The Roman Catholic Church arrived in the Kingdom of Kongo shortly after the first Portuguese explorers reached its shores in 1483. After an exchange of hostages, the ruling king, Nzinga a Nkuwu agreed to allow missionaries to come to his country and to learn more about Christianity. The missionaries arrived early in 1491, and baptized the provincial ruler of Soyo whose lands were located on the Atlantic coast, before moving to the royal capital in April and May. According to Portuguese accounts, Nzinga a Nkuwu was further convinced to the Christian message when he witnessed what he and the priests both regarded as a miracle: two of the king's subjects dreamed simultaneously of beautiful woman who urged the king to be baptized, and a third one reported finding a cross shaped stone near a riverbed (normally considered a particularly auspicious spot in Kongo cosmology).
Nzinga a Nkuwu was baptized on 3 May 1491, taking the name João in honor of the Portuguese king (João II) as were many of his officials and nobles and, after some hesitation, the women of the royal and allied households. Further missionaries arrived at the court of Nzinga a Nkuwu, and a good number also accompanied his son Afonso Mvemba a Nzinga to his provincial post of Nsundi. Afonso, in turn became a great champion of the faith, even though, according to Afonso's subsequent account of the events, his father cooled in the faith, and many of the Kongolese who had been baptized turned away.
Afonso, whose letters are virtually our only source for the following events of his reign, presented himself to the world as a fervent Catholic, anxious to spread the faith, and also as having suffered persecution for it during the last years of his father's reign. When João died, probably in late 1508 or 1509, Afonso's half brother Mpanzu a Kitima, one of the lapsed Christians and a powerful rival, challenged the prince for the throne. But Afonso was able to overcome his brother in battle, thanks to having already positioned himself in the capital São Salvador and, according to Afonso's account the supernatural appearance of Saint James the Great in the sky, frightening his enemies. In subsequent correspondence with Portugal, Afonso decided to create a coat of arms in which five armed hands, each bearing a sword, was the principal element, along with a broken idol figured prominently. This coat of arms, first described in 1512, became one of Kongo's central icons, while Saint James Major's feast day became Kongo most important holiday, simultaneously honoring the saint who was popular in Iberian armies as a crusading saint, and King Afonso and his miracle.
Having become king, Afonso set about establishing a church. In letters to Portugal, he described some of the steps: he declared it illegal for people to worship idols, he destroyed a "house of idols" located in the capital (against the threat of a revolt), he also provided for a tithe to support it financially. Tradition from the late 17th century onward regarded Afonso as the founder of the church, and also attributes the story that he buried his own mother alive "for the sake of the Savior King" when she refused to take off a small idol she wore around her neck. Afonso's work to establish the church won him wide praise outside of Africa, and the Portuguese historian João de Barros called him the "Apostle of Congo" in 1552.
Afonso also worked to create a specifically local interpretation of Christianity, although the details are not well known. He worked with a number of Portuguese priests, most notably Rui d'Aguiar who came in 1516, and also with Kongolese who were educated in Europe, principally his son Henrique Kinu a Mvemba, who was elevated to the status of bishop in 1518, and who worked in Kongo from 1521 until his death in 1531.
In this way, the Bible was called nkanda ukisi which might also be rendered as "charm in the form of a book" and a church was called nzo a ukisi or charm in the form of a building. In this way, Catholic saints were identified with local spiritual entities, and churches built in holy spots. This theology, developed by Afonso and a team of his colleagues, working with Portuguese priests, defined the way in which Kongolese approached the new religion and in many ways naturalized it.
Diogo and the kings that followed established a strong laiety, into whose hands the job of education typically fell, while the small numbers of ordained clergy only performed the sacraments. This pattern, so visible in later Kongo history, was probably already present in the late 16th century. The lay ministers were typically designated as teachers (mestres, literally masters, in Portuguese), were drawn from the nobility of Kongo, paid salaries by the state, and engaged both in teaching literacy, religious education, and often also secretarial duties. The personal papers of one such layman, António Manuel (who later became Kongo's ambassador to Rome) reveal the workings of this position. When given charge of the church of the Trinity in Soyo, he was paid a portion of the fees that were paid for his services, including fees charged in burials. When he was made mestre of the province of Mpemba, he was paid a salary of 6 lefukus of nzimbu shells a month, and also performed duties as a secretary.
We have very little information about the numbers or lives of these mestres though they were very important in the day to day life of the church. Their activities explain how the ordinary Kongolese managed to retain their version of Christianity even in the absence of ordained clergy. The certainly worked closely with the secular clergy of the country, and are often mentioned by the missionaries of the regular orders (primarily Jesuit and Capuchin) who visited and worked in Kongo in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
A Discalced Carmelite mission worked in Kongo from 1584-88 and Dominicans also had a brief mission in 1610-1612. However, it was the renewed Jesuit mission and the Capuchin mission that marked the real presence of regular orders in Kongo.
The Jesuits returned to Kongo in 1619, and in 1625 opened the College of São Salvador, which was responsible for the education of most of the Kongo elite in the mid 17th century. João de Paiva, the rector of the college until 1642, was particularly instrumental in the education of Kongolese, and also wrote an extensive, though now lost, chronicle of the country. Some of de Paiva's material informed the Synopsis Annalium of António Franco (1725). Jesuits also organized lay brotherhoods which played an important role in politics.
The Jesuits were followed in 1645 by the Capuchins. Capuchins came to Kongo largely because Kongo kings, beginning with Álvaro II of Kongo], were dissatisfied with the failure of the bishops to ordain sufficient clergy and the Portuguese crown's opposition to the ordination of Kongolese. Kongo demanded that its church be separated from that of Portugal and that Angolan interests from the rival and increasingly enemy colony that often controlled the episcopal office. As a compromise, the Papacy decided to sent Italian Capuchins from areas that were not objectionable to Portugal to Kongo. Although officially missionaries, the Capuchins were as much like parish priests as missionaries to the unconverted. In fact, this parish priest role put them frequently at odds with the secular clergy, who Capuchins charged were lax in their duties and too tolerant of traditional Kongolese religion.
The Capuchins generally had three or four missionaries in the whole of Kongo, occasionally they had as many as ten, never enough to truly take over the instruction of the people or educate more than an elite of political actors and their own staff. The Capuchins generally constructed hospices near political centers, such as São Salvador, Mbamba, and Soyo or in territory relatively far from the political centers such as the hospice at Nsuku in the north of the country. There they and their staff of freed slaves (nleke) who carried them on their annual rounds of the countryside. While travelling they stopped at centrally located villages for a few days while people from neighboring settlements came in, and then they performed the sacraments, especially baptism, to thousands. It was not uncommon for a long serving missionary to record tens of thousands of baptisms in their reports, and many fewer marriages and communions.
The Capuchins' special role in Europe, America and in Africa was to purify the religious practice of rural communities, and in Kongo they were particularly keen to destroy what they considered "superstitious" in Kongolese religion, which included the making of charms (minkisi) and healing cults like the kimpasi. Although some regarded Kongo as a devoutly Christian nation and were more tolerant of local custom, many wrote harsh denunciations of local practice. Because of this literature, many scholars have argued that Kongo did not really accept Christianity, or simply masked their true beliefs behind show conversion. However, the missionary reports strongly suggest a syncretic understanding of Christianity on the part of the Kongo rural poor as well as the nobles, in which some elements of the former religion and many more of its cosmology informed Christian practice.
The Capuchin missionaries left very long accounts of Kongo, some of which are the best sources available to us today. Giovanni Francesco da Roma (1648), Antonio de Teruel (1664), Girolamo da Montesarchio (1668), Girolamo Merolla da Sorrento (1688), Luca da Caltanisetta (1701), Marcellino d'Atri (1702), Antonio Gradisca Zucchelli (1712), Bernardo da Gallo (1710), Lorenzo da Lucca (1718), Cherubino da Savonna (1775) and Raimondo da Dicomano (1798) among others, all left lengthy accounts full of details of daily life, political events, and religious observations. Finally, Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo, whose long book of 1678 was often quoted, cited and translated became one of the fundamental sources for Central African history, and his illustrations, both in the unpublished Araldi manuscript (in Modena) and as engravings in his book are important sources for daily life.
After the first two decades of the 18th century, fewer Capuchins came to Kongo, and Portuguese policies, which restricted the ability of Capuchins to enter Angola and Kongo, hampered the 18th century mission as well. For most of the mid-18th century there was only one missionary in the country, and by the end of the century, there were many years with no Capuchins. The Capuchins finally left Central Africa altogether in 1835, and by then they had not had a missionary in Kongo since 1814.