|King Moshoeshoe was captivated by |
the statue of Mary of Nazareth
FATHER GERARD AND MOSHOSHOE
What inspires that feeling between two men, each a giant in his own way, that reaches beyond respect and courtesy to become a true deep friendship such as the one shared by the King of the Basotho, Moshoshoe, and the French priest Joseph Gerard? From the very start these two loved and respected one another, although the difference between them could not have been more strongly marked.
King Moshoeshoe had been born in the 1780's in Menkhoaneng in the valley of the Hlotse, about twelve miles from the spot where this river joins the Caledon. He was the son of Mokhachane, the Chief of the Mokoteli, a branch of the Koena, and his first wife Kholu, the daughter of a neighbouring Fokeng Chief. His parents named him Lepoqo.
His height was slightly above average and he was well-built; an energetic, shrewd, ambitious man and a born leader. He gave himself the name of Moshoeshoe, the Shaver, after his first raid, on which occasion he captured the cattle of a neighbouring Chief, RaMonaheng. By taking his cattle he had shaved of RaMonaheng's beard, he claimed. The shweshwe sound of the latter two syllables of his nickname give the onomatopoeiac effect of shears cutting. Moshoeshoe was very proud of this story. The raid was the first of many and Moshoeshoe always won the encounters.
In 1822 the Nguni tribe attached the Basotho, Chiefdom after Chiefdom. As they had no Paramount Chief they did not unite and were vanquished. Some fled from the Caledon valley and sought refuge on the mountains the hills where nobody had previously wanted to live. After the raids, they formed the nucleus of the new Basotho nation under the leadership of Moshoshoe.
King Moshoeshoe allowed Bishop Allard to establish a mission station at Tlo-o-tle, about eight miles to the south of Thabu Bosiu. The settlement was named Mose oa M'a Jesu - the Village of the Mother of Jesus - and later became known simply as Roma.
Joseph had left the Zulu Mission of St Michael's in Natal after closing the Mission of our Lady of Seven Dolours on 15 October 1861. When they reached the beautiful mountain country of Lesotho, they first held a novena to Mary of Nazareth in a small hut at the foot of Thaba Bosiu, the King's mountain.
On the ninth day of their novena, 17 February 1862, they climbed the mountain. Moshoeshoe received them with hospitality and courtesy. He put the bishop and Joseph completely at ease. He was delighted to hear about their project to instruct his people. He sent them home to fetch their luggage and when they returned he ordered one of his sons to lead them to the site he had given them, later known as Roma Valley. They soon began to build their chapel and on 1 November of the following year they officially opened their church.
Joseph had become fairly familiar with the Sotho tongue, but three days before the opening he hid among the mountain rocks to collect himself before God and planned his sermon for the large and imposing audience. The king had told them to invite him to the opening and undertaken to speak to his people in their favour.
The King arrived at nine in the morning, accompanied by several of his sons and great number of horseman. The chapel looked its best. In the centre there was a beautiful statue of Mary of Nazareth, sent by Father Barret. The bishop celebrated a solemn Mass and two hymns in Sesotho were sung. Joseph rose to give his first sermon in Sesotho. After the sermon, the king asked to have his say. He spoke to his people at length. He told them that he had brought them a treasure, that they should seek the true religion. Calling his Chiefs by name, he instructed them to see that the church would always be full, that no harm should be done to the mission and that men and women should place their services at the priest's disposal.
During the sermon Joseph had said: "He that will believe and be baptised, will be saved." These words the kin now repeated. That evening the King again asked to be taken to the Chapel. He was captivated by the statue of Mary of Nazareth, the artistic remembrance of the woman from Israel and the Mother of Jesus the Christ. Joseph took the statue down and placed it in his hands. He wrote later to a friend that he hoped that the influence of Mary, 'our good and merciful Mother' would be with King Moshoeshoe.
That night a short service was held at the mission. This was also attended by the King. An ox was killed in the King's honour the next day, as a gala dinner from the bishop for the King. Joseph was touched to see how he shared out the meat among his people. There was a very humane and lovable side to this King, he thought. The King shook hands with the priests before asking one of the brothers, Terpent, to play a military march that had caught his fancy. Then he left.
The friendship between Joseph and Moshoeshoe grew in the years that followed. The Holy Family Sisters of Bordeaux arrived in Lesotho in 1865 and Moshoeshoe was delighted to meet them when he visited the mission. He invited them with the bishop and Joseph to Thabu Bosiu where the Sisters were seated on magnificent white lion hides. Tea was served and Moshoeshoe presented the reverend mother with a cloak made of tigerskin. Afterwards they shared dinner.
The visitors held a service of prayer and instruction and the Sisters sang the Ave Maris Stella. They prayed for peace. Joseph advised the King to place the nation under the protection of Mary of Nazareth.
On 18 June 1865 war was declared on Moshoeshoe. The King was visiting the mission when a messenger brought an ultimatum of war to the King of the Basotho. Moshoeshoe asked the missionaries to pray and Joseph took him into the chapel where he handed the statue of Mary of Nazareth to the King who gazed at it with confidence.
During the month of August 1865 Thaba Bosiu was shelled for weeks. Father Gerard carried prayer and food to the King, passing through the army to do so. How he succeeded was a mystery to everybody concerned but it gained for him the lasting gratitude of the King. On 11 August the army appeared in Roma Valley. They began to shoot from above the wood where Joseph was guarding the baggage of the missionaries at the lower part of the forest. Joseph got into the tent of the wagon. The army reached a place beside the one where he was hiding. He could hear the orders from the general.
Several bullets whistled past him. He resigned himself and prepared to die. A great number of bullets bored holes through the wagon. Eventually the storm passed over and two Sisters, Mary Joseph and Mary of Jesus arrived, deeply concerned, to see if Joseph had had any accident.
On the remembrance day of Mary of Nazareth 15th August 1865, the fiercest assault on Thaba Bosiu was made by the Army. That day, hearing the noise of the cannons, Joseph ran to call Bishop Allard, who was with the members of the mission. All fell on their knees and offered Lesotho to Mary of Nazareth.
After a siege of two months, the army retired on 25 September 1865. During the siege Joseph had brought to the mission a large number of Basotho fleeing from the Army. They received hospitality and charity. Two old women, unable to run away with their relatives, received shelter. Joseph found another, at least eighty years of age, nearly dead of starvation, whom he carried to the mission on his shoulders. Two wounded Basotho were nursed by the sisters before they died a month later.
The first solemn baptism at Roma mission took place on 8 October 1865. The King was present and Joseph glowed with happiness. A week later the sisters opened their school and in December Moshoeshoe visited the site of St Joseph's College and was present as the first stone was blessed.
In the years that followed, the friendship between the two men continued to grow. By January 1870 Moshoeshoe's health was failing. At the pitso - Lesotho Tribal Meeting - of 18 January he relinquished his Chieftainship and made arrangements about the care of his wives. Moshoeshoe planned to be baptised. Shortly before he was due to be baptised, on 11 March at 9 o'clock in the morning, after a long and deep sleep, a deep sigh shook his body and the people surrounding him realised he was dead.
Joseph was on the way to visit him when the news reached him that the King had died.
"I experienced such a deep sorrow that I have never felt a greater sorrow in my life," he wrote later.
Minister Jousse and his colleagues performed the burial ceremony, and Joseph and the missionaries attended it, especially to honour the man who had done so much to promote Christianity in Lesotho.
*Photograph taken by Catherine Nicolette. With thanks to the sculptor for this exquisite work of art