Dagaabaland, especially in northern Ghana is the Vatican of Ghana. Despite the fact that over 55% of Dagaaba are traditional African religion practitioners, the remaining population are Roman Catholics.
Since the 1930s, mass conversions to Catholicism have taken place, beginning among the LoPiel population around Dissin. The pioneer missionaries, Frs Remigius McCoy and Arthur Paquet (both White Fathers from Canada) and Brother Basilid Koot (from Holland) began work at Jirapa in 1929. The treatment they gave for yaws and other prevalent diseases created immediate interest. Within ten months there were two catechumens, and despite some persecution the number grew quickly.
Then in 1932 the rains failed. April to July, usually the heart of the rainy season, were dry. The ancestors were repeatedly invoked, and countless sacrifices were offered to the traditional gods, but to no avail. At last, on 24 July, the people of Jirapa turned to the little Catholic mission, promising generous payment if the God of the Catholic Fathers could succeed where their own priests had failed. In ‘A short history of the Catholic Church in Ghana’, Helene Pfann describes what happened:
“Father McCoy told them that God wanted no presents. He only wanted them to believe that he loved them and would help them. He took them into the church and all prayed together. The following night, on July 25th, clouds gathered in the sky over Jirapa and, for the first time in months, rain fell in torrents. The people were so happy that they ran out of their houses and sang and danced with joy, letting the rain soak them through.
The next morning a crowd of Dagaaba, all demanding to become Christians, besieged the Mission House . That rainy season 25,000 Dagaaba became adherents. No similar mass conversion had ever before taken place in Africa.
A four-year catechumenate was established, and the Fathers started on the daunting task of teaching this vast new community. Following the speedy growth of the work at Jirapa new parishes were opened at Kaleo (1932), Nandom (1933), and at Ko and Daffiama (1952). In 1959 the Dagaaba area was created a diocese, with the seat of the bishop in Wa. There are now 16 parishes, nearly all Dagaare-speaking, but hardly in Wa East and Wa West Districts.
As the numbers grew, three orders of sisters and two orders of brothers sent missionaries.
The first Dagao priest was ordained in 1951; by 1959 there were six, and in 1984 there were in the Wa diocese no less than 53 African priests, 98 sisters, and 17 brothers, compared with only 8 missionary priests, 17 sisters, and 23 brothers. Fr McCoy, aged 89 in 1986, continued to work actively at Jirapa and becane a legend in his lifetime.
Worship and church life tends to be based on large church buildings in the main towns, to which people come from the surrounding villages. For instance Ko, a small town some 10 km off the Nandom road, has a church 75 metres long (said to be longer than the longest church in Accra), with seating for 2,000. Even on weekdays the early morning mass is attended by over 100, and the church is comfortably full on Sundays.
The 14 Dagaare-speaking parishes probably have a total adult membership exceeding 40,000, which is over 15 per cent of the local population. A further 10 per cent would call themselves Catholics, though not full members.