In Africa, when a baby is born, we rejoice and call upon the departed spirits to watch over the new life. When life is taken away, we mourn and we call upon the departed spirits to welcome into their community that life which has been taken away from us. We see death as not the end, but the beginning of new life, life with the community of ancestors. The spirit of the dead person does not die but remains active in the community.
The death of John Meade is a great loss to many people – in Africa and beyond – for his life brought us such gains. In death he will continue to be a blessing to us. John was outstanding in everything he did. He was courageous and spoke the truth. He had the highest regard for his fellow Christian Brothers and was absolutely loyal in his commitment to Christ and to Edmund Rice. That is not to say he was perfect. But he never had any hesitation in admitting his faults and acknowledging his shortcomings. Basically John was a shy man who won the affection of others by his simple truthfulness and by his ability to listen gently to their stories.
John was big in every way. As the son of a farmer he was big and strong physically. Character-wise, he was big and strong. John’s father died when he was seven years of age, so John knew early in life what it was like to accept responsibility. At a very young age he was a big support to his widowed mother. As a result of this early responsibility John developed a big generous heart. And in everything he did he always looked at the bigger picture.
John came to Zambia in July 1972 at 26 years of age. His first posting was to Choma. Just over a year later he was appointed superior of our community in Mazabuka and headmaster of St Edmund’s Secondary School. This was a boarding school with close on 400 boys, for which large family John was responsible for acquiring food supplies, organising classes, and ensuring that the school ran smoothly. Here his physical strength served him well. After teaching for hours he could be seen driving a tractor, ploughing and preparing land for a maize crop or a cotton or sunflower crop. He also took a keen interest in keeping pigs. These activities helped to generate funds for a school that was growing in reputation and numbers.
By necessity, John became an expert at boreholes and water pumps. The school had its own boreholes and inevitably problems arose. John was often seen with a tripod and a block and tackle, lifting and repairing and then lowering water pumps again into boreholes that produced the precious commodity of water.
Every New Year’s Eve John facilitated a party for all missionary personnel in the area. All arrived to celebrate Eucharist together and then a sumptuous meal would be served. The rest of the night would be spent dancing, singing, and playing music on different instruments.
In 1980 John returned to Ireland and after a two-year study period he became acting headmaster in Drimnagh Castle, before being appointed community leader and headmaster at CBC Cork. He had just settled in when he was called upon to be the first Regional Leader of the Christian Brothers in Zambia: the Mater Dei Region was inaugurated on 4 February 1984.
Once again John was in his element. Leadership appeared to come easily to him. In his dealings with others he was always honest and forthright. When a difficult message had to be delivered it was done firmly and nothing more was said. He never held grudges and could share his opinions honestly and forcefully with a person, but at the end of the day his relationship with that person was still positive and open.
It was during John’s leadership that land was purchased in Chelstone, Lusaka, and soon a regional centre and novitiate building arose in which many young Christian Brothers from different parts of Africa and Papua New Guinea were trained.
In 1996 John relinquished the post of regional leader and went for a sabbatical in Berkeley, California. On his return he was appointed Education Secretary for the Zambia Episcopal Conference. This was a national position which brought him into contact with Bishops, politicians, and top civil servants especially in the ministry of education. He was fearless in speaking his mind about educational matters and challenged many a senior civil servant about matters of justice in this area. Betty Ndulo from the Catholic Secretariat described John thus:
“He had a passion for education, and education in Zambia in particular. He always spoke his mind. He did not give up in his efforts to improve the standards of education in Catholic Schools. I remember in February 2006 when he was booked on a flight to South Africa for a heart operation – that morning he was in a meeting with the Ministry of Education. We will miss him.”
Brother Frank Keane has memories of John dating back to their time together in Ireland and also more recently in Zambia.
John’s life will not only be missed among the Christian Brothers and in Zambia’s Religious and Catholic community, but also in the whole Irish community in Zambia. Mr Tony Cotter, the Irish Ambassador to Zambia, was much aware of John’s commitment:
Christian Brothers Puriey Musunga and Seamus O’Reilly