||Notes on the Dedicated Life
A Prophet Before His Time
by Michael Maasdorp
Christmas Day, 2002, is the anniversary of the birth not only of the
obvious person, but also the centenary of the birth in 1902 of a
little-known but remarkable man from the "Roof of Africa," as
the Kingdom of Lesotho is sometimes known.
Patrick Maekane was born at "Leralleng, at Musi's place,
Mokhethoaneng." Where one comes from is a useful and important piece
of information to the Basotho, for whom the extended family means much. According to Sister Theresia Mary, spb
, his birth-name was Motsemoholo.
Theresia sums up his life when she writes, "The end came at
dawn on April 18th . He was 82 years old. He was mourned
by many whom he had helped and guided, all over Lesotho. His special love
was for the poor; and he himself lived all his life as a poor man."
Patrick's connection with the Society of the Sacred Mission began when
he was only ten years old. It continued all his life. It was from Brother
Edwin Bradbrooke, ssm, at St Agnes, Teyateyaneng,
not too far from his birthplace, that he earned his first few
shillings around 1913. And ssm
members were among the Masite congregation, where he had
been rector, who
saw him into his grave some seventy years later.
Lesotho in the early part of the 20th century was still firmly rooted
in pastoral traditions handed down over centuries. Life was hard and
children grew up tough under tough conditions. British rule (as the
Basutoland Protectorate) was reasonably fair - which is not to say that
the Westminster Government put any more money into the country than it had
to. In short, the vast majority of Basothos were dirt poor.
It was into this environment that the Society first came, bringing with
it the benefits and disadvantages of Western sophistication. The
Anglican Church could and did play a part in representing
indigenous culture to the authorities. But, inevitably, its priorities and
values were those of the West leavened by a dose of Victorian missionary
fervour and, more particularly, illuminated (as the Society supposed) by a
renewed vision of Western monasticism.
As I look back on my boyhood as an African rooted in Western culture, I
marvel at the generous flexibility with which the indigenous peoples
welcomed many patent advantages of Western ways. But social change
proceeds at a slow pace, and valued ways of life are more frequently
impervious to "reform" than many Westerners would like.
Only some twenty years after Patrick's death is the character and
strength of African ways of life beginning to re-emerge from where they have been buried for many years. Like Western culture before it, the
African spirit will no doubt take centuries to become what it can be,
impacted as it has been and will be by a scientific, technological,
industrial mindset utterly foreign to its cultural roots.
I think there's little doubt that some Western missionaries who served
the people of Lesotho faithfully for years and who helped develop the nation,
found it difficult to understand the huge gap between the Basotho culture
and their own. Rightly or wrongly they supposed that Basothos should
conform as far as possible to their standards and norms.
Patrick, like many young people of his times, no doubt welcomed the
light of Western education at St Agnes School, Teyateyaneng. He valued the opportunities which the wealth of the
Society (relative to the local people, that is) brought him. Sister Theresia pinpoints
one thing which nevertheless set him aside from the rest. The
money he earned from Brother Bradbrooke, she says, was "saved with
the intention of one day starting a Religious Community." Patrick, it
seems, set his heart on a life aim very early.
In this context the Society was, to say the least, generous to Patrick.
Concerned that lack of money should not hamper the growth of a community
it put funds into trust with the Diocese of Bloemfontein in South Africa
(under which Lesotho then fell). This start-up fund aimed to give Patrick
and any who joined him some security. A correspondent writes,
The Society was concerned that lack of
money did not hamper the growth of a community ... The plan was that
expensive clothing like shoes, boots, habits, and medical needs, and if
necessary basic food would be paid for ... Fr Patrick did not lack any
basic necessities. Whenever he wanted clothing I simply gave him the
money. When he needed food he simply drew what he needed from the spb
[Society of the Precious Blood] sisters and I repaid them the cost.
fact did not want the bother of shopping for food as far as I know and was
only too pleased to get what food he needed via spb. I suppose it could be
said that ssm
should have just given him the money, but in those days no
member of ssm
had free access to money.
The money was, however, still controlled by
the Society and the Bishop and could be released only with their
consent. Some members of the Society of the time thought that Patrick,
unlike the few westernised assimiladoes, was a "peasant
type" who could not be absorbed into Western ways. So their lack of trust about money
management is in some ways understandable.
But, try as I may, I can't believe that the Church of the Province of
Southern Africa on one hand, and the Society on another, were right or
justified in taking the stand they did about Patrick.
As Ralph Martin writes , they believed as
late as 1952 that "... the whole of African society would inevitably
and soon be totally absorbed into Western culture." A hundred years
before that in the Eastern Cape, brave Christians had pleaded for the
protection and preservation of what was good in indigenous culture. In
short, ssm's attitude towards indigenous peoples was a product less of
brotherly love than of deliberate separation born of a sense of cultural superiority.
The trials and tribulations Patrick faced over many years can't be recounted
here. There were starts and stops. Men joined him and then left him,
unable or unwilling to stand the heat. By some accounts Patrick made
serious mistakes in the way he handled those he sought to serve. Perhaps
he took too much to heart some views of how the religious life should be
lived, and too little account of how that life might best take root and
flourish in African culture.
But, for better or for worse, Patrick saw good in the religious life
and attempted in his own way to make it come true for him. In 1952 a
large congregation gathered at St Barnabas, Masite, for the first Bishop
of Lesotho, John Maund, to officially recognise and bless the Handmaids of
Mary Mother of Mercy, a contemplative women's community initiated and
nurtured by Patrick. The Bishop, it appears, had initially accepted
Patrick's assessment that the Handmaids were ready to make their
Anyone reading Theresia's account of the occasion can't help but share
the stunned amazement of all when, at this eleventh hour, the Bishop
explained that "the Handmaids were not allowed to become a Religious
Community." He had met with opposition from a religious
community (not the Society) "who said the Handmaids were not sufficiently trained to
become Religious," in Theresia's words.
Patrick was never to plant a fully indigenous community. He called the
small group of men who gathered around him in 1942 the "Brotherhood
of the Servants of
Christ" (Mothaka oa Bahlanka ba Kreste - hence mbk). In the following
years, writes Theresia, the religious life "though sweet on their
lips when they first tasted it ... became bitter when they swallowed it,
so they went away again."
Patrick first spoke in 1925 of founding a boys hostel. But it wasn't
until forty years later that he started one at Masite. He had help from Lesotho's Royal House, from local people and
eventually from overseas.
It is said that one of Patrick's errors was to impose
extremely harsh discipline on the boys of the Masite hostel. That could
not have been right, even in the hard circumstances of Lesotho's
situation. I'm reminded, however, that St Benedict wrote in his Rule about
"How boys are to be corrected". People of each age-group should receive the appropriate discipline.
... as often as faults are committed by boys, or by youths ...
let such offenders be punished with severe fasts or chastised with sharp
stripes, in order that they may be cured.
How easily we tend to take what we like and leave what we don't!
Benedict is respected for his dedicated outlook while Patrick is censured for
exacting discipline - a discipline which was not only part of
his culture, but also part of the hallowed Western traditional religious
life. Such severity can't be justified easily, if at all -
either in Italy 1 500 years ago or in Lesotho 50 years ago. Nevertheless, Patrick was
counted incapable of understanding and planting the religious life in
Lesotho's national soil.
equally easy, I suppose, to blame the established religious communities
for counselling that their Western traditions prevail. I for one don't want
to make the mistake of thinking that I can easily understand those times.
Southern Africa has come a long way since then. Outlook and attitudes have
changed radically. Where many once thought they should imitate the Western
churches, for example, it's now becoming more important to encourage indigenous
So as I meditate on the extraordinary life of Motsemoholo Patrick
Maekane, I seek patterns which underpin those superficial concerns of
religion which seem so often to have been the focus of those who sought to
promote a Western form of community life.
I ask myself, what is it
about "The Way" (Acts 22.4) that Patrick successfully lived out, even though
some may today regard him as having failed, or as having been brutal, or
as never having fully come to terms with Western norms? What is it to be
"ready" for the religious life in African terms, rather than
"ready" according to the Church of England?
I can only speculate, of course. I never knew Patrick
- and some who did apparently have a strongly negative perception of him as a person.
He was repeatedly judged to be unsuitable as a Superior in the religious
life - even though he was congratulated for sterling work in what was then
termed the "mission field." Perhaps he was difficult to get on with. Perhaps he infuriated the more
pragmatic-minded. Perhaps he was unrealistic about his own culture and perhaps he
was too close to the tough life of the barren highlands of his country.
Whatever his failings, he can't be blamed for being disobedient to the Jesus he
knew. One who knew him described Patrick as "utterly dedicated in an
African way". Those living the
so-called religious life in the West, it occurs to me, may gravely mistake the nature
of obedience. True obedience is not to
superiors or a rule of life or correct liturgical forms or any one form of
the religious life. It is to a consuming purpose, a purpose for which it is
right that a few give up everything.
Iliff Simey of the International Voluntary Service experienced
Patrick's single-mindedness when Patrick started a girls' orphanage at
Qhalasi, near Mohale's Hoek, in around 1977 at the age of 75. He writes:
Patrick had great faith ... He started with his Church pension
of R20 a month, barely adequate for his food. All week he dug
foundations in the rock-hard clay ... it nearly killed him.
His poverty was plain for all to see. He appears not to have been
especially interested in money, except insofar as it helped him in his
work. This was not the theoretical
poverty of so many wealthy, comfortable religious orders of the West
today. Indeed, I speculate whether the generosity of his missionary
mentors and their concern to give him security was not perhaps an error
born out of their own affluence. Be that as it may, it seems that Patrick
showed relatively little interest in getting comfortable.
Patrick might also have done better to marry. That would have been more true
to African culture and he came under some pressure to fulfill his duty as
the son of a local chieftain. Perhaps a wife would have moderated his behaviour. But
as I ponder, it seems to me that his lifestyle harmonises with who he was.
Parents know how all-consuming a task it is to raise
children. Marriage would have left Patrick less time and energy to live
out what he perceived was God's purpose for him.
In what way then was Patrick a prophet, keeping in mind that a prophet
is one who is dedicated to God in such a way that he or she seeks to bring
others to the same vision?
Some may point out that he was unrealistic about life. Others may
suggest that he lost focus by pursuing a contemplative form of the
religious life, rather than immediately starting work on a boys hostel,
his initial vision. Yet others may
laugh at the time he pulled down the east end of the church at Matsieng
and half-built a new tower (which someone else had to finish off).
perhaps Patrick was wrong in expecting others to be as tough and as
single-minded as he was. A member of SSM who knew
him well recounts how he was once given a cheque to pay the teachers at
the Masite school. Patrick instead bought himself a motorcycle with the
money so that he could get to people and places otherwise out of his
reach. The fault had to be sharply corrected - but nobody could accuse
Patrick of obvious self-interest in the matter.
Twenty-twenty wisdom after the fact is relatively easy. Patrick may not have been
the ideal personality, and his ways clearly did not match the ways of his
European mentors. But he was all there was. He was good enough to have
been ordained priest in 1942 and to have served until retirement in 1965.
As a White African I know full-well how easy it has been to dismiss the
intentions and capacities of my fellow Black Africans. With hindsight, my
arrogance has been monumental on occasion, just as was the arrogance of
the Society and the Church in relation to Patrick Maekane.
It comes to me as I meditate that it may be difficult for some to put aside
a natural irritation at his human failings and instead to look for what Patrick
at his best may say to the 21st century. And it occurs to me that we might today
be able to consider Patrick in a clearer light than could his European
Perhaps what his obedience can tell us is that the religious life requires
focus on a purpose rather than on the will and orders of a superior - that is,
on obedience to something
and someone greater than ourselves, rather than to the word and whim of a
It may also say that the religious life lived for its own sake is hollow. Only when
a sacrificial purpose exists does celibacy make sense; only then is
poverty required; only then does faithful obedience to a task demand
everything from us. For then we rightly take a minimum for ourselves and
give all else to others according to the purpose we serve.
In summary, the initial failure of the religious life in Lesotho was as
much due to the failure of the ssm and the colonial Church as it was
to Patrick's personal shortcomings.
As I meditate I wonder if perhaps, as younger African men join the
Society in the opening years of the twenty-first century, the
"religious" or "dedicated" life in Lesotho and
Southern Africa can get a second start. There is room aplenty for
 Father Patrick Maekane M.B.K., CPSA, 1987
 Patrick Maekane, Ralph Martin
ssm, European Province Newsletter, November, 1998