Twenty-nine-year-old Georg Messer Junior made the hardscrabble journey from Europe to Malawi driven by a sense of mission. That was in 1958. For 53 years, Malawi has been his home where he offered himself at the service of mankind. Now the journey has come to an end. One of his students and admirers George Kasakula pays tribute to Father Messer.Â
The year was 1958. The trip to Malawi, then Nyasaland, was by all means arduous.
After flying from Europe to Mbeya in Tanzania, he hit the road and entered Malawi through the North by a jeep. As fate would have it, the jeep overturned in the jungles of Nyika National Park.
But somehow, through the grace of God who he wanted to serve in Africa, he survived and made it to Dedza.
Upon arrival, he was shocked that the first question his superiors asked him was not whether he had his priestly paraphernalia such cassocks or chasuble in his bags. Rather, the question was whether he had a driving licence. When he answered yes, that determined his posting to Kasina Preparatory Seminary where there was one of the two vehicles that the diocese had that time.
The 53-year journey begins
Not a typical way of starting a missionary journey to Africa with a singular objective to win souls for God, but to the 29-year old recently ordained Father Georg Messer Junior, that was the beginning of a 53-year tour of duty to Malawi. Or, to be specific, the Dedza Diocese of the Catholic Church.
The 53-year journey only ended last Saturday at Nsipe Parish in Ntcheu, his last post, where he bade farewell to retire and go back to Germany where it all began 82 years ago.
The story of Fr Messer has its roots in a Germany state of Kaitonbaun on August 9, 1930 when he was born to Georg and Barbara Messer. He was the last born in a family of six boys and one girl. He is the only surviving boy with the â€œgirlâ€ who is now 90 years old.
He started his primary education at the age of seven. After finishing his secondary school, he decided to take heed of the calling of God and study philosophy before proceeding to study theology.
Fr Messer was ordained deacon for the Missionaries of Africa congregation, commonly known as White Fathers, in Scotland in 1956.
A year later, On May 15, 1957, he was ordained priest in Scotland.
When he was growing up, he dreamed to come to Africa to serve God.
â€œDuring that time in Germany, there were many priests serving in Africa. I became interested to do the same at a younger age,â€ he said.
And so at 29 years, the dream came true when on December 22, Fr Messer arrived at a new destination signalling a new birth and phase in his life. Africa and Malawi would be his home for the next 53 years.
His first post was Kasina Preparatory Seminary where he would stay for 10 years, grooming little boys with ambition to become priests at primary school level.
The surrogate parent
As they attest today, he was kind and understanding to the little boys. He became their father and mother at a tender age when they should in the first place be with their parents. But Father Messer rose to the occasion as a new surrogate parent.
Today, these â€œboysâ€, who are either priests or well educated Malawians raising families and contributing to development in the country, tell stories of man who was very caring.
One was a little boy and constantly succumbed to bouts of malaria. During one such bouts, he was so helpless that he could not even manage to raise his hands to bathe himself. Fr Messer bathed and nursed him back to life.
Today, the little boy who could not raise his hands is a well educated priest teaching at a university.
Fr Messer spent the next 10 years â€œbathing themâ€ before he was transferred to serve as parish priest at Mua Parish in 1968. But after 11 years, he was recalled to Kasina Seminary to â€œcontinue nursing and bathing the boys.â€
After five years working with little boys, there was â€œpromotionâ€ for the priest. In 1986, he was transferred to St Kizito Minor Seminary to continue grooming future priests pursuing secondary education as rector (loosely, headmaster).
St Kizito was going to be another challenge. Unlike Kasina where the boys were basically kids, this was going to be a different ball game altogether. Father Messerâ€™s â€œclientsâ€ this time were going to be teenagers, discovering themselves as well as life in general.
But Fr Messer took the challenge well. The teenagers now are priests and men with families and some occupying top positions in government and the private sector. They are ministers, lawyers, judges, bankers, journalistsâ€”virtually everything.
â€œHe always told us that he was not a policeman to be checking what we are up to all the time. Rather, he wanted us to be responsible. That taught us to be responsible to ourselves. It is like he was telling us to grow up and it worked because we did not see any reason to be naughty. We ended up concentrating on books,â€ one of them said.
During the five years that he was rector of the seminary, he was able to make the institution self-sufficient that it grew its own food and reared animals such as pigs which made the St Kizitoâ€™s diet for seminarians one of the most envied among their peers.
Ask any ex-St Kizito Seminary student what they remember about their school days and chances are that they would say the pork that they used to devour every Wednesday and Sunday. It was just legendary and its fame grew far and wide.
In 1991, Fr Messer was on the move again, this time to Tsangano Parish in Ntcheu where he served as parish priest for three years before going to Nsipe Parish in the same district where he was to remain for the next 18 years until last Saturday when he said bye to his parishioners during Holy Mass whose main celebrant was one of his students, now Monsignor John Chithonje.
Chithonje is the number two man in Dedza Diocese after Bishop Emmanuel Kanyama who was abroad and missed the great occasion.
The Holy Mass, punctuated by a cross-pollination of traditional dances and liturgy, known in church parlance as inculturation, was attended by thousands of the faithful that Fr Messer faithfully served.
The good works
Speaker after speaker rattled the good works of the 82-year-old priest on his flock. He built churches, he helped the elderly, he paid fees for the poor, he paid medical bills for those who could not affordâ€”they went on and on that whole afternoon.
And some of his students he groomed for 20 years at Kasina and St Kizito were there on hand to witness it all. Those who made it to priesthood were led by Monsignor Chithonje. Those in the laity had representation in Elias Chimlambe, Francis Katchewa, William Sichinga, George Kasakula, Thomas Dokotala, Gregory Madeya and Bright Moses Tsiga.
This day had to come and at 82, Fr Messer had nothing to regret of a good life spent in the house of the Lord.
All he could say at the end was: â€œAt 82, I must have been the oldest parish priest still serving. The Church has been there, is there and will be there. People come and go.â€
After 53 years, the rector has finally retired.