A group of Australian nuns has helped set a hard working family man on the path to sainthood in South Africa. Benedict Daswa, a school principal and father of eight was declared a martyr and beatified, 25 years after he died defending his faith in the tiny village of Tshitanini, South Africa.
It’s the first time a person from South Africa has had bestowed upon them this, one of the Catholic Church’s highest honours. The landmark celebration brings hope to a region where positive role models are so desperately needed.
On a larger scale, it offers inspiration to Catholics the world over, with many praising the way Daswa so passionately upheld his faith.
The Australian Sisters involved drew motivation from the canonisation of St Mary MacKillop. They took lessons learnt during that campaign to ensure Benedict Daswa received a ceremony befitting his extraordinary story.
In 1989 a ferocious storm lashed Daswa’s village. Heavy rain and damaging lightning caused devastation for residents. When a second storm tore through in January 1990, villagers gathered to find the person responsible. Witchcraft was and still is the dominant belief system and it was thought that someone must have cursed the region.
All villagers were asked to fund a witch-hunt for the culprit but Daswa, a Catholic convert, refused to contribute. He insisted that storms were not caused by witchcraft, but instead, were natural phenomena for which no one could be blamed. For this, he was targeted.
In February 1990, while driving home from a nearby village, Daswa was ambushed. His attackers blocked his path with fallen trees and as he got out of his car to clear the way, they pounced. He died praying and his final words are believed to have been: “God, into Your hands receive my spirit.”
Many were too scared to attend Daswa’s funeral for fear of persecution, but unwavering in her support was an Our Lady of the Sacred Heart missionary from Adelaide, Sr Sally Duigan, who was working in the region as a teacher.
She accompanied Daswa’s children to the funeral. She would form a deep bond with those children, becoming a pillar of support to them in a horrendous time.
Instead of fading away, Daswa’s light only grew stronger as years passed. Stories of his bravery spread across the province and in 2000 the then Bishop of Tzaneen, Hugh Slattery, noticed people were still gathering at his grave.
“There’s something special about this man,” he decided. And the campaign to have Benedict Daswa beatified began. The path to recognition was as long and winding as the road that leads to Daswa’s home village.
“It seemed more like a dream than a project,” said the bishop emeritus. “Very few dared to believe that a poor remote diocese like Tzaneen was going to produce the first local African saint.”
But the campaign gained momentum and, as it did, St Mary MacKillop continued to play a role. Bishop Slattery and his successor as Bishop of Tzaneen, Bishop Joao Rodrigues, visited key MacKillop sites in Penola, South Australia. Accompanied by Sr Sally Duigan and Christine Martin OLSH, the team went on a fact-finding mission.
“We picked up as much information as we could,” said Sr Sally.
In January 2015, Pope Francis gave the official go-ahead, signing the proclamation for the beatification of Daswa. Australia’s Sisters of St Joseph lent their support, proving a wealth of knowledge in the saint-making process after having been involved with Mary MacKillop’s canonisation.
Sr Sheila McCreanor travelled to South Africa to help out, adapting the committee structure used for the canonisation to help the South Africans plan their event. “I spent a lot of time talking with some of the key players and tried to work out the best scenarios for the local scene,” she said.
Sr Sheila said she could easily see that the cause was worthy. “Our world today needs strong models of goodness. In a world where religion often gets negative press, it is great to find the story of someone who could inspire and give hope, especially for the young.”
And so, in the middle of a village still gripped by a dominant belief in witchcraft, Benedict Daswa was beatified on 13 September, 2015.
Thirty-thousand people from across the globe traversed the pothole-riddled roads of remote southern Africa to attend the unique beatification Mass.
The altar was erected in a muddy field at the end of the dirt track where Daswa was murdered. Pilgrims passed the exact point of his ambush as they travelled to witness the ceremony. The remote location could not have been more fitting. It was where Daswa lived, raised his children, built a Catholic church and led his school community.
The crowd applauded and blew traditional animal horns to celebrate in a service filled with prayer, drama, music and dance.
Cardinal Angelo Amato, the Vatican-based Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, led proceedings on behalf of Pope Francis. Many even camped out the night before, keeping vigil with traditional songs and passionate prayers. The moment of beatification was the finale to what had been a long campaign for recognition.
Among the faithful in the field that day was Sr Sally Duigan, some 25 years after accompanying the Daswa children to his funeral.
“Who would have believed when I was standing in the rain that day that, decades later, tens of thousands of people would gather from around the world to celebrate this remarkable man’s life,” she said.
Daswa’s elderly mother Thidziambi also watched on.
“We are just bursting with pride,” said Daswa’s daughter Helen. “We just never thought that my dad would be magnified as he has been today.”
Another Australian, Sr Claudette Hiosan OLSH, was the official promoter of the cause. “It’s humbling,” she said. “As an Australian, to be involved with something so sacred – it’s an honour.”
Some of Daswa’s killers remain in the community and are likely to have witnessed the international celebrations occurring in honour of their victim.
But Daswa’s children say they hold no anger towards them.
Instead, in an ultimate demonstration of forgiveness, they say they hope his killers may one day be saved by faith and hope.
Daswa’s mother said she believes her son would have forgiven his murderers.
Blessed Benedict’s feast day will be 1 February. As he was declared a martyr, he did not require a miracle in order to be beatified – but will if he is to be canonised.