The Cross is part and parcel of every Christian vocation. For each Christian, the sharing in the Cross of Christ takes on a different form. For some, the identification with Christ’s sufferings reaches the point of giving their lives as in the case of those Comboni Missionaries who wished to remain faithful to their missionary vocation ‘until death’ as taught by their Father and Founder, St. Daniel Comboni.
The following excerpt is from Supreme Witness: Comboni Missionaries Killed in the Line of Duty, an account of the lives of 25 Comboni Missionary priests, brothers, and sisters who died in the service of the Gospel in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Brazil and Mexico. You can find the book online here.
Father Evaristo Migotti – “I am ready”
A few old houses, some stony alleyways and, around the small village, vast fields as far as the eye could see. It was there in Tomba di Mereto that, on October 26, 1922, Evaristo was born. His childhood was spent entirely within the confines of those few small streets. He was still very young when he entered the local Diocesan Seminary at Castellerio in the Province of Udine in the North of Italy. He would be known all his life as serious in his studies and constant in his prayers. The Rector of the Seminary wrote to his Parish Priest, “He is very shy but has more than his share of goodness, intelligence, simplicity and firmness of character, and we therefore have reason to hope for great things from him.”
The missionary calling
Whilst at the Seminary Evaristo decided that he really wanted to be a missionary. He spoke of this desire to the Rector of the Seminary but was told to wait. In 1942, after completing High School, he decided the time had come to take the long-awaited step. In his application to enter the Comboni Missionaries, he wrote, “Since I am convinced that the Lord is calling me to sacrifice my life to proclaim his Kingdom to the many people who do not know Him, I am ready to for any sacrifice whatsoever.” On June 6, 1948, he was ordained a priest in Verona and sent to teach at Comboni College in Asmara (now the capital of Eritrea). Father Evaristo did not, however, confine himself just to teaching, but learned two local languages, Tigrinya and Ge’ez saying, “It is only by knowing their language that I can approach people.” But teaching was not for him. He wanted to undertake the pastoral ministry that he had always dreamt of. After five years, the Superiors in Verona accepted his request and, in late 1953, he was assigned to the Mission of Mupoi in Southern Sudan. For ten years, he carried out ministry in the Missions of Rimenze, Naandi, Maringindo and Ezo. Those were years of intense and dedicated apostolate. He traveled all over the savannah, visiting villages and ministering to the sick. “The Christian Communities respond well to the proclamation of the Gospel,” he wrote to a friend.
At the same time, the activities of the Missionaries in Southern Sudan were becoming more and more restricted. The partly-Christian and partly-Animist South had rebelled against the attempts of the Arab-led Government in the North to Islamize the whole country. The Authorities in Khartoum, accusing the Missionaries of supporting the rebellion, forbid them from baptizing children, building chapels or repairing those already built, providing medicine to the sick or giving sustenance to the hungry. Father Evaristo was accused of having repaired two mud and grass-thatched chapels without permission from the Authorities and asked to appear in Court to answer the charges against him on November 15, 1962. He spent a
month under house arrest at the Mission of Tombora whilst waiting to be sentenced. On January 12, 1963, a few days before sentence was due to be handed down, the Authorities decreed his expulsion along with that of a number of other Comboni Missionaries. It was a hard blow for him.
Returning to Africa
Father Evaristo found it very difficult to settle back to life in Italy and insisted on returning to Africa. The Comboni Missionaries had opened a presence in Congo in the Diocese of Niangara (now known as ‘Isiro-Niangara’) near the border with Southern Sudan. The reports from the country were not encouraging. In the aftermath of Independence, a series of rebellions against the Government had brought the Congo to its knees. Father Evaristo was well aware of the dangers. Nevertheless, he still wanted to go there and in February 1964 he left for the Mission of Rungu in the Eastern Province of Congo. In his first letter to his mother in Tomba di Mereto from Rungu he wrote, “I have been put in charge of the Parish Office, the accounts, the Catechumens and the primary schools. The work is well under way and there are two of us here working in the seventy villages around the Mission.”
Father Evaristo had a natural gift that he would soon put to good use: that of water divining or dowsing. He succeeded in identifying underground streams of water. In a further letter home he wrote, “I have just returned from a trip to Ndedu, where I went to help them find water. I showed them four or five places where they can find water at a depth of thirteen or fourteen yards.” In one of his last letters he wrote, “The situation is becoming dangerous. It is saddening to see a country so rich in natural resources economically bankrupt. It is a country of bitter tribal conflict.” In August, the Simba Rebels left Maniema, the Capital of Kindu Province, and moved eastwards where, meeting no resistance, they captured the towns of Stanleyville (‘Kisangani’), Paulis (‘Isiro’), Buta and Watsa with the whole of the Eastern Province of the country.
The brutal end of a life of willing sacrifice
The rebels arrived at the Mission of Rungu on the afternoon of October 29, 1964. They were about about a hundred in number, well-armed and evidently under the influence of drugs. As the days passed, the attitude towards the Missionaries became increasingly hostile. There were reports that Belgian troops were on their way to the Region. The rebels became very nervous and began to harass the Missionaries and subject them to prolonged bouts of interrogation and ill-treatment. Belgian paratroopers did in fact reach Paulis, on November 25, 1964, causing panic among the Simba Rebels who fled Rungu. With the rebels gone, the Missionaries and Religious decided to take refuge in the forest. The Belgian troops, however, stopped in Paulis without advancing any further. This allowed the Simba Rebels to re-group and return to Rungu, where they threatened severe reprisals against the local population if the Missionaries were not handed over. In the circumstances the Missionaries decided to give themselves up. They were placed in a hut under close guard. Towards evening, the rebel commander entered the hut and ordered the six priests outside. The Missionaries then knew it was the end for them. The rebels ordered them to remove their shoes and forced them onto a lorry with which they took them little more than a mile away to the Rungu River, a tributary of the Bomokandi River. It was about 10:00 p.m. on a dark, moonless night. The prisoners were made to alight from the lorry and sit on the ground. One by one they were then shot in the back at close range with Father Evaristo the last to die. He was forty-two years of age and had been in the country only nine months. The rebels then took their bodies and threw them over the bridge into the waters of the river below.