September 2015 Print

Kenyan Safari

Interview with Fr. Matthew Stafki

The Angelus: Father, would you kindly introduce yourself and explain the reasons for your first appointment?

Father Stafki: My family is from the Twin Cities area and I was ordained last year. But I sincerely do not know why I was sent right away to Africa. I suspect that my exposure to other cultures might have something to do with it since I lived in Quebec and France.


The Angelus: Did you settle immediately in Nairobi, Kenya?

Father Stafki: It was not quite as simple as that. I had to get to South Africa while things were getting settled in Kenya. I stayed at the priory of Johannesburg, and helped around the school and the missions. Later on, I went to Kenya but stayed as a guest at the Missionary Sisters of Karen near Nairobi. So it was not until December that I was able and relieved to unpack my bags in my own room at the Holy Cross Priory in the capital city.


The Angelus: What was your first impression of Kenya?

Father Stafki: I was expecting a Third World country. I was surprised to see a country half Westernized. I was shocked at the amount of people everywhere. They are out of the house all the time, and they walk everywhere. Kenyans by and large are no lazy bones. When you drive on the left side as all English former colonies, you are always on the watch because the road belongs to the pedestrians!

Another interesting thing is that, although Kenya is predominantly Protestant, the Catholic Church is well implanted. If you wear the cassock, everybody knows who you are, and just being out taking a walk is a preaching by itself. The people, even the Muslims of Mombasa, are cordial and respectful to us as priests.


The Angelus: Besides these pleasant things, did you get less attractive impressions?

Father Stafki: What struck me getting into the city was the stench, burning plastic and trash everywhere, and big trucks burning diesel like crazy. Then, one of the most unpalatable things I have come across is to be approached by a beggar at every street corner. If you are a priest, and a mzungu at that—a white man—you are bound to have shillings in your pocket and to give alms away in favor of these fake poor!


The Angelus: Did you mention that your first lodging was at the convent?

Father Stafki: Yes, I stayed at the convent of the Missionary Sisters of Jesus and Mary. They were established in 2010 and they took over the former priory of Karen, a peaceful suburb of Nairobi. At present, there are about twenty such Sisters at the convent, under the direction of four Oblate Sisters of the SSPX to help them establish themselves until they have enough professed Sisters. They are doing very well, slowly growing. Some are from Europe, some from Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria.


The Angelus: How would you describe the presence of the missionary convent in the shadow of the priory?

Father Stafki: They live close by, and when needed, you enjoy the silence of the area, but also because they have a wonderful spirit, always joyful, full of energy. They are lovely and a real blessing. In the long run, subject to the generosity of benefactors, the plan is to buy the property behind the priory and set up a convent. They will be teaching and helping around the mission complex. This is their main apostolate along with the care for the sick, and the older nuns are already busy and working.


The Angelus: How is the relation with the Kenyan government?

Father Stafki: It could not be better. The “Marcel Lefebvre Society” is a Catholic organization officially recognized by the Kenyan government: compliments of former Archbishop Ndingi, friendly to Tradition, who resigned his position a few months after giving us the green light.


The Angelus: Tell us about your new home, which the Society had acquired just before I left Kenya in 2009.

Father Stafki: When I finally settled in the priory, my first impression was something oppressive, dark, dingy, not very home-like. The new prior, Fr. Bély, felt the same way. Whenever someone was visiting, they would go straight to the sisters. That told me that there was something off-putting about the priory. So, right away, we started cleaning the place, repainting the inside, redecorating, getting new furniture. The place needed fresh blood to come in to invigorate it. We have worked on the exterior as well: the old parking lot has been cleaned up and earth brought in, new gravel, new border stones, the garden areas turned pretty, the messy backyard has been removed, and we are getting a gazebo. The priory needs to have the good atmosphere of home and privacy, inviting you to rest.


The Angelus: Besides the Church and the rectory, what do you have in the mission complex?

Father Stafki: We are building a new school. The school started in 2012, and was recognized by the government only in 2014. Kenyans start school very young. We have three years of pre-school and then four years of primary school at the moment. When all is completed, the new school will receive as many as 250 children although the City Council would allow us to raise the number to 400, stacked like sardines! When it is complete, we should have three preschool levels and all primary to the equivalent of U.S. eighth grade. The school goes for three terms of three months and one month each time in between.


The Angelus: Are you involved with the school?

Father Stafki: I am helping only occasionally, when the prior is absent, for the early morning prayers and few words of encouragement… and when I walk the dog, because the kids just jump all around him!

Besides, every Saturday, I am busy with non-­school children and particular those from the slum next door. They receive tuition and extra teaching classes. I am in charge of the catechism, teaching the catechists and setting up the program. We feed them and offer them altar boy practices while the girls follow the Sisters, who provide them with slide shows, cooking, and games. Saturday is a good day for them!


The Angelus: How does an American priest fare in the company of two Frenchmen at the priory?

Father Stafki: We are always poking at each other on national issues, but it is all in good fun. Fr. Bély, the prior, is Parisian and has lived ever since his ordination in 2003 in all priories of Africa (Gabon, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and District Bursar at Johannesburg). He is bringing a vast experience which is a Godsend to Kenya. He is very good with administrative tasks. He has put the finances in order, and this is critical since we have to deal with governmental approval. Then, we have another Frenchman, Brother Rémy, a hard worker but very reserved, and so he feels better around older people. All things considered, we work very well together and are able to discuss things in an atmosphere of mutual trust. But also, I was forgetting, we have nearby the presence of Fr. Becker, the Sisters’ chaplain, and we visit each other frequently.


The Angelus: Do you feel isolated from the other confreres?

Father Stafki: Africa is a continent much larger than the United States, and Nairobi is 2,000 miles away from the next priory, which does not make things easy. Fr. Loïc Duverger, the District Superior, comes about twice a year, but we also get regular visits from the two Menzingen Assistants, who watch over the Sisters regularly. Also, for the first time this year, we’ve had a District priests’ meeting and it was a unique chance for most priests to get to know each other.


The Angelus: How indebted are you to the pioneers who sowed the seeds before you?

Father Stafki: The work accomplished since 2003 is simply amazing. Today, we have so much: the convent, Holy Cross church and priory, and the missions as well. All this is the fruit of these pioneers who went in search of faithful throughout the country. Fr. Étienne especially, now the new District bursar, did a marvelous work in Mombasa and Nyeri, uniting and encouraging the faithful.


The Angelus: If my memory serves me, the priory of Nairobi used to service also other missions outside Kenya?

Father Stafki: Indeed, we used to have ‘foreign’ missions, but we have dropped them, mostly for practical reasons. Dar el Salam of Tanzania, to name but one of them, is being taken care of by Fr. Étienne from South Africa because they speak only Swahili.


The Angelus: You spoke of Mombasa and Nyeri. Can you explain what these names mean to you?

Father Stafki: I visit monthly Mombasa, the Kenyan sea port, which is 10 hours away by bus. And, whereas Nairobi on the Equator enjoys a very pleasant 70 degrees all year long due to its altitude, Mombasa by contrast is hot and humid. At least I have the joy of using the white cassock but, to my sorrow, my superiors have forbidden me to grow a beard! We have a little group of twenty faithful, still reduced because we are still renting a private house for Mass. Lately, we bought some property and we intend to build. Swahili is the lingua franca there, and I am working on mastering the language but it is a slow process.


The Angelus: You were speaking of another mission.

Father Stafki: Nyeri is another week-end mission run, about three hours away from Nairobi. I make a couple of stops before getting there, one at the house of Fr. James Ngaruro, who was ordained a couple of years ago, and the next is Carico. We have our larger group of about thirty persons mostly from one family, and I have to manage a rather primitive high Mass there! And, finally, I arrive at Nyeri for Sunday with Mass at the hotel. We have our eyes on a property on which to build a church which would gather these different groups into one. We want to avoid the clans and oblige the faithful to make the great sacrifices of a day’s travel to have a more normal parish life.


The Angelus: What would you say are the main difficulties of your apostolate?

Father Stafki: Besides mastering the Swahili language, which would open many doors, I have had to deal with a very different culture. You have to get to know the people before you understand the way they think, how they view life in general. They often say what you want to hear and not the truth. They are rather reserved and wait for you to make the first step, call them by their first name before you may gain their trust. Then you can work with their souls.


The Angelus: Is it difficult to size them up? How can you judge their attachment to the Society?

Father Stafki: It is like everywhere. There is a minority which understands the why of the crisis and the liturgical combat, but most are simply attracted by the Mass. In Kenya, the changes have not had a major change. The dancing with the singing goes along with their folk customs and for the most part, the hierarchy remained conservative, and the churches are full. I saw that firsthand when the local parish had a Palm Sunday procession followed by a huge crowd. In order to provide a solid formation, we have to start with the basics, like whether hell is eternal. And then, start organizing special catechism classes and conferences for adults.


The Angelus: What is the main job at hand?

Father Stafki: First and foremost, we need to finish the project of the school at Holy Cross. Kenyans prize very much a good education which allows them to get ahead and have a decent job and perhaps rise to middle class. For a trimester the tuition is modest sum of $70, but many families struggle to get there.


The Angelus: Any last word or wish?

Father Stafki: I have been visiting my own parish, and they love the slide show as it comes very close to home. It was good to see how they have received me and enjoyed hearing of my apostolate in these foreign lands. We rely on their support and their prayers. And, like in many other mission countries, we depend greatly on foreign countries.


P.S. To make donations from the US to the missions, send checks to the US district payable to Society of St. Pius X Foreign Mission Trust-Africa. Mail to: 11485 N. Farley Rd, Platte City MO 64079 (with the memo: Kenya Priory).