The one who sings

September 24, 2021 in Featured News, News

Frank Wafer SJ, Irish Jesuit missionary, died in Lusaka, Zambia on Friday 17 September 2021. He spent his life in Zambia where he was a great advocate for the language and culture of the Tongan people. As well as writing and recording liturgical music, he created the only Tonga-English dictionary available in the world.

This ten-minute excerpt from the video of his funeral was sent to the Jesuits in Ireland by the Matthew Charlesworth SJ, Director of Communication for the Jesuits in the Southern African Province. He says he hopes that it gives some flavour of the devotion of the people to Fr Frank as they celebrate his life.

His friend Pádraig Swan, Director of Faith and Service Programmes in Belvedere College, recently wrote an account of his life on the occasion of his 70th anniversary in the Society of Jesus.

Below, read some further reflections by Pádraig after his friend’s death and funeral.

While saddened to hear of Frank’s death on Friday Sept 17th, it also brought a sense of relief that he did not suffer long having had a stroke. I was very grateful to have had regular communication from Jim McGloin SJ in Lusaka and the team at Irish Jesuits International in Dublin about Frank’s condition in the week leading up to his death.

I am also very grateful for having had the opportunity to watch the vigil mass and the funeral mass which I shared with some of my 6th year students in Belvedere. It allowed me share the story of this remarkable man with a new generation. The traditional customs of the Tonga people in saying goodbye were very powerful and moving. We know about such customs from our own Irish tradition of a wake and a solemn farewell funeral liturgy where communities pull together to support those who in mourning.

The community in Chikuni Mission where Frank ministered for so many years came together to mourn his death and also to celebrate his life in the unique way they do. It was wonderful that his remains were brought back to Chikuni and to have him laid to rest in the graveyard where so many Irish Jesuits and other missionaries are buried. I look forward to the day when I can pay my respects to Frank at his graveside in Chikuni. He joins a long line of Irish missionaries who dedicated their lives to improving the lives of the Tonga people and they respectfully honoured that in their colourful and solemn farewell full of dance, music and song – the very essence of what Frank worked to preserve in his life.

I was struck by the image Fr Greg Mulobela SJ, parish priest of Chikuni mission, used in the vigil mass describing Frank as ‘working in the trenches’ of post Vatican II when Bishop James Corboy (another Irish missionary), fresh from Vatican II, missioned Frank to bring the vernacular Tonga language to life in liturgy and song. Frank embraced this mission with passion and verve and has left this great legacy of Tonga liturgical songs, stories, music, and a myriad of educational books, and the invaluable Tonga-English dictionary.

My sympathies and prayers remain with Frank’s family Adrienne, Maureen and John, and of course to his many friends in Chikuni, especially Fr Andrew Lesniara SJ, Mabel Chombe and Yvonne Ndala who continue the work of the Mukanzubo Kalinda Institute which hosts the many books and recordings that Frank made in his lifetime, along with a living museum of Tonga culture and place of learning for the next generation of Tonga people.

May Frank Rest In Peace. Ad majorem Dei gloriam (‘For the greater glory of God’).