The Bethlehem Mission Society (lat.: Societas Missionum Exterarum de Bethlehem in Helvetia) SMB is a society of the apostolic life of priests and brothers who have joined together in missionary service.

Development History

The origins of the Bethlehem Mission Society go back to the French priest, Pièrre-Marie Baral. He founded in 1895 the “Apostolic School Bethlehem” in Meggen, Switzerland, that was moved in 1896 to nearby Immensee . That developed into the Gymnasium Bethlehem, Immensee. In the same year the first edition of the monthly magazine “Bethlehem”, published in several languages, appeared – which was renamed WENDEKREIS in 1972.

The original purpose of the institute was to educate boys from poorer families for missionary service in Europe’s abandoned parishes, but in the coming years missionary activities spread to Asia, Africa, Latin America and the USA. A circle of friends was built up in Austria, Italy, France, Great Britain, Portugal and the USA. Because of difficulties with the financing of activities by means of postage-stamp dealing, dishonest donation campaigns, and loans, a reorganisation as Missionshaus Bethlehem took place in 1907 under Pietro Bondolfi, later to become the first Superior General

On May 30th 1921, a Papal decree from Rome was granted for the founding of the “Swiss Seminary for Foreign Missions”. Pietro Bondolfi was the first Superior General. Since 1934 the institution is known as “The Society for Foreign Missions of Bethlehem in Switzerland.”   (Societas Missionaria de Bethlehem in Helvetia). In short it is known as Bethlehem Mission Society (SMB).

Candidates for the Society came largely from the Gymnasium Bethlehem in Immensee which was run for this purpose. Belonging to it were the pro-gymnasiums in Rebstein (1926-1973) and Fribourg (1938-1972). ) In 1995 the Gymnasium was handed over to a private foundation under the name “Gymnasium Immensee”. The education of candidates for the priesthood began in 1922 in the Seminary in Wolhusen, which moved in 1932 to the Brother Klaus Seminary in Schöneck (Emmetten) and then in 1969 to the Theological Faculty, Lucerne.

In 1925 the first brother missionaries were admitted into the SMB to work in administration, schools, business and farming. The brothers, like the priests and prospective priests, were obliged through a promise to live according to the rules of the SMB.

Mission and religious-scientific research was the focal point of the founding of “The New Journal of Mission Sciences” in 1945 (NZM), which was changed in 2005 to an annual book “Forum Mission”.

From the regional mission to missionary engagements

Already in 1924 the first three missionaries travelled to China where they were first with the Steyler Missionaries in Yanzhou, South-Shandong to learn the Chinese language and culture. In July 1925 the Apostolic Delegate, Celso Costantini, gave them their own mission area – the Apostolic Prefecture Qiqihar in the far north of China.

On the 19th. March 1926 Paul Hugentobler und Eugen Imhof arrived in Qiqihar, while Gustav Schnetzler took over the village of Changfatun. The SMB devoted themselves to the establishment of the local Christian community and together with the Ingenbohl Sisters to the building up of medical care and school education. By 1940 there were 42 SMB priests active in China. In 1953 most of them were expelled with the last leaving China in 1954.

In 1938 the SMB began their work in the former Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. At times well over 100 members were engaged in the development of the local church, in education and medical fields, in the media and in handwork training

In 1948 the SMB sent the first missionaries to Iwate-ken in North Japan. In the same year the SMB began the first engagement with lay missionaries in former Fort Victoria, now Masvingo, in Southern Rhodesia. After the expulsion of the last missionaries from China, in 1953, the SMB began their work in Taiwan und Columbia.

In 1975 group work began in Peru, 1977 in Ecuador, 1978 in Kenya und 1985 in the Philippines. At the General Chapter in 1981, “Integral Liberation” was formulated with the following three options: options for and with the poor, engagement for human rights, building up basic communities,

In 1992 the SMB began their first missionary engagement in Bolivia. In 1993 the General Chapter formulated a basic declaration regarding missionary presence with the ideal: “What we are says more than what we say”.

In 1994 the SMB appeared in public under the publicity title “Bethlehem Mission Immensee”. (SMB)

The Bethlehem Mission Society (SMB) has long has its headquarters in Immensee. Through its leadership and administration it supports its missionary engagement in Asia (Taiwan, Japan), in Africa (Zimbabwe, Moçambique, Kenya, Tansania), in Latin America (Columbia) und Europa (Switzerland, Germany).

The main emphasis of the 12th regular General Chapter in 2013 was, amongst other things, a model, a document with the title “Some of us are growing ever older“, the future of the SMB as a mission society and building projects which need to be considered because of buildings becoming empty and usable plots of land at hand.

Association – Partner organisation – Association Bethlehem Mission

As a result of the upgrading of the laity in missionary and church service through the Second Vatican Council, together with a new understanding of mission, an increasing number of lay people worked with the SMB in projects. The first mixed engagement of lay people and priests in team-work came into being. The SMB General Chapter of 1967 anchored “Working towards replacement” in its documents. They no longer took over areas allotted to them (territorial principal), but began with project assignments for a limited period. The first of this type of project began in Zambia in 1969.

Das General Chapter of 1974 confirmed such project engagements as a new form of missionary work. The following main motives were formulated:

  • the essential union of mission and development cooperation;
  • the partnership with the local Church; basic ecumenical orientation.

The General Chapter of 1998 confirmed the options of 1981 and strengthened them through emphasising the equal position of women. The SMB gave the men and women linked to them the opportunity to organise themselves in the “Association” and to take part in missionary assignments .

The general Chapter of 1998 was aware of the changes of mission personnel and prepared a model to include additional carriers. The basic options were:

  • Proclaiming the God of life,
  • Engagement with and for the under privileged
  • Intercultural and interreligious dialogue

On July 30th 2000 the Association was changed to the “Partner Organisation Bethlehem”. (PaV). November 17th 2000 is the foundation day of the organisation “Bethlehem Mission Immensee” (BMI) according to article 60ff of the Swiss Civil Law Book. The name for the organisation, “Bethlehem Mission Immensee” is the name used since 1994 as the information title of the SMB. The carriers of the new organisation were the Organisation Missionshaus Bethlehem which represents the Bethlehem Mission Society according to civil law, and the Partner Organisation (PaV). This meant that the missionary commitment of the SMB could now be carried by supporting carriers with the aim that lay people and SMB members have equal rights and can decide together in partnership the planning and realisation of missionary commitments.

At the 11th regular General Chapter of the SMB in 2008, the model of both carriers of Bethlehem Mission Immensee was accepted in a positive way as united and equal carriers.

On June 25th 2011 the partnership structure of the organisation “Bethlehem Mission Immensee” (BMI) came to an end through a decision made at the Annual General Meeting. Through this decision, the Partner Organisation ceased to be a carrier of the activities of “Bethlehem Mission Immensee” and the Bethlehem Mission Society stayed as it was before the year 2000.

Under the same name, “Bethlehem Mission Immensee“, an organisation was founded on the same day that is legally, administrative and financially independent from the Bethlehem Mission Society and is an autonomous non-government organisation (NGO).

In the summer of 2013, “Bethlehem Mission Immensee” ( BMI) moved its headquarters to Romero House in Lucerne which it bought from the SMB.

What binds the SMB and the BMI together?

The Bethlehem Mission Society (SMB) founded the Bethlehem Mission Immensee (BMI) in 2000 as an organisation with two collective members (the organisation Missionshaus Bethlehem and the Partner Organisation Bethlehem). Through this equal rights were given institutionally to lay people and clerics in the planning, decision-making and the realization of missionary commitments. This developed in 2011 into an organisation under the same name, “Bethlehem Mission Immensee” (BMI), composed of single and collective members. The BMI works in the Alliance COMUNDO closely together with the development welfare organisation Inter-Agire (Italian-speaking Switzerland). Today both organisations – the SMB and COMUNDO – exist alongside one another and work for the shared vision of a better and fairer world – each in its own specific way. Priests und brothers of the SMB, as also members of the BMI engage in projects, live and work in the countries of the global south in support of people affected by poverty and discrimination.

The Superior General of the SMB, the President of the Association Missionshaus Bethlehem, the Chairman of the board of Comundo and the CEO of Comundo meet for regular discussions. In these meetings actual questions are discussed, propositions are prepared to be handled by the deciding body and information is exchanged.