As early as 16th century AD, the Augustinian Friars, who were the first missionaries to reach Kenya, settled in Mombasa on the Islands of Pemba and Lamu which were flourishing trading centres, the most sought after merchandise being African slaves.
The Friars campaigned against slave trade but were quickly silenced and martyred by their Muslim counterparts.
Zanzibar was the most important trading centre, visited by Arab (for slaves and ivory) and Chinese (for ivory and cloves) merchants.
The next missionary attempt came after Pope Pius 1X spoke of a new evangelisation in the 1850’s. Missionary orders began, again, to go all over the world. Parts of Africa were assigned to different orders.
The Holy Ghost Fathers and Brothers (the Spiritans) arrived in Zanzibar in 1860 where they were granted a generous plot of land by the Sultan which provided sufficient accommodation for all the mission personnel.
Here, they addressed the slave trade by accepting liberated slaves from naval ships and, with their meagre resources, redeemed slaves from the markets in Zanzibar, giving them freedom and, with it, Christian instruction.
They quickly moved to Bagamoyo, in Tanzania, which was the transit point for slave trade from mainland Africa to the markets in Zanzibar.
The first missionary expedition of the Spiritans into Kenya was in the Tana River area in 1889. This river was considered to be nature’s gateway to the interior, attracting explorers and missionaries like a magnet. That venture ended in disaster as the rains came with a vengeance and the area was flooded.
Not known to give up easily, the missionaries next turned to Mombasa in 1891 where they established a mission in a dilapidated house, which they restored. Next, they established a mission at Bura, in the Taita Hills in 1892. It’s church, consencrated in 1896, is the oldest in Kenya.
As the Uganda Railway opened up the interior, the Spiritans moved to Nairobi where they were granted some 67 acres of land on the Nairobi River by Chief Mzondu (Muthondu?) in exchange for five bags of rice. Here they established the St. Austin’s Mission in 1899.
Chief Mzondu mysteriously disappears after this single transaction, but the missionaries make the acquiantance of the more powerful Chief Kinyanjui wa Gathirimu, who sells them more land.
Built in 1913 under the supervision of Brother Solanus Zepper, St. Austin’s Parish Church is situated off James Gichuru Road within the precincts of St. Mary’s Primary School.
Gothic revival design
The building features a Gothic revival design with a cruciform plan conforming to the liturgical dictates of the period. External walls consist mainly of butch stone, reinforced with smooth dressed stone buttresses at regular intervals.
Both the walls and buttresses have a marble finish to a height of 450mm. Internal walls are clad in hardwood panels up to 1,500mm, with a paint finish to the ceiling level.
The roof comprises painted heavy gauge iron sheets resting on timber trusses while the ceiling is made of patterned moulded chipboard. Windows are fixed in steel casements and glazed in a mixture of clear and stained glass depicting various holy sacraments.
The floor is finished in coloured ceramic tiles to the nave with a variation of colours to distinguish the aisles from the sitting areas while the sanctuary is finished with polished coloured terrazo to match.
The entrance doors are made of mahogany with bronze handles while those leading to the sacristies are made of polished hardwood, also with bronze handles. Pews in the nave are made of a mixture of mahogany and polished hardwood providing a seating capacity of 1,200.
The altar, ambo and tabernacle, all contained within the sanctuary, are made of polished hardwood. There is a magnificent engraved mahogany reredo behind the tabernacle and an ornate baptismal font to the left.
On the internal walls are stricking images of the five ways of the cross, amongst others, contained in engraved hardwood frames, hung at dado level. A stature of St. Joseph is placed in an alcove near the sanctuary.
At the main entrance, the narvex holds two confessional boxes and a balcony, supported by columns, with a commanding view of the sanctuary. Holy water bowls at the entrances are made of bronze and painted to emulate gold.
There is a tall bell tower, with a spire pointing to the heavens, also containing the original mechanical clock which is currently out of commission, awaiting repairs.
Considering the age of the building, it is in an excellent state of repair and decoration. It must surely be one of the most iconic buildings in Kenya. I was surprised to learn that it has not yet been gazzeted as a national monument.
The church is in regular use during the week by students of St. Mary’s Primary School and the normal Sunday service, which is open to the public.
St. Austin’s Mission is closely associated with the coffee industry, the first coffee trees having been planted here in 1900. However, most of the coffee was taken down in 1945 when it proved to be no longer viable.
The original coffee pulping machine installed in 1906 is still at the Mission.
Many other Catholic orders came to Kenya such as the Consolata Fathers who went to Nyeri, Mill Hill Fathers who walked from Mombasa to Kisumu, and the Mercy Sisters who set up Mater Misericordiae Hospital in Nairobi, Medical Missionaries of Mary and the Loreto Sisters who set up a chain of good girls’ schools.
While the colonial power in Kenya was British, many of these missionaries were either French, Italian or Irish and they did not always see eye to eye with the authorities especially on matters concerning the native population.
However, the British knew that these and other missionaries contributed immensely to the development of the country by way of hospitals, schools and vocational training, which came as a free service to the administration.
In the event, the British treaded with caution in their relationship with the missionaries who knew they had to work within the system or not work at all.
Today, St. Austin’s Mission is a seat of excellence in education being associated with St, Mary’s Primary School, Loreto Convent Msongari High School and Strathmore School.