The flagship of the Roman Catholic Church in the greater Bahr El-Ghazal region of Southern Sudan is the cathedral of Wau. Opened in 1956, it is an imposing brick structure replete with cupola and rose window and ranks as the largest of Sudan's five Catholic cathedrals.
The roots of Roman Catholicism in the area date back to 1904 when 10 Comboni missionaries left Khartoum for the remote settlement of Wau, where British colonial authorities had established an outpost at the beginning of the twentieth century.
In 1913 an apostolic prefecture was established in the Bahr El-Ghazal region under the leadership of Father Antonio Stoppani. Wau's current Bishop Rudolf Deng Majak described the city as a "cradle of Christianity" at the time, and Father Stoppani became Wau's first bishop four years later when the apostolic prefecture was upgraded to a vicariate.
The church played a vital role in the field of education over the ensuing four decades. Catholic schools were synonymous with the best education on offer in the Bahr El-Ghazal region to the children of the local elites.
The St. Joseph's Workshop churned out carpenters, plumbers, electricians and other skilled artisans.
That all began to change in 1958 when Catholic and other faith-based schools were nationalized by the regime of Gen. Ibrahim Abboud as part of an effort to promote Islam in Sudan.
The church's fortunes enjoyed a modest uptick during Sudan's second civil war. It organized the distribution of food to the poor on a monthly basis, said Wau school teacher Peter Elis Bandas. As most state-run schools were forced to close their doors, that left Catholic institutions like the John Paul II Secondary School, which continued to function during the long years of conflict.
But the real comeback of the Catholic Church in Wau occurred after the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
It currently operates 16 schools in and around the Western Bahr El-Ghazal State capital, and a new faculty of agriculture was recently completed for the city's Catholic University.
The Wau diocese provides health care services through the Comboni Hospital, St. Joseph's Clinic and the Jebel Kheir health clinic.
"Its office of peace and justice has a great role to play for the success of the referendum of southern Sudan," said Bishop Deng, adding that the church has scheduled prayers for the referendum on a regular basis and is organizing workshops focusing on peace building and reconciliation.
A shortage of funding has hampered efforts to rehabilitate some of the Catholic schools and vocational training facilities that deteriorated during the civil war.
"Funding has become a real stumbling block that hinders the renovation of many schools and other parishes outside Wau," said the prelate. The problem is also present in the city itself, where the venerable St. Joseph's Workshop awaits the necessary infusion of money to upgrade its physical premises.
There is no doubting the imprint that the Catholic church has made on many prominent residents of Wau.
"The church in Wau has played a great role in my life," said Ms. Rose Alfred Maffigi, who attended Catholic schools from kindergarten right through to the secondary level.
"Most of my colleagues who are now working with the Government, non-governmental organizations and even UNMIS here in Wau got their education from John Paul II Church Secondary School."
The next big project for the church is the opening of an FM radio station that will join other stations affiliated with the Sudan Catholic Radio Network.
Father Justin Wanawilla of the diocese's development office said that the church plans to use the radio station to provide religious and civic education to the population at large in Wau.