AMERICAN PROVINCE HISTORY
SMA missionaries first established a presence in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century when Fr. Ignatius Lissner SMA, a native of Alsace in France, came to North America to raise funds for the SMA’s missions in Africa. While there, he quickly saw America as a potential mission territory, particularly among the impoverished, and largely unchurched, black population of the South. On receiving permission from his superiors, Fr Lissner and his fellow missionaries (mostly other Alsatian-born SMAs) began their work in America of establishing schools and parishes for black Catholics – especially in Georgia.
Adhering to the vision of the founder of the SMA, Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac, the SMAs recruited clergy and religious sisters from the black population to minister to their own people. As a result they endured bitter opposition spurred by the racial prejudice and anti-Catholic sentiments prevalent in the area at the time.
A SAINTLY FRIEND AND A SEMINARY
The SMAs in America worked closely with Mother Katharine Drexel (1858-1955), the extraordinary woman who founded a religious order and who was canonized in October 2000. Mother Drexel’s Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament also had a special commitment to serving blacks. They worked extensively in Georgia where they collaborated with the SMA on many projects.
Mother Drexel and Fr Lissner also maintained a lifelong friendship. It was she, the heiress to a family fortune, who contributed funds to help the SMA acquire property in Tenafly, New Jersey, for its first American seminary. St Anthony’s Mission House, established in 1921, was then the only seminary in the USA that accepted black candidates for the priesthood and which was also racially integrated. Although two black priests were ordained from there, the seminary had to close in 1926 – a casualty of the racial tension that permeated the country at that time.
SMA EXPANSION IN AMERICA / GROWTH OF CATHOLICISM
In the following years a wave of Irish SMA priests came to America, expanding the SMA presence to Arizona, Illinois and California. They founded new black parishes and schools and also agreed to take over existing ones. Their increased visibility attracted vocations among young Americans. Responding to this growth the SMA opened Queen of Apostles Major Seminary in 1939 in Silver Spring, Maryland. When a fire destroyed the building in 1943, seminary operations were relocated to Washington, D.C.
As the Catholic Church in America grew in strength, so also the USA branch of the SMA began to flourish. In 1941 the American Province of the Society of African Missions was established, with Fr Lissner as its first provincial superior and Tenafly as the location of its headquarters. Five years later a minor seminary (also called Queen of Apostles) was opened in Dedham, Massachusetts. By 1946 the SMA American Province with its three administrative locations, was well established.
THE AMERICAN PROVINCE SENDS MISSIONARIES TO AFRICA
In 1948 the first American SMA priests went on mission to Liberia in West Africa. In the years since then Liberia has remained the Province’s primary place of mission. Following the vision of their Founder, the missionaries worked to establish a local church served by indigenous clergy. As well as evangelization, their ministry included education, health care, and assisting the people in every way possible to improve their quality of life.
Liberia is a land rich in resources and potential but frequently scarred by political corruption and social unrest. A tragic civil war that broke out in Liberia in 1989 devastated the country and its people – causing deep wounds that will take years to heal. SMA missionaries remained with their people during this time of war and even accompanied them to refugee camps in neighboring Ivory Coast. They continue to do whatever they can to heal the wounds that remain in the uneasy aftermath of the conflict.
SMA American Province missionaries have also established missions in Ghana and Kenya where they are happy to witness the growth of the local Church with its own clergy and hierarchy. Lay missionaries serve in Liberia, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania.
SMA IN THE UNITED STATES TODAY
Inspired by the vision of the Founder who urged his missionaries to preserve and respect the culture of the peoples they evangelized, the American Province maintains a highly-respected African Art Museum in Tenafly, and an art collection in Dedham. These serve as a cultural and educational resource for the SMA as well as encouraging dialogue and understanding in a social climate of cultural and religious diversity.
The SMA seminaries in Washington, D.C. and Dedham closed in the late 1960s and SMA formation studies are now based in our Formation Centers in Takoma Park, Maryland, and Dedham, Massachusetts, from which seminarians continue their theological studies at nearby institutions. The Province continues to have an active and highly-regarded lay missionary program and continues to shape a path of service to the people of Africa, and those of African descent who live in the United States.