How Mother Kevin established schools, health centres in Africa

Sunday December 9 2018

Established.  St Francis Hospital, Nsambya, one

Established. St Francis Hospital, Nsambya, one of Mother Kevin’s contributions to the health sector. PHOTO BY MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI 

Has anyone ever wondered why of all schools Ugandan presidents such as Idi Amin and Museveni chose to take their daughters to St Mary’s Namagunga; founded by the Franciscan Sisters and their local offspring, the Little Sisters Of Saint Francis? Or does anyone have a clue why the former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda decided to marry a Zambian woman who had trained in Uganda at Stella Maris Domestic Science school in Nsube at Nkokonjeru?
What about the reason behind Nsambya hospital’s nursing and midwifery school being such a great attraction throughout East Africa?

Well the magic to all this lies behind the name Mother Kevin, an Irish nun who founded an impressive chain of schools, homes, institutes, religious congregations and hospitals when she lived in Uganda between1903 and 1955.
Such is the legacy of a brave and pioneering Irish nun born Theresa Kearney, who arrived in Uganda for missionary work in 1903.

Well, some good news for Ugandans; the local Catholic Church has completed the first local phase of the process leading to the beatification of this nun.
The process was launched at Lubaga Cathedral in November 2016.

The next step?
This will involve the compiled documents regarding Mother Kevin being taken to Rome- to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints which will open up their phase of investigations.

But who is Mother Kevin and how has she been so important to Uganda?
In 1903 when the Irish nun came to Uganda, illiteracy was generally widespread, even among males. When she set foot in Uganda everybody, including the victims believed a woman’s place was in the kitchen, garden, and bed.

However, Mother Kevin found all these perceptions unacceptable and this caused her to work tirelessly to promote and empower women spiritually, psychologically, materially and intellectually. With the help of 33 other nuns, Mother Kevin made the first scratch by opening up a boarding school for girls at Nsambya, a maternity centre for training midwives and founding the congregation of the Little Sisters of Saint Francis (LSOF) in May 1923 with eight girls aged between 13 and 18. In July 1923, she took another eight girls, two of them from Kenya and Tanzania. In 1924, she added more 14 girls. In 1926 the mother house moved to Nkokonjeru, present day Buikwe District where there was more land for expansion.


This was one way of emancipating women and giving special attention to the poor and needy.
Parents accused her of spoiling their girls by “making Europeans out of them”. Others simply wondered how they would know God in a foreign language.
Besides, it was then unheard of among the natives that the girls picked by Mother Kevin would remain unmarried with parents missing out on bride price.

During that time celibacy was almost a taboo as parents were responsible for choosing partners for their sons and daughters. That aside, chauvinist Baganda parents were not amused that Mother Kevin was mixing (sic) their daughters with girls from “less” ethnic groups. Many Luo, Samia, Basoga and Bagisu girls who had joined Mother Kevin’s congregation, shared housing among other things with their Baganda sisters.

But Mother Kevin was undeterred. She said her role was fostering unity in diversity. And as part of her legacy, the Little Sisters of Saint Francis are very rich today in ethnic composition. They number about 770 and have more than 50 ethnic groups from all over Africa .

The current Superior General of the congregation is Rev Sr Cecilia Njeri from Kenya who is at the same time the chairperson of the Association of Consecrated Women in East and Central Africa (ECWECF) .

Other Kenyans have in the past led the congregation and they include Rev Sr Irimina Nangari and Rev Sr Anne Nasimiyu. Sr Nasimiyu who passed on in February was Superior General at Nkokonjeru between 1992 and 2004. She was a great scholar and author of books with a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Systematic Theology obtained from the University of Duquesne in Pennsylvania ,USA .

For 24 years she was a professor of Philosophy at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. She was a great orator who in 2001 addressed the United Nations General Assembly special session on the plight of women and the girl-child in Africa in the age of HIV/Aids.
Sr Nasimiyu was a founder member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World theologians.

White chicken god
As the legend goes, Mother Kevin first arrived in Nkokonjeru around 1926. Nkokonjeru, which is in Luganda is translated as “place of the white chicken,” was a home of the local Ganda deity - a god that allegedly accepted only white chicken in sacrifice.
The god’s abode was the foot of a gigantic tree where local worshippers had for centuries brought and sacrificed the purest of white hens and cocks.

When Mother Kevin arrived in the area she preached that the local deity was a powerless god and that the only way to God was through Jesus Christ.
As a challenge, Mother Kevin insisted she would fell the tree but no villager would dare help her because all believed this was the home of a god whose wrath they feared that they would stir lead to retribution.

Even her own young African nuns feared to touch the tree. Mother Kevin picked an axe and tried to fell the tree herself. She made a few cuts and gave up tired- waiting to take up the task again the following day. But the locals laughed at her believing she would not see the light of the following day. After all, whoever dared provoke the “white hen god” at the foot of his own sacrificial tree allegedly never lived. Everyone went home expecting to hear that Mother Kevin had died in the night.

In fact the nun was to have the last laugh. In the night a wild storm came and fell the tree. No one could believe it. The morning, Mother Kevin again picked the axe and chopped off branches of the now felled tree.
When the local men saw that nothing had happened to her, they took up axes - chopping the tree to pieces. The logs were used to burn the bricks of the chapel which still stands today.

The chapel was completed in 1929. It was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The altar of the main chapel of the Nkokonjeru sisters stands in the exact spot where the large tree once stood. And it came to be known as “the place of the white hen”- Nkokonjeru to this day. Kyawankoko, the well of the village god still provides the villagers with water. Some people claim they still see the god crossing from one side of the stream to the other, especially when the rainbow hangs over kyawankonko.
The story may be exaggerated, but it tells a lot about Mother Kevin’s resolve. To build God’s kingdom site close to that of the fake one.

Mother Kevin established good schools for girls such as St Agnes Catholic Girls Boarding Primary School which was at first in Nsambya before shifting to Naggalama in 1925.
Girls who joined the school were taught christinity, Mathematics, sewing, music, cookery and European culture.
While the chiefs resisted, many parents realised the importance of the school and sent their daughters to acquire education and prepare them for marriage- particularly to the chiefs of Buganda. Girls from Mother Kevin’s schools reputedly made the best housewives. Other schools founded were Stella Maris Nsube, Namilyango Junior boys, St Francis Madela, School of the Blind in Soroti, Mount St Mary’s Namagunga, Bahati Senior Secondary School in Kenya, among others.

With schools such as Namagunga, Mother Kevin lies happily in her grave satisfied that her dream of taking women to the peak of academic excellence came true. The results speak for themselves. Namagunga has mothered top women such as Dr Specioza Wandera Kazibwe, East African first vice president; Prof Josephine Nambooze- East African first woman medical doctor; Uganda’s first veterinary surgeons - Tereza Namatovu and Jane Kamya. Others on the impressive list include Uganda’s first female urban and regional planner Eunice Owino and Margaret Kiryokya, Marjorie Naluganda, the first Ugandan female to obtain a Bachelor of Science Degree at Makerere University.

In the health sector, Mother Kevin will forever be remembered for founding Nsambya Hospital which is today one of the biggest and best in the country. She started it as a dispensary under a mango tree in 1903.
She also founded Nsambya’s Nursing and Midwifery School which today attracts students from all over East Africa. Nyenga Leprosarium in Buikwe District was started by Mother Kevin having observed that the British colonial government had done nothing to help lepers.

In all, Mother Kevin’s Little Sisters of Saint Francis today operate convents and work in schools and hospitals almost all over Uganda.
In Kenya they can be found in dioceses such as Nairobi, Muranga, Embu, Bungoma, Kisii, Kitui, Garissa, Nakuru, Eldoret, Machakos and Meru, among others. And they are in Tanzania as well, notably in Same and Bukoba dioceses.

About mother Kevin
Born Theresa Kearney, at Arklow in Ireland, on April 29, 1875, her father had died three months earlier. At only six her mother also passed away and Theresa was brought up by her grandmother. She took up a teaching post in a school at Essex. Two years later she entered the Franciscan convent at St Mary’s Abbey- Mill Hill in London where she made her professional vows in 1898 thus becoming Sr Mary Kevin.
In 1903 Sr Kevin volunteered as one of the pioneers called for by Mill Hill bishop Henry Halon to make a foundation for Uganda. Having worked in Uganda for 44 years Mother Kevin retired in 1955 just before her 80th birthday and left Uganda for USA where there was an urgent need to open up a vicariate.

She died in her sleep in the morning of October 17, 1957 in Boston, Massachusetts. Two days before her death, she had written a letter to her congregation in Nkokonjeru partly saying, “Longing to see you again, God willing ....”. Because she had made a will to be buried in Nkokonjeru, Uganda, Mother Kevin’s body was flown back here on December 2, 1957 and emotionally laid to rest on December 3, 1952. Her remains are interned in a sealed vault in a small special chapel with a beautiful steel gate with inscribed Latin words; “Deus Omnia” (My God, my all) which is the motto of the congregation.

This is the great Mother Kevin, whose road to sainthood has now commenced. She is more popular in Uganda than her native Ireland. Not surprising that a good number of Ugandans with a Christian name of “Kevin” usually come from Nkokonjeru and surrounding areas where mother Kevin worked tirelessly to transform the society. For instance, the former Daily Monitor chief sub-editor, the late John Kevin Aliro grew up not far away from the Little sisters headquarters of Nkokonjeru. Kevin Aliro praised the nuns for giving him a strong foundation and providing him with education during his early years.