* Photo:Fr. Paschal Slevin with Zimbabwean colleagues, Fr. Onward and Fr. Alfigio in Dublin in June 2014
Irish Franciscan missionary, Fr. Paschal Slevin, has been honoured posthumously in Zimbabwe in recognition of his exceptional charitable work. At a ceremony in Harare he was awarded the Royal Order of Munhumutapa which is the highest honour that Zimbabwe can bestow on a foreigner. Only six other people have received the award, and these include the presidents of a number of adjoining states who provided solidarity in supporting independence for Zimbabwe. This made the choice of an Irish missionary priest so remarkable.
Fr. Paschal – a native of Co. Westmeath and who died last May aged 83 years – was ordained in 1960, and began his ministry at Mount St Mary’s Mission at Wedza in the then white-controlled Southern Rhodesia.
He carried out major improvements to the infrastructure to support local families including the building of primary and secondary schools. Many students were subsidised by a special sponsorship fund established by the Franciscans under his leadership. This enabled some students to further their education at third level, qualifying them to take up key positions of influence in the new nation. He also helped many school-leavers to train as nurses in Birmingham.
As his mission continued, tumultuous times began in Zimbabwe when the War of Liberation broke out, and Wedza was one of the first places investigated by white authorities in 1976. He facilitated staff from the hospital in Wedza to bring medical supplies to injured combatants after curfew, sometimes accompanying them at no small danger to himself. Eventually he became such a thorn in the side of the regime that he was deported for colluding with the enemies of the State
He returned three years later when Zimbabwe won independence. For the next decade, leading the local branch of the Franciscans, he educated former guerrilla fighters and helped develop the local rural economy in Wedza. He constructed a dam to supply water, built grain storage silos, established a farmers’ co-op to help people to help themselves, distributed maize to the needy in time of drought and famine, and set up a co-operative for women to make school uniforms and other clothing, thereby, supplementing their meagre income from the fields.
Eventually, he retired to Ireland due to increasing bad health, but his heart was always in Zimbabwe with the people he loved, and who loved him in return. Another indication of the respect that Fr. Paschal earned through his work was the attendance at his funeral in Dublin of the acting Ambassador of Zimbabwe to the UK, who, as a child, attended the Wedza school established by this remarkable Irish missionary.
The award citation by the current Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, praised Fr Paschal for his anti-racist initiatives in local Catholic schools prior to independence. It specifically mentioned his bravery in appointing the first black African headmasters to Catholic schools in the former British colony against the wishes of Ian Smith and his predominantly white Rhodesian government.
With the typical humility of missionaries, a spokesman for the Franciscans said: “While recognising Paschal’s sympathy for the cause of liberation, it must be added that the award bestowed on him by the government surely includes recognition of the efforts of many priests and religious - native and foreign - during that time of nation building. The bestowal of this great honour by the Government of Zimbabwe is a fitting one in many ways and a wonderful sign that Paschal Slevin’s dedication to the cause of peace and justice for that country will not soon be forgotten”.
Conscious of the current political and economic conditions in Zimbabwe, the spokesman emphasised that the award is “a historical recognition” of Fr Slevin's work that does not imply that the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe endorses the 37 year rule of President Mugabe. He said Franciscans have at times denounced some of his economic policies and that one member of the congregation was jailed briefly for reading out a bishops' pastoral letter at Mass that was critical of the regime.