BRANT BEACH, N.J. — For the first time since becoming a friar, Paul O’Keeffe, OFM, returned to Ghana, West Africa, the place where he worked for nearly five years as a lay missioner from 1998 to 2002.
In February, Paul, took time away from his counseling role as a therapist at theSt. Francis Community Center on Long Beach Island, N.J., to visit Ghana. He was surprised to learn of a connection between the Franciscans and the slave trade back in the 1500s.
In addition to visiting old friends and fellow missioners, he toured Elmina Castle, the “oldest and most infamous of the many slave castles that dot the West African coastline,” he said.
“I visited this castle several times while I lived in Ghana, but much to my surprise, there was a new exhibit inside the castle chapel about the friars who ministered here for 40 years during time of the slave trade,” Paul said.
Learning About Slave Trade
The former high school teacher found many ironies in this exhibit, and especially enjoyed the history lesson. “I was surprised to learn that the church located in the center of the castle courtyard is the oldest church in West Africa and was originally staffed by Franciscan friars for more than 40 years. While the friars ministered to the spiritual needs of the Portuguese traders, thousands of enslaved Africans where held in the dungeons below,” Paul notes.
The exhibit recalled the long history of the castle from its beginning as a trading post erected by the Portuguese in 1496 to the capture and occupation of the fort by the Dutch from 1637 to 1872 when the British took hold of the region. The castle was declared a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1972, according to Paul.
A large part of the exhibit focused on the slave trade that was started by the Portuguese in the early 1500s. “The record is silent,” he said, “as to what involvement the friars had with the slave trade; however, the exhibit pointed out that while Mass was being said in the chapel on the second floor, slave trading was being conducted on the ground floor below.”
The auction block where slaves were sold would have been just below where the altar stood. “I wonder whether the friars saw the contradiction between their sacramental ministry and the slave trading that was being conducted in the same building. Did they have any qualms of conscience about the way captives were being treated?”
The tour ended at the door-of-no-return, according to Paul, the exit from the dungeons through which captive Africans were sent to ships that carried them away to slavery in Europe and the Caribbean.
Wondering About Contradictions
“I stood at the door-of-no-return reflecting on this forgotten chapter in our history and the ambiguous life of a friar living within these walls 400 years ago,” said Paul, who professed final vows as a Franciscan in August 2010. “I found myself wondering whether we modern-day friars have been able to resolve similar contradictions that plague us in our modern friar lives.”
Paul, 41, was a teacher at Matignon High School in Cambridge, Mass., before becoming a friar. He made the decision to join the Order after feeling influenced by Joseph Nangle, OFM, former director of Franciscan Mission Service. Paul served as part of the FMS program in Kenya, with another lay minister who later became a friar —George Corrigan, OFM — before going to Ghana with the Society of Africa Missions.
The native of Burlington, Mass., earned a bachelor’s degree from Salem State University and a master’s degree in theological studies from Washington Theological Union in 2008. In 2009, he graduated from Howard University, Washington, D.C., with a master’s degree in clinical social work.
He has been living at St. Francis Friary in Beach Haven, N.J., since 2009.
— Wendy Healy, a freelance writer with Griffin Communications, contributes frequently, to HNP Today.