AFRICA/SIERRA LEONE-Evangelizing among illiteracy, extreme poverty and endemic diseases: the work of Mgr. Azzolini, founder of the diocese of Makeni, which celebrates 50 years

Makeni (Agenzia Fides) - This year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Diocese of Makeni, Sierra Leone, on 24 February 1962 (see Fides 09/01/2012). This church was born by the division of the newly formed Diocese of Freetown & Bo, that the Holy See had planned for this area of missionary Africa in continuous social development, which now welcomed new pastoral workers from Italy, the Xaverian Missionaries. The four Xaverian pioneers (Fathers Azzolini, Calza, Olivani and Stefani) arrived in Sierra Leone on 8 July 1950, they started working immediately and in two years the area assigned to them became an Apostolic Prefecture. The responsible leader was Fr. Augusto Fermo Azzolini (1908-1992). Meanwhile, other missionaries had joined the first missionaries and on February 24, 1962, the Prefecture was elevated to Suffragan Diocese of Freetown & Bo, which had since become Archdiocese.
In the summer of 1962 Mgr. Azzolini was ordained a Bishop at his church home in the historic Cathedral of Parma. In this way the zealous Bishop of the newly formed church in Makeni was ready to give the missionary brand to the land and the people who lived there. While multiplying his limited energies and with a truly unparalleled zeal, Mgr. Azzolini multiplied the missionary residences and put all his effort in building and organizing, in strategic places, schools in many chiefdoms, thus responding to numerous requests from local leaders, who resorted to him sure to be heard.
Mgr. Azzolini, in fact, became aware of the serious situation in which the population lived, where general illiteracy, extreme poverty and endemic diseases prevented any hope of social improvement. His first commitment was to devote himself to the creation of a basic education system: he instituted over 200 primary schools, 13 secondary schools and a high school specialized in education for the necessary and urgent training of local teachers. These learning communities developed and grew a lot, often becoming smaller, but zealous Christian communities. The first classrooms were transformed almost always in small churches and some students became the first Christians of these young communities.
Alongside this educational activity, clinics and hospitals grew. Some effective campaigns against yaws and leprosy were organized, and some areas were taken care of such as the handicapped, polio survivors and the testing of Primary Health Care (The NHS health care service) also began. Intense was his commitment also for the improvement of conditions of life: he incentivized the campaign for the promotion of agriculture implemented with the collaboration of agronomists from Italy.
As far as evangelization is concerned, Bishop Azzolini’s first worry was to invite in his diocese collaborators from other religious congregations, male and female, to help the Xaverians. Many responded to the call. The Bishop also worked to bring lay workers for construction and other activities in the mission. He did not hesitate to reach out to charities, friends and benefactors to support and develop the work undertaken. He also new from the beginning that to establish the local Church it was necessary to form an African staff. On February 11, 1956 he gave birth to the small diocesan Seminary, which was to prepare local future priests.
Mgr. Azzolini led this young missionary Church for almost 25 years, until November 17, 1986, when he was succeeded by Mgr. George Biguzzi, who also belonged to the Congregation of the Xaverian Missionaries. Azzolini had to retire to Parma, where he got weaker and weaker due to cancer, which led him to the grave on July 24, 1992. He clearly expressed that he wanted to be buried in front of his Cathedral of Makeni, in Sierra Leone, and as an old boss and a true ancestor of the people, he now rests among the African population, whom he loved so much and for whom he had dedicated most of his life. (GC/SL) (Agenzia Fides 15/2/2012)

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