Father Gérard T Lagleder O.S.B.
Benedictine Mission
P O Box 440
Mandeni 4490
Republic of South Africa

18th December 1998

My dear relatives, friends and acquaintances,

What we really celebrate on Christmas is, that God abundant in graces humbled himself and became a poor man. -Yes, the great God became poor, needy, little and humble, a baby of poor parents, who could not even get accommodation for their new-born and had to place him in a manger. The Three Kings - thank God - did not find him in the palace of the rulers, but they found him in a place where Christ is drawn to. He was found with those, who have not forgotten to beg and to open their hands, eyes and ears and to really expect all from God. I think we battle to truly understand Christmas in our days, because we have forgotten, through our talkativeness, to open our mouths in admiring respect, because we have forgotten, through our business, to open our hands in begging readiness, because we have forgotten, through our hurry, to put our eyes on the greatness of the humble God, because we have forgotten, through our cleverness, to meditate the word made flesh in our hearts, because we have forgotten, through our pride, to entrust ourselves simply to God.

We have to become simple again like the shepherds, open, aware of our need to understand Christmas and to rediscover it and to experience it as an event of very personal salvation. This is exactly what I wish you for Christmas: That you may meet the Lord personally, who knows all your need and trouble, sickness and sadness, fear and desperation, pain and grief, loneliness and bitterness, despondency and doubt, from his own experience and who carries it all with you as a good shepherd, loving and caring father, as suffering servant of God on the way of the cross and on Calvary, who leads you and all to the big Easter victory over death and devil, to life in fullness, peace and joy and not just in eternity, but already here and today in this our world.

It is the task of us all, as Christians, to make this felt and an experience for all people and to do this until the ends of the earth is what we call mission. This is neither antiquated nor outdated, but an urgent need, which demands our full and unlimited deployment. This is my task here in Zululand and your task there in your country. The better we work together the more we can jointly achieve.

Thus I want to thank you now from the bottom of my heart for all your concern with my mission work and me.

As my last Christmas Greeting was very short - I had been under even more time pressure then than now - I want to give you a more extensive report on my "ora et labora", my praying and working as a Missionary Benedictine in Zululand over the last two years: I mention for the newcomers under the readers of my newsletter, that my mother monastery, the Archabbey of St. Ottilien, sent me as a missionary to South Africa in 1987. Ever since I am assigned to Inkamana Abbey. Inkamana ordered me to take on the parishes of Mangete (since 1990) and Mandeni (since 1991) standing in the pastoral service of the Diocese of Eshowe. I live in the Priest's house in Mandeni, 15 kilometres inland from the mouth of the Tugela River into the Indian Ocean, 100 kilometres north of the big harbour metropolis of Durban. The population here is close to 100.000 inhabitants made up of more or less 84% Zulu, 6% Coloureds, 6% Indians and 4% white South Africans. A huge township called Sundumbili arose as a settlement for black people who worked for the big paper factory SAPPI. Its population increased during the past years because of the development of an immense industrial area named iSithebe, which offers about 23.000 job opportunities. The attraction to get pay for their work tempted many Zulu people to leave their socially intact communities. This meant breaking up their natural environment and homes. Because of the long distances many of them could only return to their homes once or twice a year. However this only paid off for very few, because the wages are so low. These are hardly sufficient to build even simple houses. Therefore extensive Slums arose round iSithebe and Sundumbili, where people live in very small and primitive huts, patched together with corrugated iron, planks, old sacks, pieces of car wrecks and cardboard. In those informal settlements there is neither running water nor bore holes and electricity is like a foreign word. Therefore only very few manage to escape out of the vicious circle of poverty without help from outside: insufficient education leads to unemployment, unemployment results in hunger, hunger makes people sick, sickness creates poverty and one who is poor cannot afford education.

Neither the church nor the parish priest can restrict themselves to liturgy and catechetics as tasks of the church, but charity, i.e. actively practised Christian Charity is a precondition, means and indispensable part of the action of the church in our situation. In other words: I must not tell the hungry and sick about the loving and caring God in words only and my prayers and preaching would remain implausible, if the charitable action would not become the main part of my proclamation of faith.

When I came to Mandeni, I saw that there is ineffable poverty, need and misery, sickness and hopelessness among the people. Now there is the danger, that the missionary may think, he just must roll up his sleeves and collect sufficient donations, to try to help alleviate the need of the people himself and on his own. This might be well intended, but the wrong onset. What we have to do is not to give alms, but to help people to help themselves. The South Africans must help the South Africans, not the German missionary alone with all his idealism. Therefore I founded (in 1992) a Relief Organisation in our country, whose members are South Africans themselves and in doing so we have achieved that South Africans help South Africans. Our association is constituted as a church brotherhood and affiliated as a Relief Organisation to the Order of Malta. It is named "Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard" after Blessed Gérard, the founder of the Order of Malta, whose name I am also proud to bear as my religious name. We are now more than 700 members. We run a Care Centre and Hospice, a pre-primary school and crèche, a sewing school, a Malnutrition Clinic, an AIDS Education programme, a senior citizen's club, a bursary fund, an emergency fund and a fund for poor sick people. We are prepared to help as a relief organisation in case of a disaster and our ambulance is called out now and again for emergencies. We offer all our services generally for free, just our pre-primary school charges a nominal fee of $ 5 per month and the sewing school asks $ 15 per month (fabric and thread included). Nevertheless do we have to pay the salaries for the teachers. The same applies to all other projects including the care centre and hospice. Unfortunately we are not able to run it with volunteers only. At the moment we have employed for the whole organisation a manager (Mrs Clare Kalkwarf) and a secretary (Mrs Caroline Beaumont). The Care Centre and Hospice employs a nurse (Sr. Sanet van Zyl), a caregiver (Mr Milton Mlangeni), two housekeepers (Miss Annastacia Geswindt and Miss Hlengiwe Mabasa) and a gardener (Mr Emmanuel Mbatha). My parish house keeper (Mrs Dorothy Dlamini) also helps in the Care Centre together with many and - thank God - always new volunteers from home and abroad (Germany and America). We do not receive any Government subsidies - the health sector is nearly bankrupt - no church subsidies and we finance everything from voluntary contributions from patients (which are negligible, as most of our patients are extremely poor anyway) and from membership fees and donations.

Our service becomes increasingly more necessary, as the public health sector in our country is at the verge of collapse for various reasons and facing the sad record, that we are called the area with the highest incidents of AIDS infection globally. About 60 % of the population in the Mandeni area are HIV positive! It feels like an act of divine providence, that we have established a basic health care service and hospice of high quality right here.

The highlights in parish life were the ordination (18 July 1998) and First Holy Mass (19 July 1998) of one of my former parishioners, Sibongeleni Hemengield Nene, in Mangete.

140 baptisms, many First Holy Communions, 96 confirmations, 24 weddings and 27 funerals - excluding the parish of Mangete, which I served until Christmas 1997, as well - with all the necessary preparation classes and pastoral visits plus visiting the sick and the usual parish work kept me and my pastoral co-workers (Catechist Victor Nzuza and Catechism teacher Clare Kalkwarf) on our toes.

Our Bishop assigned the parish of Mangete their own parish priest since Christmas 1997. My successor in Mangete is the diocesan priest Sipho Titus. I have known him since his days as a pastoral student when I was still assistant priest in Mahlabatini. I already had a very good impression of him in those days and today I am happy and grateful that such a diligent and good priest has replaced me. Now I can concentrate totally on the parish of Mandeni and our brotherhood. Additional tasks keep me quite busy though. I am the dean of Eshowe deanery (our diocese consists out of just two deaneries: Inkamana and Eshowe). My task as a community representative in the Seniorate of Inkamana Abbey, leads me to my mission monastery on a regular basis. As a delegate of Inkamana Abbey to the African Region of the Missionary Benedictines and the Think Tank (consultative body) of the abbey and the African Region, already lead me to Tanzania twice this year. I have resigned from my duty as the Treasurer of the Zululand Council of Churches for the reason of being overworked.

When there is still an unoccupied time slot this is filled through my interest in computers. This brought me the membership in the International Internet Task Force of the Order of Malta. In the meantime I have published quite extensive web sites on the Missionary Benedictines and Inkamana Abbey, the Order if Malta and the Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard and an Internet- and e-mail directory for the Catholic Church of Southern Africa. My historical-theological-spiritual-Maltese Interest lead to an Internet publication on the spiritual foundations and the founder of the Order of Malta: "Blessed Gérard Tonque and his everlasting brotherhood: The Order of St. John of Jerusalem". If you have access to the Internet you may find all this via http://go.to/father-gerard . I do not tell you all this to show off as a workaholic, but because I want to make you understand a little bit - and I want to appease my bad conscience - why I have practically found no time for private correspondence. Even to my own father - by the way: He has just recovered from a successful hip replacement - and my brother and sister just call me on the phone once in a while, because I have no time whatsoever to write private correspondence. The good prelate, Martin Lehner - God rest his soul, died recently. He preached at the sermon for my First Holy Mass, in my former home parish (in July 1982), that the Lord will always be close to me when I will have to fight with loneliness in a remote mission station. He was right on the first point, but not as far as loneliness is concerned. As mission work today is not as romantic as we always tend to imagine it, but a big adventure, how one tries until the limits of capacity to prepare the way for the Lord with all ones energy. I really do not want to style myself as a hero with this statement, but I openly admit that all my attempts are just incomplete and much too much does not work the way I wish and imagine.

Finally I want to ask you for nothing else than your lasting closeness in prayer and I do this with all emphasis. Please pray for me and my work, my co-workers and the people we are responsible for! We pray every day for those, who support us through their prayers, donations and help, when we - i.e. the patients, volunteers and the staff - celebrate Holy Mass at 7:30 a.m. in the church of Blessed Gérard's Care Centre and Hospice.

I wish all of you again from the centre of my heart, the peace and joy of the incarnated Son of God, for this Christmas season and for every day of the New Year 1999!

Yours sincerely

Father Gérard

Address: P O Box 440, Mandeni 4490, Republic of South Africa
Phone: +27 32 456 2743, Fax +27 32 456 7962

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