The long road to sainthood of Uganda Martyrs

Pope John Paul II at the Uganda Martyrs Catholic Shrine Namugongo, Wakiso, in 1993. On October 18, 1964, the Uganda Martyrs were canonised at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. FILE PHOTO

What you need to know:

  • This year marks a century since the first pilgrimage to Namugongo. It happened in 1920 when a Dutch Catholic priest, Fr Stephen Walters, led a handful of pilgrims from Nsambya to Namugongo.
  • In part four of our series on Uganda Martyrs, we look at how the men of God were canonised saints.

On Mission Sunday of October 18, 1964, at St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, Pope Paul VI declared the 22 Uganda Martyrs saints of the Catholic Church worldwide. The declaration concluded a 52-year process. The canonisation came 76 years after their condemnation to death by Kabaka Mwanga.

The process
Being declared a saint is a culmination of a process which takes years. In the case of the Uganda Catholic martyrs, the process took 52 years. It started 76 years after their execution. The 52-year long process followed strict Catholic rules of canonisation, involving checks and confirmation.

It all started on August 14, 1912, when Pope Pius X declared the 22 Uganda Catholic martyrs venerable. With this declaration, people started praying through the martyrs for miracles.

In 1916, the beatification process started following approval of the Sacred Rites of Canonisation of Saints. Four years later, on June 20, 1920, Pope Benedict XV declared the Uganda Catholic martyrs blessed during the beatification Mass.

Miracles performed
A year after being declared venerable, Henri Streicher, then Bishop of Rubaga, set up a tribunal to receive testimonies of miracles performed by the martyrs from the public.

Two of the tribunal members, Denis Kamyuka and Joseph Nsingisira, had witnessed the killings of 1886. A total 120 witnesses with miracles appeared before the tribunal.

One of the outstanding miracles received was that of the two Catholic nuns who had been cured of bubonic plague. The two sisters, Richildis Buck and Mary Aloyse Cribelt, had contracted the plague while attending to patients suffering from the same disease at Rubaga Hospital.

When the then Bishop of Rubaga, Edouard Michaud, heard about the two sisters’ sickness, he asked the Christians in Rubaga Diocese to start a Novena (nine days of intensive prayers) through the intercession of the martyrs for the healing of the two sisters. On the third day of the Novena after day and night prayers, the two sisters were healed.

Bishop Michaud, who was the bishop of Rubaga between 1933 and 1945, included the miraculous healing of the two sisters in his report to the postulator for the cause of the canonisation of Uganda Martyrs.

The cure was brought to the attention of the Congregation of Rites of Saints. The Congregation in turn referred the cure to the Pontifical Medical Commission for further investigation. After the commission’s investigation, it said: “The cure of the plague [was] exceptional and that it could not be explained by law of nature,” according to the records in the Rubaga Cathedral archives centre.

The miracle was further subjected to external medical experts for verification. Four private medical experts, including two UK-based and two Kampala-based doctors, an Anglican physician one Dr Reynolds from Mulago and one Dr Ahmed, a Muslim private practitioner on Entebbe Road, were consulted. Their findings were in agreement with the report from the Pontifical Medical Commission.

Report findings
According to records at the Rubaga Cathedral archives centre, the external medical experts’ report read: “The medication given to the two sisters, which was the only drug at the time, was definitely not sufficient to effect the recovery. The same scientific observation was confirmed by a leading drug manufactures May & Baker.”

Earlier in 1964, Catholic Church leaders from across the world were in Rome for the third Vatican Council meeting. Among those present was Uganda’s Joseph Kiwanuka, the first black archbishop in Sub-Saharan Africa. At the end of the council, the Pope called for three preliminary consistories (meetings) of the cardinals and other top clergy to hear the findings of the tribunal set up to gather evidence on miracles.

In the public consistory, a report detailing the life, virtues and miracles of the Uganda Martyrs was presented. The second consistory was not public. In this, the Pope asked the cardinals to express their views on what had been presented to them in the first consistory and afterwards to sign a written document which was to confirm the canonisation of the martyrs. Uganda’s Kiwanuka was among those who signed.

Declaring them saints
On October 18, 1964, multitudes descended onto St Peter’s Basilica to witness the canonisation of the 22 Ugandan and only African Catholic martyrs.
As the litany of the saints was being sung during Mass, different cardinals, bishops, and patriarchs from different parts of the world took turns to approach the papal seat to pay homage to the Pope.

Afterwards, the papal postulator for the cause of the martyrs, Fr Anthony Wonter, read out the traditional formula in Latin of instanter, instatius, instatissime (urgently, more urgently, most urgently), requesting the Pope to proclaim the martyrs of Uganda as saints of God.

With the request made, the Pope’s secretary responded: “His holiness was prepared to grant this request but called for prayers and the invocation of the Holy Spirit.” The prayer was followed by the singing of the Latin hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus. The song was followed by the Pope’s proclamation.

Priests carry the relics of the Uganda Martyrs during Martyrs Day celebrations at Namugongo on June 3, 2015. COURTESY PHOTO

Pope declaration
In the proclamation the Pope said: “To the honour of the Holy and indivisible Trinity for the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian religion by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul and our very own, after mature deliberations and frequent prayers for divine guidance and with advise of our venerable brethren the cardinals, patriarchs, bishops, and bishops of the Holy Roman Catholic present in the city, we decree and define as holy and inscribe in the roll of Saints the Blessed Charles Lwanga, Matthias Mulumba Kalemba and their 20 companions.”

He added: “We decree that their memory be commemorated by the universal Church with pious devotion each year on June 3. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
After the declaration, an official recording of the Act of canonisation was made. The Act of Canonisation was accompanied with the official notification of the entire world church of the declaration of the 22 Uganda Martyrs to sainthood.

Home celebration


In February 1965, Uganda held a three-day celebration to mark the canonisation of the Catholic Martyrs. Pope John Paul VI sent a special papal envoy, Cardinal Gregory Agagianian, to attend the celebrations. Cardinal Agagianian also visited then President, Sir Edward Mutesa, and Prime Minister Apollo Milton Obote. The celebrations started on February 5, 1965, at the Martyrs’ shrine of Mityana, where Noah Mawagali, the only catholic martyr died.
Hundreds of people, including local politicians and bishops from other African countries graced the occasion.