Sr. Lucy says.

She adds, “In the homilies of the Archbishop, he always reminded our Sisters to be where people are, where they are needed. That is why we always try to immerse ourselves in the lives of people, especially the vulnerable groups.”

Published by the Pauline Publications Africa, the book can be procured from ASN head office in Nairobi as well as from the bookshops of the Daughters of St. Paul at KES.900.00 (US$9.00).