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Lifting up a village

Urbank man has donated much time and money to improve lives of residents in Tanzania community

Padre Herb Gappa, a Maryknoll Missioner, lives quietly on a lake in northwestern Douglas County, somewhat retired, yet constantly working. His work is thousands of miles away in Tanzania. Although the territory served by the Maryknoll Missioners in Tanzania is vast, the area served by Gappa is located specifically in east central Africa, within the region of Simiyu and in the town of Bariadi. To put it in perspective, for those of us who have not traveled to this far land, picture the famous Serengeti plains and Lake Victoria near those plains.

As a child Herb Gappa sent his hard-earned money to a far-off place for Maryknoll mission work. He grew up learning about people in far-off lands. He understood what the Maryknoll Missioner did. When it came time for Gappa to make plans for his future as an adult he raised his hand and offered himself up.

“The mission is the continuation of the mysteries of Christmas joy, the glory of Easter and the power of Pentecost. People have the right to hear the good news and to see and experience its expression,”  Padre Gappa explained.

As a member of Maryknoll, the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, Padre Gappa was sent to Tanzania in 1968.  European missionaries had arrived in that same area 100 years before Gappa. After spending a few years in Tanzania and in the United States as a missioner, Gappa was sent back in 1977 to old Maswa Parish, to work with Father Paul Fagan (of Prairie du Chien, Wis.), and to start a parish in Bariadi town, one of the four centers started by Fagan. It was then a lightly populated area, a new district center (a district center is much like Alexandria is a county seat). Every three years he had one round-trip ticket back home to Urbank.  Through the years Gappa and Father Fagan have become close friends.

Today, Padre Gappa is famously known in the town of Bariadi and is often referred to as George Washington (because he is considered the father of that area). “The people celebrate their victories and their growth,” he said humbly.

“When I arrived in Bariadi we (Father Fagan and Gappa) had to figure out what we could and could not do. We settled on three goals: 1) Matofari ya watu = building blocks of people; 2) Matofari ya Suruji = equipment, buildings, etc; 3) Riziki za Watu = basic human needs,” Gappa explained.  From that Padre Gappa and the parishioners focused in on three objectives:  1) food (sustainable agriculture); 2) water (establishing shallow wells); and 3) trees (regeneration of land, legumes, firewood, timber, fodder, and regenerations of soil). “Traditionally the church has worked for, and in, education and providing medical needs,” Gappa explained.  “Some schools and dispensaries were already there. Our decision was that parish life would be a school and to provide better health, and at first, without brick and mortar buildings. We worked on trees for 15 years and for two years on the shallow wells, both trees and wells being an ongoing challenge.”

Gappa and the Bariadi residents planted thousands of trees as part of the process to prevent desertification and to implement sustainable agriculture practices. “The trees also served as the ‘walls’ or of establishing a boundary area of new parish properties. We planted the Lucaena, which is a pan-tropical tree, originally from the Yucatan, Mexico. It is leguminous, so it fertilizes  the soil, and its leaves/branches are loaded with protein. One challenge in their growth is the temptation that marauding goats find in its delicious flavor!” explained Gappa.

According to Veronica and Larry Jahnke, a Parkers Prairie couple who recently accompanied Gappa to Bariadi, “The two ‘earthly’ programs started by Father Gappa have been trees and shallow wells.  When he arrived  25+ years ago there weren’t many trees.  Trees are needed for firewood, for cooking, etc.  He taught the people how to harvest a tree without cutting it down.  Now there are trees everywhere, even a place called Gappa Woods.  People call these trees money in the bank.  Whenever we walked the ground of a new church they proudly showed us the new trees that had been planted.”

Today, in the four centers of St. John’s parish, there are more than 120,000 people with needs of building three large churches, seven small temporary buildings and the challenge of fundraising from $15,000 to $200,000 on each building. “When I went to Bariadi I planned on growing a small area into a center about the size of Alexandria, but I should have planned for the size of St. Cloud. Now we are planning for the size of St. Paul.” People walk four to five miles to attend church,  some up to eight miles. Many youth are in attendance. Since Padre Gappa’s second arrival in 1977, to the present time, 6,000 people have been baptized. Expected growth in the area for the next five years is 300,000 people.  The real possibility exists that Bariadi will become a diocese.

Churches usually begin with mud brick, progressing to fired brick and then to concrete blocks. According to Veronica Jahnke, “Father Herb Gappa’s first mission church or center in Bariadi was St. John’s, which started as a small open ‘walled’ church with only a roof for worship.  That has now grown to the cinder block church seating 800 people.  The grounds or compound has grown to accommodate a parish center, office, and priest’s house and storage buildings.  The parish also raises some cattle, goats and chickens.  These come in handy when there is a large parish celebration, such as the upcoming ordination of one of their sons to the priesthood. This means a whole day of celebrations involving the whole parish.”

The Jahnkes continued, explaining, “The three other centers are St. Mark’s, St. Luke’s and St. Matthew’s.  With these four centers there are six ‘outstations’ that have chapels and another five outstations without chapels.  There is a need for three more  outstations. The centers are in various stages of growth.  These people are proud of building their churches, as though it were their own private home.  We walked the layout of the ground to view where they’d build and how large.”

The school…. The Gappa School is a “pre and primary” English medium school, started by the parish after Padre Herb’s departure. The school is a work in progress and now has a Gappa Bus to pick up many of the students.  It began with two grades and continues with the goal to add two grades each year.   When that goal is reached more than 600 students will attend Gappa School.  The student’s families are learning educational basics in addition to becoming self-sustaining in agricultural practices and providing for their own needs. Families pay tuition for students to attend the school and several hundred are on a waiting list to enroll.

The wells…… Gappa also began an extensive program to dig and establish shallow wells in Bariadi.  Wells  15 – 50 feet deep are dug, all with pick ax and shovel. If the diggers hit a large rock they begin digging  in another area.  Prior to the shallow well program (and still) women would carry water for miles to their homes, on top of their heads in 5-gallon buckets.  The wells have become a very important part of their lives in sustainable living.

The hospital…. In addition to the Bariadi scene, Gappa shifted some 20 miles east, to his co-worker Fathe Fagan in  Nkololo town. He is pastor of St. Peter’s parish there, which borders the Serengeti Plains. Construction of many roads and medical work highlight his socio-economic endeavors. Songambele Hospital, began with a small dispensary, is now a medical center with  33 beds and has been designated by the government to be a full hospital. A local female M.D. is in charge, with local nurses. Recently, the laboratory became certified for the collection of blood, and transfusions are done. In June they began to use an ultrasound machine. Father Fagan is searching for monies for more construction, personnel and medical supplies, and the staff hopes to complete construction of the operating theater this year.

Padre Herb Gappa, an Urbank boy who moved to a different world to live and work in Tanzania, sums up his mission work best,  “Sio Rahisi”  (it’s not easy). We have big footsteps to follow, but it IS possible. We all hope this article helps folks to understand ‘mission’ better for the people and environment of at least one small area of the huge continent of Africa.”

More photos from this story can be seen on the Sr. Perspective web page gallery. Visit and click on gallery.

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