The story of development and community empowerment projects ever carried out in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland North would not be complete without
giving credit to a Roman Catholic missionary Fr. Odilo Weeger. Today the province of Matabeland North, boasts one of the intact and state-of-the-art rural hospitals, St Luke’s, situated in the Lupane District. The hospital, situated more than 120 km outside Bulawayo along the Victoria Falls road, is the brainchild of the now departed man of God.
He arrived in Bulawayo from Hamburg in 1939. One of his crosses was to feel isolated from his family at home under Hitler. Also, being in a very British colony as a German was not plain sailing. However, he stuck to his pastoral work, undergoing in the process the threat of wild beasts, hunger, exhaustion and eventually malaria and biharzia.
In 1970 he became provincial superior of the Mariannhillers and played an active role in expanding their work. This had its moments of uncertainty as he toured the region that was now torn by the Rhodesian war and the fearsome activity of guerrillas. Bishop Adolph Schmitt and other missionaries were among those ambushed and shot dead for being “enemies of the people”, despite years of serving the same people.
With help and support of friends from Germany, most of whom were medical practitioners, Fr. Odilo, himself a German, established Matabeleland North’s biggest hospital and referral centre named after the Biblical medical doctor St Luke. To date, the Catholic-run health institution, supported by donations locally and from abroad, remains popular with people seeking health treatment, some of whom come from outside Matabeleland North.The peak of this scenario was during the 2008 economic crisis, when patients from as far as Bulawayo travelled to the rural hospital for medical attention.
St Luke’s Hospital is not the only project in South-West Zimbabwe launched by Fr. Weeger. He also built and established many schools in Lupane, Gwayi, Dete and Binga in a bid to empower communities intellectually regardless of their diverse religious inclinations. Fatima High School, strategically positioned ca. 220 km between Victoria Falls and Bulawayo, tells a lot about the incredible services Fr. Odilo rendered to this nation.
In the North of Matebeleland, equipped with little more than a prayer book and a bicycle, he travelled around from St. Mary’s Lukosi to Hwange, Victoria Falls, Matetsi and Gwayi River.
In the early 1940s, before Zimbabwe’s attainment of independence from Britain, the German missionary priest founded Fatima Mission in a bushy area, which comprised both a primary and a secondary school, later upgraded to a high school, and Fatima Hospital. Unfortunately, the hospital, which was a pride of the community, was demolished during the country’s struggle for independence. However, the primary and secondary schools though now under the government, continue to serve villagers in the surrounding villages.
In his book about Fr. Odilo, John L. Sullivan, a parishioner of Christ the King in Hillside (where the German missionary was a parish priest for a number of years) writes of Weeger’s growing up in Bavaria as the second of seven children, and how the young man was so taken with the fine example of Abbot Franz Pfanner, the founder of the Mariannhill congregation, that he entered the novitiate, determined to do as Pfanner had done in Africa.
The author grippingly depicts the horrors of the tragic Rhodesian war and the Church’s heavy losses in personnel and property during the conflict.
On May 5, 1989, Fr. Odilo was awarded the Verdienstkreuz – Erster Klasse (Cross of Merit – First Class) by his mother country Germany for his outstanding work in Matabeleland.
Sadly and unfortunately, on 8 June 2006, Zimbabweans woke up to the news of the death of Fr. Odilo at Mater Dei Hospital in Bulawayo, where he had been admitted. He was 93 years old when he left this world and he was mourned by both Catholics and non-Catholics in Matabeleland. Although he’s been gone for six years, his sterling works are still fresh in the minds of people in the province of Matabeleland North. Fr. Odilo, whose generosity and helping hand are still visible and felt today by many, has, undisputedly, left an indelible mark on the Matabeleland soil.
Here you can find other photos of Fr. Odilo Weeger.