Father Thomas Kilasara will never forget the last time he spoke to his best friend, Father Evaristus Mushi, a fellow Catholic priest who lived 8,700 miles away in Zanzibar, islands off the coast of Tanzania, in East Africa.
Father Thomas, the parochial vicar at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Slidell, recalls asking Father Mushi if he was concerned about the anti-Christian violence being carried out by a small group of Muslim extremists in Zanzibar, where Catholics make up just 2 percent of the population.
Most recently, Catholic churches had been burned down and a priest seriously wounded by gunmen on Christmas Eve 2012.
“(Father Mushi) told me, ‘We have to rely on Jesus,’ and he showed me the cross in his office,” said Father Thomas of the Skype visit with his friend on Feb. 16.
The very next day, Father Mushi himself became a victim of the anti-Christian terrorism in Zanzibar. The priest was fatally shot while driving to a remote mission church to celebrate Mass.
His murder reverberated all the way to Slidell.
“When we heard about Father Mushi, we said the school has got to do something,” said Bobby Ohler, St. Margaret Mary’s principal, noting that his students had gotten to know the slain priest and the bishop of Zanzibar, Augustine Ndeliakyama Shao, when the men visited Father Thomas in Slidell.
Ohler sent a letter to school families asking them to give whatever they could to support the grieving Catholic Church in Zanzibar in exchange for a free-dress day for students, faculty and staff. The plea also went out on St. Margaret Mary School’s closed-circuit TV station, WSMM.
“I told (the students) that I couldn’t help but think how fortunate we are to live in a country where we can pray in public and pledge allegiance to the flag without fear,” Ohler said.
The response was staggering, with the school collecting the largest single-day donation in its history: $5,000. The parish followed suit by raising an additional $6,000. The funds, delivered to Bishop Shao, will fund programs aimed at fostering education, leadership and business skills among Zanzibar’s youth.
“You and your students have demonstrated your solidarity with the children of Zanzibar, who lately have been struggling to find peace,” wrote Bishop Shao in a May 29 letter thanking the school and parish family for its prayers and generosity. “Although the situation has calmed down somewhat, Christians still live in fear,” the bishop wrote. “We think a long-term solution to this crisis must include a sustained, meaningful dialog between Christians and Muslims, especially between young people.”
Last May’s fund raiser wasn’t the first time St. Margaret Mary reached out to Zanzibar.
In 2004, when Ohler was president of the Rotary Club of Slidell, he convinced the multi-denominational group to fund a water well on the campus of Zanzibar’s Francis Libermann Catholic, a preK-12 school of 600 students named after the 19th-century founder of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit. The well is open to all – not just school families – offering a convenient source of water in an area where many people still walk miles for this basic. St. Margaret Mary students also raised money to buy a bus for Francis Libermann School.
Father Thomas, a native of Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1985, celebrated his final Sunday Mass at St. Margaret Mary on Sept. 15. After 10 years as parochial vicar, he has begun a new assignment as pastor of Blessed Trinity Parish in New Orleans.
Eighth grader Peyton Smith said he would miss Father Thomas’ “wonderful” homilies, which often told of life in East Africa.
“I’ve learned that everyone has their own way of connecting to God and Jesus,” said Peyton, remembering the time Father Thomas told St. Margaret Mary parishioners that Catholics in Zanzibar always take something to Mass as an offering to the priest. Sometimes their gifts include live chickens.
“We throw away stuff every day and they’re over there struggling, trying to have enough food, yet they give food as a gift!” Peyton said. “They give up things they need and use every day.”