Calls for inter-denominational and inter-religious tolerance are not a new phenomena in Mandera County as far as faith matters are concerned.
In 1970, Father John Bonzamino arrived in this dusty and tiny town of Mandera that borders Ethiopia to the North, and the Somalia Republic to the East.
On his arrival, history has it that he embarked on building a church to serve the local Christian community.
He built Mandera Community Church where both Catholic faithful and Protestants now converge for Sunday service.
Fr Bonzamino did not stay for long in Mandera since in September 1971, Contemplative Missionary Movement took over the church’s activities in Mandera and another cleric, Fr Eligio Pellegrino arrived. Fr Eligio with some priests and nuns came to Mandera from Gatonga Parish in Meru County.
Maybe on realising that the local community could not accept Christianity since Islam had taken root, Fr Eligio concentrated on charity work.
“He taught at Mandera Secondary School with other missionaries. They used to treat locals, give food to the society but none of our people accepted Christianity,” said Mr Adow Shurie.
Mr Shurie revealed that most residents feared being denounced or even rejected by their families if they converted to Christianity.
On realising nobody was willing to be converted, Fr Eligio concentrated on building harmony between Christians and Muslims in Mandera.
“The Catholic priest worked tirelessly for our society and only concentrated on building peaceful coexistence between the two religions,” said Mr Shurie.
The famous Boys’ Town centre in Mandera was started in 1980 by the Catholic missionaries as an orphanage.
In 1985, Mr Joseph Zenker, an Italian national in-charge of the centre handed it over to local trustees who converted it to an Islamic centre. On February 25, 1972, Fr Eligio died in a road accident at Kula Mawe in Isiolo.
His remains were buried in Mandera four days later and in 1984, they were exhumed and buried inside the current church.
The Mandera Catholic Church, named St Michael, was opened on October 3, 1983, leaving the community church building to be used by Protestants.
To date, Adventists use the building on Saturdays as worshippers from other denominations gather on Sundays. Other churches have since mushroomed in the town with the increase in the non-local population doing business or working.
At St Michael, a plague is inscribed on Fr Eligio’s grave at the sacristy that his gift of life be a seed of understanding and dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
“We learnt that his mission was to unite Christians and Muslims in Mandera and that was achieved because we live in harmony,” said Mr Prosper Kitito, a faithful.
After Fr Eligio’s death, Fr Franco and Fr Joseph took over the Mission, setting up a workshop to train locals in carpentry and tailoring. They also started a dispensary. The duo, with the help of nuns, provided food and clothing to the poor, gave free school uniforms and provided counselling.
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