Working in South Africa for almost 50 years, a Franciscan friar has been teaching and shepherding despite many challenges, including Apartheid, in a land that is very much “missionary territory”.
He taught in the National Seminary of St John Vianney in Pretoria for 35 years in total, which was difficult in several ways.”
Hailing from Offaly, Fr Hyacinth Ennis OFM left Ireland for South Africa in 1973 and immediately began to lecture, which he did for 24 years until he was eventually moved to a parish in 2006. After working as a parish priest for nine years he moved to Boksburg, near Johannesburg, where he continued doing parish work for three more years.
He taught in the National Seminary of St John Vianney in Pretoria for 35 years in total, which was difficult in several ways.
“Well the biggest challenge was until 1994, in other words Apartheid in the system,” says Fr Ennis.
“But then the other point was of course many, many of our students and seminarians, postulants now, their faith wouldn’t be all that great, I mean this is still a missionary country, so that building up the faith and training fellas to be priests and religious in that sort of a missionary setting, you have to be very solid in the faith before you promote them to any sort of office in the Church.
“So, we spent a lot of time at that, the commitment to the education of these fellas. I would say that was my biggest challenge, and not only mine but those that were teaching with me.”
Faith formation began in Ireland for Fr Ennis, who went to school in Gormanstown College, Co. Meath – where he was first introduced to the work of the Franciscans.
Speaking about his upbringing Fr Ennis says: “I’m the only male member on both sides of my family, my mother and father’s sides. I had a first cousin on my mother’s side, an Augustinian nun, and she was over in Liverpool. She was slightly older than I was. We were the only two in the family that were in religion if you want to put it that way, but my father was a fairly, staunch, member of the Knights os Columbanus.”
However, joining a religious order was far less a surprising choice at that time than in Ireland currently.”
His family were “surprised” when he decided to become a Franciscan as he enjoyed a very good social life and was fond of the people he grew up with, playing football and swimming.
However, joining a religious order was a far less surprising choice at that time than in Ireland currently. Speaking about vocations to religious life in Ireland, Fr Ennis says there are “fewer and fewer” people opting for it, but in South Africa “thank God we have five fellas in our postulancy”.
He says: “We began last year with six and we ended up with three, and that’s not bad because it’s better that they leave now than later, if you know what I mean.
Let me put it this way to you: the vocations to the priesthood are bare now, certainly, in the men and in the women, particularly for the sisterhood. South Africans are coming on slowly but surely.
“And, of course, in the seminary now the vast majority are local Africans, with all races represented that way. The Church of course is gradually being transformed since 1994, since Mandela’s time, and for example, I can only speak on the view of the city parishes because that’s where I’ve always been, doing parish work.”
Fr Ennis adds that he was never out at the mission stations, where it would have been a different story altogether.
After he was ordained in 1968, the provincial told him there was a position opening in South Africa as a friar working in the country wanted to retire. “He gave me 24 hours to make up my mind, yes or no. So I said ‘right, I’ll go’. I have no regrets, let me put it that way to you,” he says.
Currently he is teaching Catechism and there’s a Franciscan element to it as well.
Fr Ennis, who also works as the Commissioner for the Holy Land in South Africa, is the only commissary on the continent.”
He adds: I enjoy it, especially if they understand my Irish-English, and then secondly if they are interested and understand the subject and they ask questions. That’s the only way they’ll learn, and I learn as well from them too because I have to go back when they give me questions I don’t have immediate answers, so I have to go study up again. So that’s why they keep your nose to the grind when you’re teaching, theology and philosophy as well.”
Fr Ennis, who also works as the Commissioner for the Holy Land in South Africa, is the only commissary on the continent. They are friars that – among other things – are in charge of promoting the knowledge of the Holy Land, leading pilgrimages and accompanying the pilgrims.