By Sean Ryan - 11 February, 2017
A Co. Kerry-born brother who was murdered in a guerrilla attack on a mission in Africa was remembered in his home town of Tralee this week.
St John’s Parish, Tralee organised prayers at the monument dedicated to Br John Conway SJ in St John’s Park, Tralee on Monday 6 February.
Speaking about Br Conway, Fr Bernard Healy, St John’s, explained the reason for the upcoming prayer service.
He said “It is important for us as a parish that we remember one of our own, a native of the town, someone with family and friends here in Tralee, who gave witness to the Gospel by solidarity to the poor and by shedding his blood. That kind of heroism should inspire us and remind us of our own responsibilities. In commemorating Br John, we honour all Irish missionaries who served with the same generosity of spirit and selflessness.”
This year is the 40th anniversary of the guerrilla attack on the Musami Mission in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), during which Br John and seven colleagues were shot.
Br John, born in 1920, was a native of Brogue Lane, Tralee. He received his primary education at Strand Road School and started his first job at the age of 14 as a driver’s helper with the Shell Oil Company in Tralee. He continued to take odd jobs and took evening classes at a technical school in Moyderwell at the age of 16 before emigrating to England at the age of 20.
Though he worked both in construction and as a long-distance lorry driver for several years, in 1948 he joined the English province of the Jesuits as a lay brother. Assigned to the large Rhodesian mission station of St Paul’s in Musami, he served there from 1954 until his death in 1977.
Remembered as a man of prayer and of good humour, he worked tirelessly in building up the mission station, involving himself in construction, driving, medical care, preaching and work with the young people who attended the mission’s schools. At the time of his death, the mission included schools, a hospital, a farm and a social centre.
Following Rhodesia’s declaration of independence under the white-dominated government of Ian Smith in 1965, the country was torn apart by a civil war as African nationalist forces under Robert Mugabe resisted Smith’s government.
European missionaries, often working in solidarity with the native population, found themselves in the middle of this conflict and faced violence from both sides. Offered the opportunity of moving to a safer location, the Jesuits and the Dominican sisters who served at Musami chose to stay at their mission station.
On 6 February 1977, armed men came to the mission station at about 8 pm and rounded up four of the Jesuits (Br John and three English Jesuit priests) and four of the Dominican sisters (three Germans and one English) who worked there. They were taken outside, and following discussion amongst their captors they were lined up and shot.
Br John, two of the Jesuits and all four sisters were killed. Only one of the English Jesuits, Father Dunstan Myerscough, survived. The slaughter of Brother Conway (57) and his fellow missionaries stunned many. Despite several investigations, the identity of those responsible for the attack has never been fully determined.