The Bell of Santa Barbara Church, Kariba: A Modern Legend in the Making


[Edmond constructed a church bell and little Angela was healed]

Kariba Dam was designed by a French man, and construction was managed by an Italian firm. During the first flooding, 11 Italian men were trapped in the concrete wall. It was too expensive to get them out, so to this day, their bodies remain part of the Kariba Dam wall. When Kariba Dam was completed, it was actually the biggest dam wall in the world. It is still the largest man-made lake in the world by volume.

From Wild Zambezi

This delightful little round church situated above Kariba town on the hill known as Kariba Heights, was built by workers and engineers employed by Impresit, the Italian company contracted to build the Kariba dam wall.  The church is dedicated to St Barbara, who is the patron saint of engineers/construction workers. 

On the outside walls of the church is a dedication in Latin to the memory of the construction workers killed during the building of Kariba Dam and a plaque with the names of those who lost their lives is found inside. Its minimalistic, open-air  design is perfectly suited to the hot Kariba climate and its circular shape, with beautiful stained-glass windows depicting the Lord’s Prayer, statues and a simple marble altar, is said to replicate the shape of the coffer dam built to hold back the waters of the Zambezi River at the construction site.

A bell tower at the back of the church still contains the original bell constructed by hand by Italian workers at the time and hoisted into place with a crane. 

A Bell For Little Angela

In early 2012, the tourism industry in Kariba  received an e-mail from Italy, from a lady called Francesca Mungiardi.  She was wanting to trace a very specific Holy Card issued by the Catholic fathers and sisters of the Church of Santa Barbara. 

This beautiful and unusual little place of worship was built above the town of Kariba, on top of the hill known as Kariba Heights, by the Italian workers from the company, Impresit, which had the contract for the construction of Kariba Dam in the 1950s.

Her request went as follows: –

Hi, I’m Francesca and I’m from Italy.
My request might be a bit strange, but I’m looking for a Holy Card of Santa Barbara, distributed in Africa (to be precise in Kariba in Rhodesia then) between the years 1950 and 1960. The Holy Card is in Italian, as it was released by the fathers and the sisters of the Catholic mission of Kariba, which were committed to the continuation of Italian workers who built the Kariba Dam and the Church Of Santa Barbara.

I know for sure that almost all the Italians had the Holy Card of Santa Barbara, because as miners and builders of dams, she was their Saint.  There are different versions and I’d settle for any one of them, but if I could choose I’d like to find one that has the following inscription on the back: EDMONDO HA COSTRUITO UNA CAMPANA E LA PICCOLA ANGELA E’ MIGLIORATA. [Roughly translated, this means: Edmond constructed a church bell and little Angela was healed]

Can you please help me find it? For me it is very important.  Maybe at your facility, there is an Italian person who can help me?

Francesca then outlined the story that the Holy Card tells:-

“The heart was heavy for Edmondo Fermi in Kariba, where he worked far away from his native country.  He had received bad news. In Italy his young daughter Angela was seriously ill. Edmondo wrung his hands. What could he do? In desperation he turned to his friend and colleague, the mechanic, Lino. Sharing his friend’s grief, Lino thought that perhaps the Good Lord would be merciful, if they did something for Him. Lino’s eyes lit up, an idea was forming.

Quickly taking his friend aside, he said: 

“We will make a bell for the Glory of God, then maybe little Angela will be better”.

So Edmondo and Lino set to work with a will. Their compatriots and co-workers joined them. After each long day was over, they worked at the bell during their leisure time. It should be one of the usual bells, but it had to be large enough that you could hear it across the valley of Kariba.

It was made out of a piece of machinery that had been used to crush the ground. It was three feet high when it was finished. Painted in silver, shining in the African sun. And now where should it be hung? This was the problem. They thought at first the school, and then the African church on the hill.

So the bell was moved with a crane up to the top of the hill where it was hung in a tower built specially for it.

At last the great moment arrived. For the first time the bell rang in Kariba to the wonder of Europeans and Africans together. But their surprise was nothing compared to the news from Italy that they received. 

“Little Angela was well again!”

50 years on, Edmondo Fermi’s daughter, the little Angela of this story, visited Kariba from Italy, with her husband, to pay her respects at the Church of Santa Barbara Church. 

The staff of the Kariba branch of the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) showed her round (see picture). 

She brought with her some archive photographs of her father,  the bell and the original tower that he and his colleagues constructed for it, in Oct-Nov 1957, as well as a picture of the Bishop of Salisbury celebrating Mass for the laying of the cornerstone of Santa Barbara Church on 4th December 1957.

Says Tendai Mushangwe of the ZTA in Kariba: 

Tourism builds bridges and creates bonds.  Although Angela lives in Italy,  she has her roots in Kariba.  We identify with her and are proud she is part of our family!

It’s worth visiting the Church of Santa Barbara on the top of the hill above Kariba.   

This delightful little place of worship is dedicated to the men who died during the construction of the dam, whose names are engraved on a stone plaque in the interior of the church. 

Take a walk around the back of the church and you can see the modern version of Edmondo Fermi’s  bell tower.  It now has three large bells.   According to the local inhabitants, not all of them work, but apparently they still ring out across the Zambezi Valley on special occasions.  A fitting tribute to the memory of Angela’s father and his Italian and African colleagues who built the massive Kariba dam!

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1 Response

  1. WakeyWakey says:

    The power of FAITH! Don’t ever cynically underestimate it (like I once used to do in my ‘stupid’ days).

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