Home > Archives > 07/08 - 2005 > The death of a missionary bishop
from issue no. 07/08 - 2005

The death of a missionary bishop

On 14 July Monsignor Luigi Locati, apostolic vicar of Isiolo, was killed in Kenya. The profile of the missionary bishop. The first investigations of his assassination

by Davide Malacaria

Benedict XVI with Monsignor Luigi Locati, 25 May 2005

Benedict XVI with Monsignor Luigi Locati, 25 May 2005

That day too was finished, with its joys and its sorrows. Similar to the others, that one also ended with supper at the pastoral center, a greeting and then home. A path he had taken infinite times: a hundred meters, more or less. As on other occasions his two men followed him, night-guards who guarded the structures of the vicariate, not least because there had already been threats against him. The aggressors must have appeared suddenly, springing out from who knows where: first the guard nearest him and then the one farthest away were overwhelmed with machete and clubs. It seems that he tried to flee the hired killers, without success. He was hit by various bullets. The story of the attack quickly made the rounds of the small community that centred on Monsignor Luigi Locati. They rushed to help. Hope lasted only as long as it took to get him to the local hospital, where the bishop died. It was 14 July; in nine days time Don Luigi, as his old parishioners still called him, would have been 77 years old. They say that in those moments, the instants before death, the whole of one’s life passes before one’s eyes. They say. If true, who knows what will have flashed into his mind at that hour. Perhaps his childhold in Vinzaglio, the village in the diocese of Vercelli where he was born, or perhaps that small rural sanctuary dedicated to the Little Madonna of the Snow, where he went to pray with Monsignor Natalino Pescarolo, Bishop of Cuneo, and where, Pescarolo confided to the newspaper of the Vercelli diocese, dear to both of them, then altar boys in different churches, their common vocation blossomed. Perhaps he will have thought of his seminary, or perhaps of that 29 June in 1952, the day of his ordination. And of those 11 years passed in Saint Mary Major’s, also in Vercelli, as vice parish priest. A priest like many others: energetic, decisive, affable, loved by his parishioners, attentive at mass and confessions. Sister Maria Loreto remembers those years with emotion, because Don Luigi was then chaplain to the nuns of Saint Eusebius and often went to visit them. So much so that when he went to Africa, he wanted those sisters to accompany him. Yes, Africa. It’s possible that he thought about that very October in 1962 when, leaving the past behind him, he left for Kenya. A priest fidei donum of Vercelli diocese catapulted into the north of that country, a region abandoned by everything and by everyone, the government included. And how would it be possible that he would not have thought of that day? From then that was his land, and the Africans his people. For 43 years, of which 41 were spent in Isiolo. «When he came, there was only a handful of huts in Isiolo … The Christians were a few dozen», Sister Maria Loreta recalls: «Now they are thousands. He built the first church in Isiolo, but now there are churches in all the villages of the vicariate and many of these have become parishes». The last one, that which he had built in Kenna, was to have been his last destination, after the arrival of his successor. So Sister Maria Loreta confides. Yes, because he had already passed the 75 year limit and awaited a successor. Monsignor Ambrogio Ravasi, bishop of Marsabit, states that he had had assurances of this recently; and he was happy about it. The diocese of Marsabit, a short time before the assassination of the prelate, was the theater of a bloody clash between two different ethnic groups that had caused the deaths of more than seventy people, among whom dozens of children. At first it was thought that both things were connected. «There’s no connection», explains Monsignor Ravasi: «Also because Monsignor Locati was threatened long before those conflicts happened… Nor does Islamic fundamentalism come into it. He had good relations with the Muslims: every month he met with the Islamic Council to discuss and dialogue». Father Renato Kizito Sesana, a Combonian who has worked in Nairobi for dozens of years, talks of a self-effacing and reserved man. Certainly, like all the bishops, he saw the miserable conditions of his people, and the failures and corruption of Kenyan power; and like all the bishops he contributed to drawing up those documents, the last one in May, in which those failures were openly criticized. But in general, Father Kizito again recounts, Monsignor Locati was reluctant to make public denunciations, nor did he seek conflicts, rather: «He was an old style missionary. He worked in the milieu of his vicariate, for his people, without discrimination toward anyone, Muslims included». And yet from the beginning some had tried to say that it was Muslims who killed the monsignor. It seems to be in fashion. But Joseph Samal, coordinator of the development of the vicariate, also confirms that it is a canard, and tells about an anguished and preoccupied community, beyond all ethnic and religious difference: «He did good to all», he affirms. However, it was enough to observe the heterogeneous crowd present at his funeral vigil and funeral to understand how much he was loved by all of his people. For all of them he had built schools of all kinds and grades, dispensaries (a type of pharmacy and first-aid center), schools for arts and crafts, such as the college for business secretaries, which was somewhat the flower in the buttonhole of his works. Works that flowered also thanks to the donations that arrived from Vercelli, from where priests and simple faithful often streamed in, attracted by so much that moved around Don Luigi. It was on 15 February 1995 that the Church publicly recognized his work and instituted the apostolic vicariate of Isiolo. Don Luigi was elected bishop: obviously the first in Isiolo; because of this also Rome disposed that his body now repose in the Cathedral. That Cathedral that he wanted beautiful, with the painting of the Redeemer on the façade, and which he had dedicated to Saint Eusebius, protector of his Vercelli.
Nobody in Isiolo is able to understand what happened. All the people we contacted tend to explaining the murder as caused by the charitable work of the missionary. Perhaps his initiatives in favor of the poor were not acceptable to some, especially to those powerful locals who prosper on the very poverty of others. At the moment at which we write (the end of July), the police are still following different investigative lines. One of these leads to two schools that Monsignor Locati opened recently in Merti (200 kilometers from Isiolo), a source of tension with some local powerful people. The schools had been taken away from the control of the bishop and managed to the exclusive advantage of an ethnic group, a reason for which the prelate had closed them, hurting even more the feelings of the local bosses. Another track, however, perhaps linked to this one, perhaps to the management of the development funds, pursues a different path and one more internal to the Church, a sensation nourished also by the police arrest of two custodians of the Cathedral and of two local priests who in the past had clashes with the bishop. Discord, one knows, takes root everywhere, also in the ecclesiastical field, but it is still early to draw conclusions… Awaiting what will emerge from the investigations and the trial, the words of a source of ours in Isiolo remain in our mind, who said that he hoped it would not be another Kaiser case, (Father John Antony Kaiser was killed in August of 2000; the investigations in this case were subject to different attempts at hushing up) and that the murder of the bishop could, like that one, reserve surprises.
Monsignor Luigi Locati in Isiolo, in Kenya

Monsignor Luigi Locati in Isiolo, in Kenya

In reality Father Kaiser has not been the only missionary killed in Kenya in the past years: from 1997 up to today five Catholic missionaries have been assassinated in various circumstances. A truly high number, also in relation to other African States. Unfortunate coincidences or, more simply, a symptom of the lack of security that is recorded in this country. A situation that turned out to be fatal for Monsignor Locati, who had for some time been the object of heavy intimidations. In March of last year someone planted a small explosive in his house and, in September last, unknown aggressors placed a machete to his throat, to then flee at the unexpected reaction of the prelate. Monsignor Luigi Paiaro, bishop of Nyahururu, says that he felt threatened, that he had also confided this to his sister the last time he came to Italy, in last May. Of those Italian days all remember his meeting with the Pope, that took place on 25 May, on the occasion of the Wednesday audience. The photo of both, smiling, did the rounds of the newspapers, after the death of the missionary bishop. It was the Day for Africa, that Wednesday. And that photo, looked at now, is transfigured, acquires a different value, almost summarizing in an image the solicitude of the Church for that forgotten continent.
Will that meeting also have flashed into the mind of Locati in those terrible moments? Perhaps. As it is probable that in his mind there were images of his long African days jumbled together. For example those rocks on which he used to sit, in imitation of his people who had to use that kind of seat through necessity. Monsignor Franco Givone, director of the Missionary Center of Vercelli, his collaborator for twenty years, tells about it. And he remembers that monsignor did not want electric light, because his people didn’t have it, nor running water, in that they had to go kilometers to get it. «Nor did he want a floor in his residence», Monsignor Givone adds: «because he used to say, smiling, that his people might slip on it… And he wanted evangelization also to be something simple: usually he replied to the answers of the faithful from under a tree. He was a Spartan-like man, of few words, but who never pulled back in front of anything. Nothing was impossible for him. When he got something into his head, sooner or later he brought it to conclusion». That he was tough skinned, as is said, was well-known. Father Anatoloni also, a Consolation missionary for years in Kenya, remembers this toughness of his. But it was because, he explains, the environment where he lived was tough; and Monsignor Luigi was the right man for that environment. «If he wasn’t like that he wouldn’t have survived in Isiolo». And he recalled that fleeting meeting with the Pope that made him so happy: he spoke about it at a meal, as a dear memory, because the Pope told him that he knew the remote apostolic vicariate entrusted to him…
In that far-off land Monsignor Locati also had occasion to know Annalena Tonelli, the lay missionary who, leaving Forlì, had worked for several years among the Somali peoples of Kenya before being crushed by the authorities for her taking of sides in favor of these people. Monsignor Givone mentions this, recalling that when Annalena was still in Kenya she was in Wajr, northeast of Isiolo; so, every time that she went to Nairobi, she used to stay in Isiolo to rest. Annalena’s story though is different, and tied to Soamalia. But the interweaving wrought by destiny in this far-off edge of Africa is strange, however, seeing to it that both should be assassinated, two years from each other, in a similar way: in the evening, killed a few meters from home.
Who knows what Monsignor Locati will have thought in those terrible moments… Of everything, perhaps, but, it’s probable, especially of him who had drawn him on that long adventure, so far away from home, and who was close to him in all those years; and who in that moment was closer than ever. Yes, it’s probable that he thought of Jesus.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português