At a special ceremony held in Harare on 15th August, in the presence of representatives of his family and of his Franciscan Order, Fr Paschal Slevin (who died in Dublin on 1st May this year aged 83) was honoured posthumously by the Zimbabwean Government with their highest honour reserved for foreigners, The Royal Order of Munhumutapa.
Choosing Fr Paschal, a native of Ballinacargy, Co Westmeath, for this honour is quite a remarkable achievement, in view of the fact, that the main purpose of the Royal Order is to pay tribute to certain key political leaders of Frontline States, who provided solidarity with Zimbabwe in its efforts to achieve independence. Previous recipients include former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda and the late Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. To date only six individuals have received this award – in each case bestowed for political reasons such as ‘dedication to African Nationalism’, ‘revolutionary leadership’ and the ‘eradication of colonial domination’.
In Paschal Slevin’s case, his nomination for the award by the Zimbabwean Government tends to emphasise the various contributions he made to the life of the majority population of that country both under the former colonial regime and after the gaining of independence. His life as a Catholic Missionary highlights his basic humanitarian, rather than strictly political, contribution to the quality of life of the citizens of his adopted country.
In a letter from the Vice- President of Zimbabwe, E.D. Mnangagwa, offering the government’s condolences to those who mourned Paschal’s death, he listed a number of achievements attributed to this dedicated missionary and man of God. These include the building of primary and secondary schools at Mt. St. Mary’s Mission in Wedza. Here many students were subsidised by a special Sponsorship Fund established by the Franciscans under Paschal’s leadership. This enabled many to further their education at third level, qualifying them to take up key positions of influence in the new nation. Standing firm against a form of apartheid, and in the face of opposition from the Rhodesian Government, Paschal bravely appointed African Headmasters to these local schools.
His concern for the local economy led Paschal to construct a dam, building grain silage silos and distributing maize to the needy in time of drought and famine. He also formed a farming coop to help the people to help themselves, for example, a cooperative for the women to make school uniforms and other clothing, thereby supplementing their meagre income from the fields.
Paschal Slevin’s attitude to the Liberation struggle was a pragmatic one. Though essentially sympathetic to the desire of the majority to rule themselves, he found himself caught between the laws laid down by the Rhodesian Regime and the demands of the liberation struggle. He knew that many of the students from his schools were absconding to join the combatants and frequently delayed reporting them till they were safely on their way. He facilitated staff from the hospital in Wedza to bring medical supplies to injured combatants after curfew, sometimes accompanying these Good Samaritans at no small danger to himself. Eventually he became such a thorn in the side of the regime that he was deported for colluding with the enemies of the State.
Returning in triumph after the fall of the Smith Regime, Paschal devoted his all to serving the people in still challenging times under the leadership of Robert Mugabe. While recognising Paschal’s sympathy for the cause of liberation, it must be added that the award bestowed on him by the Government surely includes recognition of the efforts of many priests and religious, native and foreign, during this time of nation building.
Eventually he retired to Ireland due to increasing bad health. But his heart was always in Zimbabwe with the people he loved, and who loved him in return. The bestowal of this great honour by the Government of Zimbabwe is a fitting one in many ways and a wonderful sign that Paschal Slevin’s dedication to the cause of peace and justice for that country will not soon be forgotten.