By Barbara McCormack, Special Collections Librarian, Maynooth University Library
In late 1914 an interesting letter arrived at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth which outlined the plight of detainees at a Leper Asylum in Pretoria, South Africa. The letter was written by an Irish missionary, Fr. Thomas Ryan, who was fundraising for the construction of a Catholic church at the Westfort Leprosy Hospital. Admission rates to leper asylums had greatly increased in the late nineteenth century following the introduction of legislation such as the Leprosy Repression Act of the 1890s which attempted to segregate and isolate those suffering from the disease. Fr. Ryan writes:
‘I beg you to forgive me for making this appeal to you. In my parish of Pretoria there is a leper asylum, and there over 800 lepers are gathered together. Before the “Union” of the S. African States there were not so many lepers in our asylum but now the authorities are more careful – the leper asylum of Bloemfontein has been closed, & lepers are now placed only at Robin [sic.] Island & in the Pretoria asylum.’
Fr. Ryan was born in 1858 and was ordained for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate at Inchicore in 1882. His missionary work brought him first to Leeds and then to Australia in 1893, where he settled at Fremantle, before returning to Ireland due to poor health and later travelling to South Africa in 1908 as a missionary. In 1914 Ryan wrote to several individuals and institutions around the world asking for help to develop ‘a little sanctuary which shall afford to the leper worshippers the means of realising the beauty of Catholic workshop on however small a scale’.
Simone Horwitz in her article ‘Leprosy in South Africa: A case study of Westfort Leper Institution, 1898-1948’, states that ‘Once patients were admitted to the institution, close contact with non-leprous persons, in theory at least, was to be prohibited’ yet in practice, the authorities failed to fully implement these policies, leading to ‘inadequate facilities, lax management, modest medical care and haphazardly enforced segregation’.
Fr. Ryan’s letter states that ‘[t]here are 25 Catholics among the lepers & they & others also are anxious to have a Catholic church built within the asylum boundaries. The priests visit the asylum regularly but we cannot say Mass for the lepers as there is no place that we can call our own.’ Following a petition to the Bishop of Transvaal it was decided to fundraise the £400 needed to construct the church and Fr. Ryan appealed to the professors and students of Maynooth College ‘to keep alive the Irish missionary spirit’ by giving just one shilling to the cause.
Supporters of Ryan’s work included the former High Commissioner of South Africa, Viscount Milner and the Prime Minister of South Africa, General Louis Botha. Local people also offered their support and according to a report in the Sacred Heart Review a number of people had already committed to the work:
‘A carpenter who is now fighting for his country in German South-West Africa has promised to make the doors; the Trappist Community at Mariannhill will be responsible for the windows, and several very poor working men will contribute the stone’.
The Anglo-Welsh artist Sir Frank Brangwyn painted a set of the Stations of the Cross for the church ‘voluntarily as a Catholic in keen sympathy with the work of Father Ryan, whom he did not even know’.
The new church was finally opened in December 1916 by Bishop Cox who commended the work of Fr. Ryan. A newspaper report at the time also praised the work of the Irish missionary: ‘The work of such a man in such a cause is a tangible asset to the credit of the old land and of its fidelity to the ancient Church.’
Seven years later Fr. Ryan travelled to London to recuperate from a recent illness. Before he left Pretoria a celebration was held in his honour, during which both the Mayor and a member of the Legislative Assembly spoke.
He died in South Africa on the 18th October 1929 at the age of seventy-one.
Barbara McCormack contributed an article on this topic to Treasures of Irish Christianity: To the Ends of the Earth, edited by Salvador Ryan and published by Veritas in 2015.