North Africa, including Egypt and Sudan, had seen Christian missionaries since the time of Christ and the Roman Empire. Although they travelled some way up the River Nile, penetration deep into the interior was too much of a challenge.The modern evangelization of Africa started in the XIX Century along the coastal regions of the continent by many groups of missionaries and within a short time a chain of Apostolic Vicariates all around the coast of Africa was established. But the interior of the continent was still largely unknown to the outside world. As soon as the first routes towards the interior were opened, the Church felt the responsibility for the evangelisation of the people living there. Sent by Egypt, the first explorer to come close to the source of the Nile was an Italian, Girolamo Miani in 1861. He was the first European to reach what today we call northern Uganda among the Madi, east of the Nile. There his porters refused to go further because they would have to pass through impenetrable forests. (Miani carved his name on a Tamarind tree, which was seen by Madi elders up to a few years ago.)
In the years 1838 – 1839, an explorer, Ignatius Pailme, from Central Europe, visited Cordofan, a region in the North Western Sudan. He reported that an estimated 100 million Africans were living in Central Africa, without the minimum knowledge of the Gospel and victims of a cruel slavery. A priest from Malta, by the name Annetto Casolani informed the Holy See. A decree of Pope Gregory XVI of 3rd April 1846 established the Apostolic Vicariate of Central Africa which practically comprised all the territories of the interior of Africa not already part of Vicariates along the coast. Its centre was at Khartoum. It was entrusted to a group of priests of different nationalities with the aim of fighting slavery and preaching the Gospel.
As far as Uganda was concerned, three main routes made the missionary penetration into the interior possible: the northern route via the Nile Valley, through which evangelisation was brought first to Sudan and then to northern Uganda; the southern route from Zanzibar to Bagamoyo, then to the southern shores of Lake Nyanza and by boat to southern Uganda, the third from Mombasa to the north eastern shores of Lake Nyanza. The first route was followed by the Comboni Missionaries, then known as the Verona Fathers, the second by the White Fathers now known as Missionaries for Africa and the third by the Mill Hill Fathers (of the Missionary Institute of St Joseph).
A team of five catholic missionaries from different institutes, sent by Pope Gregory XVI, reached Khartoum on 11th February, 1848. A mission was opened and a boarding trade school for orphans and freed slaves was started. From Khartoum, along the While Nile Valley, missionaries intended to reach the source of the Nile, the zone of the Great Lakes and the legendary Mountains of the Moon (Rwenzori). They established a mission on the Nile at a place called Gondokoro, about 200 miles north of the present boundaries of Sudan with Uganda.
In 1857, Daniel Comboni joined the group, while he belonged to the Mazza Institute. He later founded the missionary Congregation of the Sons of the Sacred Heart which became known as the Verona Fathers. After two years in Southern Sudan, sick with fever, he returned to Italy. In the twelve years from 1848 to 1860, 24 missionaries died along the White Nile from Khartoum to Gondokoro. On 5th September 1861, the Pope entrusted the Vicariate to the Franciscan Order but in less than a year, 22 out of 58 missionaries were laid in graves between Khartoum and Gondokoro. The Holy See closed the Vicariate and entrusted the territory to the Vicar Apostolic of Egypt. 46 graves in just 13 years were too many.
Daniel Comboni would not accept defeat: he was determined to continue to work for the evangelization and redemption of the African slaves. He believed he was born for this. At the age of 17, when still a seminarian, he made a promise to consecrate himself to the evangelization of Central Africa and he prepared for his future apostolate by learning languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, French and English. After his first experience in Southern Sudan he realised more than ever before the need for evangelization and development. Since many missionaries had no resistance to sickness at that time and Africans brought to Europe were also getting sick and even dying, he spent time reflecting on how this obstacle could be overcome: the methods formerly used were obviously not working, there must be another way of bringing the Good News to Central Africa. In September 1864, “while praying at the tomb of St Peter in Rome, during the beatification of St Margaret Mary Alacoque, there burst upon me like a flash of lightening the idea of drawing up a new Plan for the Christianisation of the poor black peoples. The individual points of the Plan came to me from on high like an inspiration”. This became his Plan for the Regeneration of Africa. Its aim was clear: “Let us all work together without any other incentive than that of winning more souls for Christ; let us take each other by the hand; one be our wish; one be our aim, one the commitment of all those who love Jesus Christ: to win for him the unhappy Africa.
This plan re-echoed the principle of other missionaries: To save Africa with Africa. It could have been implemented by taking Africans to Europe, training them and then sending them back to Africa. However, Comboni’s methodology would be different: the training had to be in Africa, not in the interior where Europeans could not survive, but along the coast where both Europeans and Africans could safely live. After this illumination, he felt heartened to plan for the evangelization of Central Africa.
He went around Europe, especially Austria and France to get support and managed to persuade others of his idea: while in France he met Mgr Charles Lavigerie, then Bishop of Nancy. This meeting was important for both men. Comboni’s Plan for the Regeneration of Africa is thought to have contributed to Lavigerie’s own missionary vocation in the years immediately preceding his appointment to the See of Algiers. His strategy of evangelization, the intention that Africans should become apostles and themselves regenerate their own countries was based on an idea which came from Comboni, who presented a stirring “Petition on behalf of the Black Populations of Central Africa” to the First Vatican Council (1870) and in 1872 was entrusted by Pope Pius IX with the mission of Central Africa as its first Pro-Vicar Apostolic. In 1867 he had founded the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus (Verona Fathers) and in 1872, the Comboni Missionary Sisters (Verona Sisters). Cardinal C Lavigerie started his “Institute of Missionaries for Africa” and the “Missionary Sisters of Lady of Africa” (White Sisters) in 1869.