c. 1885 – 1909
Feastday – 12th August
ON the 24th April 1994, the entire Carmelite Family and indeed the whole Church had the joy of seeing one of its members declared Blessed by our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II at a ceremony in St Peter's, Rome during the Synod of African Bishops. ISIDORE BAKANJA, a member of the Scapular Confraternity, died because he would not take off his scapular.
Zaire was the former Belgian Congo. At the end of the 19th century and the begining of the 20th the native population was unjustly exploited by the landowners. The aim was to mutiply profits from rubber and ivory. However, the Belgian King, Leopold II, wished to make easier the life of the natives by sending missionaries, and the Pope was able to persuade the Trappists of Westmalle, Belgium to work in the Congo. They arrived in 1895 near present day Mbandaka. As usual, the missionaries had much to do with the most elementary needs of the sick and illiterate people. With time they undertook longer apostolic trips to the interior. Here they met with hateful opposition from the white cononizers whose conduct the missionaries denounced, even through official government channels.
Isidore was born of the Boanga trive in Zaire between 1880 and 1890. His name first appears in the Baptismal Register according to which he was baptised on 6th May 1906 - his godfather was Boniface Bakufu, confirmed on 25th November 1906 and made his First Communion on 8th August 1907. As a young man he travelled down river to Mbandaka (at that time called Coquilhatville). He found work as an assistant mason in the construction of buildings for the Belgian colonizers. It was at this time that Isidore first heard the Good News of the Gospel and was attracted by the God of the missionaries, Fr Gregoire Van Dun and Fr Robert Brepois. He became one of their most fervant catechumens. His godfather was one of the first native catechists, known for his simple, solid faith and by the goodness of his life.
During the period of the catechumenate, the Trappist missionaries taught their converts, according to a book published in 1908: "When I see someone with the uniform of a soldier, I immediately think that that man is a soldier. When I see someone dressed like a policeman, I think that that man is a policeman. Why do I think this way? Because I recognise them by means of their clothing. But how do you know if someone is a Christian? If he has a scapular of Mary and a rosary around his neck. That's how. This man is a Christian, he should show his faith to others. Friends, it's good that the scapular and the rosary are always honoured among you. God is our Father, Mary is our Mother. She has often shown that she protects her children."
The Trappists taught that the scapular was called simply "the habit of Mary." Along with the rosary it was the sign of recognition and witness to the new-found treasure of the Catholic Faith. Isidore certainly did not see the scapular as an amulet or charm, for he braved every suffering and would not be separated from his badge of belonging to Jesus and Mary.
Between 1906 and 1907 Isidore received the Sacraments of initiation; he continued to stay in Coquilhatville. Many witnesses speak of his way of life. "I could not find any evil in Isidore. We lived together. I was with my wife; as for him, he occupied the other side of the house. He was unmarried and never, absolutely never, did I hear he touched a woman. He was affable with everyone, black and white; never had any arguments and he prayed very much."
When his contract ran out, Isidore returned to his native village and using his skills as a mason, he built a house for himself. He probably looked forward to marriage, but was concerned that the Christian religion had not yet been preached in his region. His need for fellow Christians was great and he went to live with his nephew, Camille Boyna, in Busira-Lokuma, part of the land ceded to the Belgians between the Lomela and Salonga rivers. Here he found work as a servant or domestic of the Belgian, Mr. Reynders, also named Lomame. The latter was soon tranferred to a plantation in Ikili and wanted Isidore to go with him. Despite warnings from a fellow servant that the whites did not like Christians, Isidore decided to trust his employer and accompany him.
On the Ikili plantation was an avowed anti-Christian, Van Cauter or Longange who declared that Europe had rid itself of ignorant priests and of religion long before. One of Isidore's fellow servants, Joseph Iyongo, who was not even a Christian at this time, gives this testimony: "Father Louis, do not believe what they way about Isidore, namely, that he was beaten for this or that reason....It's solely because he was a Christian and because of his scapular, of his habit of the Blessed Virgin Mary....Longange did not want Isidore to teach us things about God. It's for that reason that he hated Isidore...And when he beat him it's because he wore the scapular."
Things came to a head one evening when the Belgians were on a punitive expedition against the people of the village of Bonjoli. Isidore and Iyongo were serving their masters at supper. Longange spotted the scapular around Isidore's neck and commanded him: "Bakanja, take that thing off your neck. It's disgusting. I don't want to see that contraption of stupid priests here any more." But Isidore was too good a Catholic to take off the scapular. A few days later when they returned to Ikili, Longange noticed the scapular again. He flew into a rage. "What's the meaning of this? What? I told you to take that thing off. Why didn't you do it? Since you don't want to take if off, you're going to really get it." He ordered Isidore to be beaten with 25 strokes.
Some days after this first beating, on 2nd February 1909, Longange and his friends were drinking coffee on the veranda, when he noticed Isidore heading towards the marsh-land, saying his prayers. He sent his servant after Isidore and decided that this was the moment to use a whip. Nearby was such a whip, cut from elephant hide. As it had been damaged, Longange had repaired it with two nails at one end which protruded through the hide. Longange called his head servant, Bongele, and told him to beat Isidore. He yelled at Isidore: "Lie down!" When Isidore remained standing, Longange jumped off the veranda and with hatred in his voice and face shouted: "Finish with all that! I don't want these contraptions of stupid priests around any more."
He ripped the scapular from Isidore's neck and threw it to his dog, who carried it off and tore it apart in the nearby sweet potato patch. Longange grabbed Isidore by the neck and threw him to the ground. He ordered Bongele: "Whip him!" The servant objected: "Not with this strap, it has two nails." Longange yelled: "Stop arguing! That's none of your business. Do it!"
Bongele began beating Isidore, but held the whip with the two nails in his hand. Longange noticed this and commanded: "Not like that. Beat him with the nails." When threatened with being shot, Bongele obeyed. But still his employer was not satisfied: "Not like that. Whip him harder. If you don't whip harder, I'll kill you both." Two other servants held Isidore's hands and feet.
When Isidore was writhing in pain, Longange would not allow him to budge; he pressed his foot on his shoulder, kicking him again and again. Isidore, fast becoming a living wound, begged for mercy, but Longange was merciless: "Hit him harder...shut up," as he kicked Isidore's head into the dust. The beating finished only when Bongele's arms could do no more; 200-250 blows had ripped Isidore's back to shreds.
The heartless Longange told Isidore to get up. When he tried to do so, he fell back into his own blood which completely covered the ground. When fellow natives came to help him, Isidore kept murmuring: "The White man has killed me with his whip!... He did not want me to pray to God ...He killed me because I said my prayers... I stole nothing from him....It's because I was praying to God." But Longange was not yet finished. Fearing that Isidore would report him, he had him dragged to the prison, which was simply the room where the rubber was processed. He had Isidore chained by the feet.
For several days Isidore was condemned to continue his Calvary. His unattended wounds festered as he was laid on a tattered mat, drenched with blood and soiled with excrement. He was secretly helped by the cook, Mputu, and his fellow servant, Iyongo, who risked their lives to succour him. He needed them to change his position to take care of his natural needs, so weak was he. They left a bowl of water and rice near him, but he hardly had the strength to lift these to his mouth. The sharp smell of burning rubber provoked feverish coughing which aggravated this racked body. Mosquitos and insects added to his torments.
A complication made Longange panic; the director of the Company was due to arrive for an inspection. There was an immediate need to get rid of Isidore and he ordered him to go with another European, Loname, to Isoko. Doubled up with pain, Isidore set off, dragging one foot before another, to escape Longange's anger. He could not keep up the pace and once out of view, he hid in the forest. Fortunately he was able to contact the cook, Mputu, who brought him clothing, food and a fire to ward off the chill of the night air. Longange was furious when he found that Isidore had not arrived at Isoko and set out to find him. But the search was interrupted by the arrival not of the director but of inspector Dorpinghaus on 6th February 1909.
On his return from visiting Longange the Inspector found Isidore stretched out on his stomach. Isidore cried out: "White man, just look at how Longange has beaten me! And he had no reason! I don't know what I did wrong." Longange was summoned and arrived with a guard with a rifle ordering him to shoot Isidore. But the Inspector barred his way. "Kill him," ordered Longange, as he approached Isidore and punched him in the face. The Inspector physically and personally restrained Longange. A long and heated argument in French took place, and the Inspector threatened to bring him to court for cruel treatment of Isidore. At this Longange accused Isidore of stealing some bottles of wine; this is the reason why so many witnesses refer to this point, stressing that it was a trumped-up charge to save face. (Later Longange was taken to court and condemned for his crime.)
The Inspector ordered Isidore to be carried to the boat where he personally dressed the wounds. On 9th February he left Isidore at the plantation of Ngomb'Isongo, where the Company provided food and medication. Here he remained for the next 4 months in great agony. The testimony of a youngster, Camille Ntangeji, describes the state of Isidore: "I don't know much about Isidore, since I was only a small boy. I slept near him...Isidore on the bed and I by the fire in front of the bed. Isidore had been atrociously wounded, but he never abandoned his prayers. He prayed very much. At that time I had not heard anyone speak of prayer and religion. It was later that the catechist, Joseph Bakombo, came to teach the Fatih in our village." Some time later Isidore was sent to the central office of the Company at Busira where he arrived on 1st June 1909.
It was here that the missionaries, Fr Gregoir and Fr George, found him and administered the Last Sacraments to him on 24th July. Fr Gregoire visited him several times and asked him: "Isidore, why did the white man beat you?" Isidore replied: "The White man did not like Christians. He did not want me to wear the scapular...He yelled at me when I said my prayers." When the Trappist father tried to comfort him in his suffering, he answered: "It's nothing if I die. If God wants me to live, I'll live. If God wants me to die, I'll die. It's all the same to me."
Fr Gregoire exhorted Isidore not to harbour hatred in his heart for his tormentor, urging him to forgive the white man, who had beaten him so cruelly, to pray for him, and to pay back evil by good. The young convert - he was between 20 and 30 years old, but only 2 or 3 years a Catholic replied: "I'm not angry with the white man...He beat me. That's his business; it is none of mine. He should know what he is doing...Certainly I shall pray for him. When I am in heaven, I shall pray for him very much."
Isidore spent the rest of his days on the porch of the catechist; he felt that he must be causing problems. Despite the fact that his wounds were dressed regularly, they were too infected to hope for healing. His whole body was infected; his hips jutted out through the flesh; the very bones were exposed. Often he complained of severe pains in the neck, the result of the kicks he had received on the day of his beating. Throughout these pain-filled days he never was without his rosary; he was often seen praying. At first he was able to speak clearly, but towards the end delirium set in and he was able to speak very little; when he did so, his words were often unintelligible. His pain rather than abating grew intolerably worse.
On Sunday morning, 8th or 15th August, he threw up much blood and decaying matter. Those around recognised the smell of imminent death. All of a sudden, Isidore, summoning all his strength, stood up and walked into the banana patch beside the catechist's house. He had his rosary with him. He returned and lay down. No one knew how to explain this walk, for over a long period Isidore had been unable to stand up alone or lie on his back or sit up. He had to lie constantly on his stomach; his back was one huge sore of festering flesh.
Isidore took part in the Sunday prayer session held by the local Christians. After prayers he asked Maria Saola for something to eat. She brought him what he had requested. He ate and soon afterwards he died with his rosary in his hand and the scapular around his neck. The Christian community gave him a simple burial.
Isidore Bakanja wore the 'habit of Mary' - the Scapular - with pride; the result was that he suffered atrociously because he would not take off this precious garment. He truly lived his consecration and died because of it. We may not be called on to give our lives for Jesus and for Mary, but we are called, especially if we wear the scapular, to live for Jesus and Mary.
May his prayers give to all who are privileged to wear that same 'Habit of Mary' strength and support as they strive to follow in the footsteps of Mary who was the Handmaid of the Lord. To each wearer of her Habit, her Scapular, Mary repeats the words she spoke to the waiters at the wedding feast of Cana; "Do whatever he tells you."
(This text comes from "Mary & the Brown Scapular" by Fr Hugh Clarke Ocarm)