Art and Music in the St. Louis Catholic Church
On my last trip to Monkey Bay, I was wandering around with a friend who had not yet visited the town. We visited a few shops and handed out some of the photographs that I was finally able to get printed. Josephy (the bike mechanic) and the group from the mill were very pleased to see their faces smiling back from physical photographs that they could keep (as opposed to the back of a foreigner’s camera). I know they were all surprised that I had followed through on my promise to get them prints. I’m sure they have been promised the same thing hundreds of times before.
Since my friend had never been to Malawi, I showed her the local church since religion is such a large part of the lives of the local people. I chose the church with the art that had so impressed me on my first visit to Monkey Bay, the St. Louis Catholic Church. Even though I had told her that the outside, which is made of simple brick, is a stark contrast to the detailed art on the interior walls, she was still surprised when we walked through the open front doors.
I was also filled with renewed awe at the crisp color and detail that covered the walls. It’s obvious that someone invested a lot of time and effort on the murals and relief sculptures on the columns. The lights hanging from the ceiling, each one unique, are painted with the same bright colors of the walls below.
As a foreigner with a global perspective, I am able to pick out which culture each element of the art and decorations have come from. The colorful paintings are probably the most Malawian parts of the whole building. The style, while still having definite influences from the west, is typical of what I’ve seen in murals inside stores and along the alleys of the markets. They have bold colors and bold outlines, with patterns and variations in color adding contrast and detail to the images.
Along the front of the building, near the altar, there is a selection of statues of Mary and Jesus. These statues have soft features painted in pale pastels, and they are draped in billowing robes that bring to mind the art of the Italian Renaissance. They have obviously been brought in from Europe, which is not surprising, considering it is a Catholic church.
Another statue near the altar, the only one of its kind, was carved out of wood. One might be surprised that I consider this piece of art to be less Malawian, less African, than the paintings. Long ago, there was a time when Africans made wood carvings to fulfill their hunger for art and creation, but now, the carvings only fill their need of making money by selling something, anything, to rich tourists. I do sometimes see a local using a locally carved chair, or in this case, a locally carved statue, but I believe that if tourists stopped buying these carvings, the local people would stop making them because they no longer make them for themselves. All that aside, the statue was still very beautiful and well-made. I could see that the top of the statue came off, presumably to reveal a hollow interior in which something could be kept. I did not want to open the top myself and the priests were not present, so there was no one who could open it for me.
The fusion of pieces of art from so many different cultures reminded me of the Malawian Muslim wedding I photographed a few months ago. The ceremony had followed Islamic customs, but it still had a distinctly African feel. The dancing (which sometimes interrupted the speeches given by the religious leaders) was spontaneous and impulsive, while still maintaining rhythm and order. During the lectures and readings from the Quran, the women in the audience would randomly call out cries of affirmation and praise, which I have never seen in the religious ceremonies I witnessed in Turkey.
Sitting in the pews near the front of the church were a few men who were listening to someone playing a keyboard. The keyboard was hooked up to a humorously large pile of speakers that reminded me of the exuberance you might see in a music video. There were handmade drums stacked near the keyboard, which, as I was later told, are used when the electricity goes out and they can’t use the keyboard.
I asked the man playing the keyboard if I could take his picture, and as I started pulling out all of my gear, a group of people filed into the church and sat in the pews immediately in front of the keyboardist. I popped off a handful of shots before I realized that the people were gathering for choir practice. As I quickly and haphazardly stuffed my gear back into my bags, the keyboardist motioned that I should follow him outside.
We sat on the front steps of the church (where I photographed the children playing so many months ago on my first trip to Monkey Bay) and chatted. The keyboardist’s name is Allan. Despite being around my age, he is still in high school. He has been playing the keyboard for five years and was taught by Daniel, one of the choir leaders, who came over to chat with us and help Allan when his English failed him. Allan told me that he learned to play the keyboard for the church so he could play for god. He said that he will not use his musical talent for secular activities. He is the main musician for the choir, which is 45 members strong. They practice three times every week in preparation for the main service on Sunday. Their songs, which are sung in Chichewa, Yao, Tumbuka, and Lomwe, are usually taken from a song book, but Allan and the choir directors sometimes write their own.
Despite his devotion to his religion, Allan wants to become a soldier, like Daniel, because he says he would be able to help his people. He thinks that being a soldier would be fun, especially if he could work with his best friend, Daniel. Daniel has been a soldier for a long time, so he is confident that he will be able to pull a few strings to get a job for Allan in two years when he finishes his schooling.
The conversation soon turned back to the church, specifically the art inside. The original church is located about 50 ft from where the main church currently stands. The original building was a simple one-room house that had been repurposed. The congregation grew very quickly, forcing people to stand outside and listen through the windows, so, eventually, it was decided that a bigger church was needed.
The current church was completed in 1978. Priest Savala, who came from a different congregation in the Mangochi area, took a full year prior to the opening of the new building to paint murals and add the Stations of the Cross sculptures to the walls. He also painted words of faith on some of the walls and decorated the light fixtures. It’s unknown if any retouching has been done on his work, but from my uneducated inspection, I didn’t see any noticeable signs of retouching. This surprised me because the colors are still so crisp and fresh. There isn’t even any cracking or peeling, both of which are signs of aging I would have assumed to be present on work that is so old and located in a climate that varies between moderately cool and dry to very hot and humid.
In the last few years, the membership of the St. Louis Catholic Church has continued to rise. Once again, the church, which can seat up to 400 people and has standing room for another few hundred, is forced to keep dozens of worshipers outside because there is just no room inside. There is a brother church a few kilometers away, but that one, despite being much larger, is also more than full to capacity.
Allan and Daniel looked very pleased when they began talking about the number of people who attend their church. They said that if you count the Christian denominations separately, the Muslims outnumber them, but with all the denominations added together, Christianity is the most popular religion in the area.
I have not seen any official numbers and it has not been as easy for me to gain access to a mosque, but I would love to hear the other side to this story. I would also love to see if the art in the mosques is as much of a fusion as it is in this Catholic church and if they follow the very specific Islamic rules surrounding art and decorations.