The forgotten Soldier: Bishop Perlo

Unity in diversity is a praiseworthy thing. Every time people talk about unity in diversity, they try to tell us that we can be very different, but still be united or at least our goal remains to be one. It is another way of saying that diversity of ideas, world views, and perspectives does not necessarily mean enmity or rivalry. In truth, when there is no diversity, we may agree very fast on issues, but only because we think the same way. And do you know the down side of this? Of course, you have guessed it right! When there are no divergent views, there is also no growth or progress. In fact, although lack of divergent views may appear agreeable initially, sooner or later it becomes the source of conflicts as people become bored of the monotony and disinterested in the tasteless unity. The result is that either a divergent view is brought in to save the situation or the whole thing collapses.

In our institute, when we talk about Blessed Joseph Allamano and Bishop Perlo in the same line, there is uneasiness that crosses the minds of most people. It is not a secret that the two had very different ways of looking at things, but I tend to think that regardless of their differences in personality, character, and manner of doing things, their unity appeared in the desire to see a better and stronger Consolata Missionaries Institute.

I do not know whether you agree or not, but I usually consider Bishop Perlo the forgotten soldier in our Institute. Well, don’t get me wrong! In fact, hold your horses before getting annoyed with me. In my responsibility as a formator, many times students asked me, “why is it that we give credit to Fr. Allamano for the Institute when in truth when we speak of mission the only person we hear is Bishop Perlo?” Don’t ask me what I used to answer them. That is a topic for another day. For now, let us examine the issue together. The word “forgotten” could mean many things to different people. To be on the safe side, let us agree that the word “forgotten” means not remembered, disregarded, overlooked, neglected, and so on. At the same time, the word “soldier” means fighter, crusader, warrior, and so on. If you agree on this, why shouldn’t we call Bishop Perlo a forgotten soldier? Why? Okay, let me tell you why I consider him a forgotten soldier.

First, even as Fr. Allamano decided to found a missionary Institute, he knew that his health could not allow him to go to the missions. So, the Founder needed someone strong to go to open the missions in Africa. Aware how Africa was at that time, we can say in military terms, that Fr. Allamano needed someone to go to the trenches. Fr. Perlo was among the four first missionaries whom Fr. Allamano sent to the trenches of the mission. All of us know what it means to be a pioneer. The pioneer is a person who creates a path where there was no one. The pioneer is an innovator, who ensures that things work by hook or crook. The pioneer is the unsung foundation on which a beautiful house stands. When you look at great mansions, you do not admire the foundation stones – of course because you cannot see them. They are buried under the soil and most of the time they are not beautifully dressed as the other stones that make the walls. However, in whatever shape they may be, the foundation stones carry the weight of the elegant house. Regardless of the weakness of the four pioneer missionaries who opened the mission at Tuthu, they are great men worthy of admiration. Unfortunately, their credit seems to vanish somewhere in our narratives.   

Second, as a soldier that he was, Fr. Perlo was tough enough to handle the task. When people are tough to others and soft on themselves, we call them dictators. Fr. Perlo was not one. He was both tough on others, but especially with himself. Maybe he should have understood that not everyone was as strong as himself. However, any worthy leader will tell you that if you are a pioneer and people have to depend on your direction for growth and progress, softness is a weakness.  The moment ideas of “it is difficult and maybe impossible” begin running across the minds of your followers, you are finished – or better, the project is dead on arrival. If you want to know the veracity of this, ask John Mark about it. When he started showing slowing down while accompanying St. Paul, the apostle sent him away and chose Silas as his companion in the 2nd missionary journey. Similarly, Fr. Perlo was a bulldozer like St. Paul – men of strong character. He had to be if the Institute had to take shape and implant itself among the Kikuyu and Meru people of Kenya – a land that Fr. Allamano never set a foot. Our silence on these facts makes him a forgotten soldier in our Institute.

Thirdly, I am sure that you agree with me that ideas without actions are useless. Of course, I also know that without the ideas, nothing can be done. However, have we ever thought what would have happened if the good ideas of Fr. Allamano did not find a good person to implement them? What would have happened if the four pioneer missionaries were just weaklings who could not stand up for any idea? I will tell you what would have happened. The hundred and twenty-two years that the Institute has existed would be at best just a few years, and at worst just a few months. If Fr. Allamano’s ideas did not become flesh through Fr. Perlo, today, the Founder would be another Fr. Ortalda – the man of apostolic schools for training missionaries, who died in 1880 as a frustrated man after his projects failed. What we are saying is that Fr. Perlo was the reason why Fr. Allamano’s idea of founding the missionary Institute did not remain just an idea. He was pragmatic – practical to the core. Do you still disagree that he is a forgotten soldier in our Institute? Well, before you counteract my opinion, don’t forget that the man is the Founder of a very flourishing female Religious Institute in Kenya – the Immaculate Sisters!

Lastly, let me make this clear. I am not trying to elevate Fr. Perlo above our Founder, and neither I am trying to present the Founder as the lesser one. The point, as my students noted a number of times, is that when we speak of the mission, we speak of Fr. Perlo. In truth, we cannot speak about the Consolata Missionaries institute without referring to Fr. Perlo. Of course, Fr. Allamano did a lot in managing everything from Torino. However, the man who had his boots on the ground was Fr. Perlo and his companions. Fr. Perlo’s influence cannot be underestimated, given that he went to the mission as the bursar of the group, but before long he was the superior. Any achievement that the Institute got in those years was either undertake by him or inspired by him. He is the man who got the bites of the merciless African mosquito, the man who crossed rivers before building bridges over them, the man who gave shape to what today we proudly call the IMC.  

Like him or not, the truth is that his fingerprints mark our great history as a missionary Institute. The sacrifice he had to go through to ensure that Fr. Allamano’s dream became a reality makes him admirable. It is no surprise that Fr. Allamano respected him regardless of how difficult he was to go along with. In truth, those who are honest enough will tell you that the two were complementary. Fr. Allamano represented the religious vision of the Institute, while Fr. Perlo represented the missionary one. His desire to see the gospel preached everywhere, immediately and with whatever means that were available was estimable.

In any case, the perceived or alleged weaknesses of bishop Perlo put him in line with many biblical figures whom God chose to manifest his power and shame the “strong”.  It is on this note that we remind ourselves the virtue of gratitude. In Swahili, there is a saying that says, “Mnyonge muue lakini haki yake mpe”. It can be loosely translated into “Even if you have to kill the weak man, at least give him his right”. It means that regardless of the many points you may have against a certain person, at least recognize and appreciate the positive in him. This is what I think we are invited to do. As grateful people, I believe that it is time that we, as an Institute, did something to remember Fr. Perlo – even a statue. Well, it’s only my opinion.

Fr. Jonah Makau, IMC

General House (Rome)