Charleston diocese, Sierra Leone have connections in Bishop Barron

This is the final article of the three-part series on the relationship between the church in South Carolina and the African nation of Sierra Leone.


CHARLESTON — During a recent pastoral visit to South Carolina, Archbishop Joseph Ganda of Sierra Leone frequently spoke of one of his predecessors, a bishop with ties to the Diocese of Charleston.

The predecessor was Bishop Edward Barron, a 19th-century missionary to Africa. Bishop Barron was born in Ireland in 1801, and after earning a law degree discerned a priestly vocation and entered the seminary. He studied at the Propagation of the Faith in Rome and was ordained a priest there in 1829. When he returned to Ireland, Bishop Barron felt a strong call to evangelize and volunteered to come to the United States as a missionary. He went to Philadelphia, where he served as a parish priest, seminary rector, and later as vicar general of the diocese.

In 1822 many American religious and philanthropic groups, especially the American Colonization Society, supported the creation of Liberia as a colony for freed slaves. Bishop John England of the Diocese of Charleston wrote to Pope Gregory XVI in 1833, suggesting that missionaries be sent to the free blacks of Liberia. Bishop England had hoped that the mission would receive its own bishop. The pope, however, tried to place the African mission under the care of American Jesuits. Having recently been given the Indian missions, the Jesuits could not sustain both efforts. In 1841 the Holy See asked the bishops of Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York to send missionaries from their dioceses to Liberia without delay. This was the United States’ first foreign mission.

The Diocese of Charleston, which at the time encompassed North and South Carolina and Georgia, was suffering from a drastic shortage of priests and could not send a missionary. Bishop England, however, traveled and preached to raise spiritual and financial support for the mission. It was an effort he was deeply committed to and hoped to see prosper.

Father Barron knew of Liberia’s deadly climate and the difficulties involved in missionary work there, but nevertheless volunteered to serve. He left for Africa in 1841, along with Father John Kelly of New York and a lay catechist from Baltimore. On Feb. 10, 1842, Father Barron offered the first Mass in west Africa since the Jesuit missions of 1604. The mission was soon raised to an apostolic vicariate and Father Barron was named a bishop.

His jurisdiction was later extended to include Sierra Leone and the whole of western Africa. Barron became known as the “Bishop of the Two Guineas,” the generic name of the region. As such, he is the predecessor of Archbishop Joseph Ganda, the current Archbishop of Sierra Leone.

Bishop Barron received additional missionaries from France’s renewed Holy Ghost Fathers. The group of missionaries preached the Gospel and attempted to teach the faith, but their efforts were hampered by disease and the difficult climate, and many died.

Bishop Barron worked tirelessly to sustain this first Catholic mission to black Africa in modern times. He sought to raise funds and resources, recruit new missionaries, and extend avenues toward evangelization. By 1845, nearly all of the missionaries had died. Many were buried in the mission.

Bishop Barron himself became seriously ill and sadly resigned his jurisdiction to the Holy Ghost Fathers, whom he knew would persevere in the missionary work. He went to his “other mission post” of the United States, and labored in the Indian missions of Missouri and the Catholic missions in Florida. He returned to Philadelphia in 1854, but when he heard of a yellow fever epidemic in Georgia, he hurried to Savannah to help.

Savannah had become an independent diocese in 1850. Its first bishop, Bishop Francis Gartland, joined Bishop Barron in administering the sacraments to the sick. Both contracted yellow fever and died in this heroic service.

Bishop Barron is buried in Savannah, and the Bible verse on his tomb summarizes his life. It reads: “I most gladly will spend and will be spent myself for your souls” (2 Cor 12:15).

The writer is indebted to Father Peter Clark of the Diocese of Charleston for his pastoral interest and research on the life of Bishop Edward Barron.

Jeff Kirby is a seminarian of the Diocese of Charleston.