Saturnino do Valle

Abridged from the work of Fr. Howard St. George O.M.I.” A Lay Apostle of the Nineteenth Century Saturnino do Valle, Pioneer of Zulu Catholicism

 It is just possible that Saturnino’s father may have been found on board a slaver intercepted by a British man of war off the East Coast of Africa and released on the mainland. In this case it would be futile to speculate his origins. However as Saturnino was himself born on the Mozambique coast midway between Beira and Maputo it is more likely that he was of pure Bantu stock.

He had, as a child been baptised by a Portuguese planter who gave him the name of the martyr Saturninus commemorated in the Roman liturgy on 27th November. As a young man he went to seek work in Inhambane and was employed by a Catholic priest who taught him to read, write and have a great love of religion.

In order to escape fever he journeyed south with his Portuguese bible and catechism and settled on the Bluff side of the Bay of Port Natal in the town of Durban.

Here he acquired a boat and made a living out of fishing. The boat also provided him a means of contacting Fr. Sabon who also had a working knowledge of Portuguese.

Saturnino, no doubt with Father Sabon’s encouragement, soon began to gather around him a number of his neighbours to whom he taught religion. Most of them must have been like himself, of Mozambique origin since he had only his Portuguese books to teach from. In time a number of these people were brought to Father Sabon who was sufficiently satisfied with what they had been taught to be able to admit them to baptism.

The first of the baptisms was Francisco at the age of 15 who was baptised on the 8th June 1873; then Jôas aged 17 and Magdalena aged 19 were baptised on the 22nd March 1874. Vincent aged 26 and Justin aged 25, who were to later become valuable assistants to Saturnino when the Bluff mission was established, were baptised on 21st June 1874.

A number of baptisms and conversions followed.

 Saturnino’s Family

Constantia do Valle, Saturnino’s wife, lived a little less than 20 years after her marriage, during which she had four children, two of whom died in infancy. The other two were girls, Pasqua and Philomena.

Shortly after Constantia’s death, Saturnino married Anna Secunda on the 26th September 1899. Anna brought with her four children, George, Joseph, Grace and Agnes who were adopted and took the family name. Anna died after a short period, there being no children from the marriage.

In the meantime Pasqua and Philomena had married. The former, who became Mrs Sofoule Zouave Beato was left widowed with two small children, Stephan and Robert. She continued in her own home, but prepared and sent meals to her twice-widowed father, as did Philomena. In later life Pasqua married George Makwakwa but had no further children. Her death took place in the home of her son Robert on the 5th May 1953. Her sister Philomena was married to Emmanuel Mseleje, their children being Constantia, Anincia, Gerard Majella and Cyprian. (Note: There is no indication when Philomena died)

 Saturnino’s later Life and Death

 Saturnino continued to enjoy the dignity of patriarch at St. Francis Xavier Mission, acting as School Master and right hand man of the various priests that worked there. When Bishop Jolivet celebrated the golden jubilee of his priesthood the Catholics of the Bluff sailed over the bay to Durban and added their good wishes to those of the other spiritual children of the Bishop.

Bishop Charles Jolivet (From a photograph taken on 14 May 1899)

Bishop Charles Jolivet (From a photograph taken on 14 May 1899)

Saturnino was spokesman and made a short speech in which he said ” We are both old: and I especially have not much longer to live, I am feeble and in ill health”.  One would assume that he spoke as an equal of the Bishop’s age. At that time the Bishop was 73 years old.

Two available estimates of Saturnino’s age are to be found in the entries of his marriages. In 1881 he was shown as being “about 30” which would make him about 48 in1899, the year of the jubilee. At the second marriage in that same year of jubilee his age was stated to be 65. While the first estimate seems far too low, a mean between the two ages would still leave Saturnino 16 or 17 years the Bishop’s junior. Was Saturnino speaking in the polite idiom of his people, which would avoid direct reference to the great age or infirmity of the person addressed? The fact is that the Bishop lived only another four years, whilst Saturnino went on to outlive him by some twenty more.

In 1918 Saturnino quietly made plans to return to Inhambane. Despite objections from Bishop Henri Delalle, who had succeeded Bishop Jolivet, Saturnino had made up his mind. He went to see the Portuguese consul and booked a passage on the German boat “Warussi”. He kept his plans to himself and only two days beforehand he let it be known that he was leaving. The people of the Bluff were stunned. They went to him in a body. In moving words he said his farewells. It is believed that Saturnino died within five years of his return to the place of his birth.

 Saturnino’s Character

The unknown priest in Inhambane who engaged young Saturnino as a humble labourer was not long in discovering his intelligence. First he began to teach him to read and write and then he made him his sacristan and assistant in the church. Besides being intelligent he must have been a born leader.

In his long letter describing the foundation of the mission Father Baudry reveals that Saturnino had a rare humanity and sense of humour. Father admitted that he sometimes caused resentment by trying to hustle the workmen while they were cutting down the bush and building the church. He was glad at such times to have Saturnino at hand to intervene with some pleasantry and have everyone laughing at the joke. Like a true leader Saturnino was able to delegate authority.

Finally, Saturnino did not lack discernment. The main reason for wanting to leave Natal was because he foresaw that the days of the mission were numbered. He already knew how the Mathuli people had been removed from their homeland of many years. It is true that they had been compensated by a grant of land on the coast further away from Durban. The reason however could not be disguised. By the year 1918 the quiet isolation of St. Francis Xavier Mission was being taken over by Europeans who came to live in the vicinity. Rather than witness the ejection of the people of the mission Saturnino preferred to move out himself. The actual day of reckoning did not come as soon perhaps as Saturnino feared. St. Francis Xavier retained its missionary character for another 20 years but by 1938 the European town of Durban had definitely embraced the area and the end was in sight. The dispersion of the people had been going on steadily and by the sixties the few remaining homesteads were demolished and the last of the people re-housed in the nearest townships – Glebelands, Lamonville and Umlazi .

Perhaps in the designs of Providence, the dispersal of the Bluff people is the final triumph of Saturnino’s apostolate. The descendants of Bluff Catholics have carried their faith far and wide.

A thought: St. Saturninus went out after his baptism to help found the church of Toulouse. So too his protégéé Saturnino do Valle after his baptism went out to bring the faith to a people who were not his own.