AFRICAN PANORA
WATCHING THROUGH THE BIRDS'S EYES
Remembering a Foot Soldier of Catholic Missionary Education in Kplioland...
A Tribute to Philip Tarweh Jeh
of Barclayville (1919 -2014)

By Ray Martin Toe
October 8, 2016 
                

One cannot reflect on the steady transformation of the St. Peter Claver’s Parish in Barclayville, southeastern Liberia, without recalling the pivotal role of Philip Tarweh Jeh, the nonagenarian catechist who passed away in late July 2014. Catechist Jeh will probably go down as the Kplio man who helped spread the Catholic faith in his native Kplio tongue. He became the first Catechist of the Parish in the late 1960s and helped translate the Catechism and Liturgy into the Kplio dialect. Catechist Jeh was laid to rest on August 3, 2014 at 94.

Philip Jeh was born in Jakaken, a defunct village in Topoh (a cluster of Kplio villages on the bank of the Nohn River northeast of Barclayville City) where Catholic missionaries of the Society of African Missions (SMA) established a station in the 1900s. He got baptized at an early age and was christened Philip. He was soon admitted in St. Peter Claver’s School, a school that the SMA Fathers founded in Jakaken to educate Kplio boys and girls. He was especially recruited from his lineage as was then the method of persuading families in Kplioland to send their children to school.

“Philip was one of the few young bright Catholic boys in Jakaken”, said Christian K. Doe; former mayor of Barclayville City and a contemporary of Philip Jeh, adding: “They were taught and baptized by Father Coleman of the Society of African Missions”. 

Philip further studied at the defunct St. Peter Claver’s College, essentially a catechetical school run by the SMA Fathers in the 1940s and 50s in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County. By the time he returned home, the station in Jakaken had been relocated to Barclayville. Philip Jeh, however, became the first Kplio catechist when in the early 1970s the mission transformed into a full-fledged parish and the late Fr. M.C. Yates its first parish priest.

Catechist Jeh and Father Yates were the prime movers of the then bourgeoning parish in Barclayville; they soon adopted a shared vision which was to reach the Gospel to the Kplio people in their native tongue. They translated the Catechism and the Liturgy from the Siklio dialect into Kplio dialect. This was a big change because older generations of Kplio children had had to learn the catechism in the Siklio dialect for several decades.

On a tight weekly schedule, Philip Jeh accompanied the daring American missionary priest and trekked the winding footpaths connecting Kplio villages. They conducted indoor and outdoor catechism classes for adults, adolescents and children alike.

I first saw the two men when I was a child growing up in the 1970s in Filorken, a sprawling Kplio village of about ten miles northeast of Barclayville City. Father Yates had just re-opened the station in Filorken and renamed it St. Michael’s. Philip Jeh frequently accompanied him there at weekends to conduct catechism classes and say Mass. They either rode on a motorbike in the footpath connecting Filorken to Barclayville or flew in a small airplane which the pilot priest landed on a makeshift airfield on the outskirt of the village.

Fascinated by the motorbike and the small airplane, we children naturally swarmed around catechist Jeh and Fr. Yates. They would then lure us to the home of their host where Philip Jeh would immediately start conducting a catechism class in the Kplio dialect.

When I was later admitted at St. Peter Claver’s School as a boarder or a mission boy, catechist Jeh was a regular teacher at the school. He also trained us the mission boys how to teach catechism in the dialect. We in turns had to accompany him and Fr. Yates to conduct catechism under his tutelage--everywhere in Kplioland.

I therefore have fond memories of the faith and devotion of this model catechist of Barclayville. Philip Jeh was a passionate Catholic educator with proficient command of both the English language and his native Kplio dialect. He intuitively converted speech from one language to the other. He therefore served as both a translator and an interpreter for succeeding SMA missionaries who worked in the parish in the 1970s and 80s. He was both a reliable friend of the SMA Fathers and a resourceful catechist.

Officiating at his funeral Mass which hundreds of Barclayville residents attended was Father Andrew Sieh, one of the hundreds of Kplio children Philip Jeh taught catechism in the Kplio language for the nearly 40 years he served the St. Peter Claver’s parish in Barclayville City, Grand Kru County.

Philip Tarweh Jeh will be remembered not only as a model catechist but essentially as a foot soldier of Catholic missionary education in Kplioland. May his soul rest in perfect peace.