APRIL 1, 2010

St. Theresa’s Parrish welcomes Father Sipho Mathabela

By Alannah Allbrett

   Father Sipho Matabela came to Orofino from Africa by way of Jerome, Idaho. He is from a tiny, landlocked nation in Africa called Swaziland, or Ngwane, which is bordered on the north, south and west by the country of South Africa and on the east by Mozambique.

   He came to Orofino as a Parochial Vicar, at the end of January, to assist Monsignor King – after living in the Monastery of Ascension (Jerome) as a Benedictine monk. His name is pronounced See-Po which means ‘gift’ in his native Swazi language. (See-Fo, as Americans tend to say it due to the spelling, means ‘disease.’ So it’s apparent why he prefers the correct pronunciation.)

   Fr. Sipho has an interesting story to tell. Though from a poor family, he comes from royal blood. His great-grandfather was a village chief. It is a matriarchal society, but being royal, his father was able to pass down his last name of Mathabela rather than carry a wife’s name, as is tradition.

   His father had two wives, and polygamy is still practiced in that country today. His father was killed when Sipho was only a boy, nine years of age, so he was raised by a grandmother.

   His grandmother and he went to live with another royal family, and lived in a town called Manzini (meaning water). One of five children, he was fortunate enough to be taken in by the  Salesian Fathers (Don Bosco) who ran the Catholic school of St. Elizabeth which was founded by a religious order from Ireland. One father, Fr. Fleming, took an interest in him and helped him learn to varnish school benches. This helped him earn the tuition to stay in school.  He says that he was somewhat talented academically, so he flourished at the school. He was a good student, but his early childhood was very confusing having had to be transplanted from one family and one village to another.

   The Salesian Society was very strict, and he attended church every day, “And on Sunday,” he said, “There was no missing” [church]. Being taught by the Irish, he laughingly said, makes him “a little bit of the green.”

   While still in high school himself, Fr. Sipho was asked to be in charge of “the street kids” – a group of 60 homeless boys looked after by the Catholic Church with funding from Canada and Germany. There was no program to include girls in school, so Fr. Sipho said if he wanted to help a girl he had to list her in his records with a boy’s name.

   There were not a lot of drugs available for the boys to get into (abuse), so they resorted to using Benzene and sniffing glue. During this time Sipho learned how to work with the boys and gain their respect. He taught them soccer and how to cook. He told them, “You must cook, and I must be able to eat it!” Ten of the boys later went on through university.

   By college age, Sipho felt burned-out on teaching the boys and wanted to join a religious order and go to college himself. He joined the Benedictines and went to college in Petersburg, South Africa, known today as Polokwane.

   The Benedictines later gave him a choice of furthering his education – he could go overseas or study locally. They gave him a whole five minutes to make up his mind. He chose to go to America and was sent to Mt. Angel Abby in St. Benedict, Oregon. He studied there for eight years on scholarships. He completed his thesis on Polygamy, an African Dilemma and a Church Dilemma. He earned a Theology Degree in Eschatology and a Master of Divinity. He continues to hold the title of Chaplain in the Diocese, and was in charge of developing and overseeing eight Catholic schools. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Bishops of South Africa – specializing in finances.

   Fr. Sipho continues his education today online and is studying for a degree in Psychology from the University of Phoenix He feels psychology and religion make a good marriage and that one discipline helps the other. He finds it useful in helping parishioners whom he counsels, and he visits members in the State Hospital North.

   His goals, while in Orofino, are to reinforce the church here and to focus strongly on the youth – which is something he knows more than a little about.