The Archbishop emeritus of Tororo Catholic Archdiocese who passed on Friday, December 4, 2020 will go to the grave with remarkable records in the Ugandan Catholic Church. After being ordained a priest on December 22, 1956 at the age of 25, it took him just eight years to be named bishop, thus making him the quickest Ugandan Catholic bishop in the making. The late Archbishop Odongo was named auxiliary bishop of Tororo in November 1964.
He took full control of the diocese on August 19, 1968 succeeding missionary bishop John Francis Greif. Odongo also held another record of being the youngest Ugandan priest to be named bishop. When he was appointed Auxiliary bishop of Tororo in November 1964, Odongo was just 33 years. The only other Ugandans appointed bishops in their 30s were Adrian Ddungu of Masaka at 38, John Baptist Kakubi of Mbarara at 39, Joseph Kiwanuka of Masaka at 39 and Edward Baharagate of Hoima at 39.
In the history of the Ugandan Catholic church, of the 41 indigenous Ugandans that have to date been named and served as bishops, Odongo was the fourth in the ascending order with only three reaching this level before him. Joseph Kiwanuka in 1939, Adrian Ddungu in 1961 and Cyprian Kihangire in 1962.
The former Archbishop of Kampala, late Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga was fifth (1966) and came after James Odongo. Until his death, Archbishop emeritus Odongo was the only surviving representative from the east and central Africa region that attended the Vatican II Council that took place in Rome between 1962 to 1965 bringing many worshiping changes in the Catholic Church.
Archbishop Odongo was 89, the second ever oldest archbishop (retired or still serving) after the Archbishop Emeritus of Kampala, Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala who clocked 94 earlier last month.
News of his death shocked many Christians and members of the clergy who praised him for leading the diocese through troubled waters of the past and seeing it being elevated to a metropolitan Archdiocese in 1999.
The former chairman of the Ugandan Episcopal Conference, Archbishop John baptist Odama of Gulu saluted the late archbishop whom he described as having been a great man of God throughout his life.
Archbishop Odama eulogised Odongo as someone who loved his church. “he was an elder and bright star in the history of the Catholic church . A very pious, righteous man of God who had an ideal personality,” he said.
Charles Lwanga, 72 a parishioner at Lubaga Cathedral parish, says he first heard about Archbishop Odongo during the 1960s when he was still at school.
“We used to hear that he was very fluent in Latin and he exhibited very high academic standards in the major seminaries he attended in Uganda and abroad,” Lwanga recollects.
In 2015, when Archbishop Odongo celebrated 50 years as both bishop and archbishop, many heaped praises on his religious service to the nation and for being the only surviving East African clergy man to have attended the historic Vatican Council II in the 1960s.
The Uganda Episcopal Conference secretary general, Msgr John Baptist Kawuta hailed the late archbishop for hard work and making it to the top most seat in the archdiocese.
During his 30 years of service at Tororo, Archbishop Odongo became known for emphasising unity among ethnic groups in the diocese and seeing to it that the laity were more involved in the work of the church.
Archbishop Odongo wrote in his autobiography, Shepherd of a multi-cultural mosaic, “There are 11 ethnic linguistic groups in the Diocese and religious diversities. Everywhere I go, people of different religions and tribes follow me, I don’t preach tribes, I preach Christ.”
The clergyman and his twin the Rev Fr Alfred Opio were born on March 27, 1931 to peasants in Molo village in Tororo District. Gabriel Omanyin, their father was a catechist and Rosalina Nyachwa, the mother a homemaker. Odongo and Opio went to the same seminaries before being ordained priests on the same day in 1956. Fr Odongo later served as curate at Budadiri and Mulanda parishes before being promoted to serve at the diocesan headquarters in Tororo as assistant education secretary and later the diocesan vicar general.
It was in November 1964 when he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Tororo Diocese by St Pope Paul VI. He was consecrated bishop on February 16, 1965 by Lauren Cardinal Rugambwa the former archbishop of Dar es salaam in Tanzania who was assisted by Rt Rev John Francis Greif, bishop of Tororo and Rt Rev Vincent Joseph McCauley then bishop of Fort Portal. Bishop Odongo was appointed to take full control of the diocese in 1968 after the retirement of Bishop Gref.
On January 2, 1999 bishop Odongo was appointed the first metropolitan Arcbishop of Tororo Ecclesiastical province until June 27, 2007 when he was succeeded by Archbishop Denis Kiwanuka Lote. In Tororo, Archbishop Odongo served for 39 years (as bishop and later archbishop) becoming the second longest serving Ugandan bishop after the late bishop Joseph Willigers who served in Jinja diocese for 42 years between 1967 and 2010.
• The young James Odongo had to first attend a vernacular school and in this case, at Molo vernacular school between 1939 and 1940.
• He later proceeded to Nyangole vernacular school (1941-1942).
• For a catechist’s son, Nyenga minor seminary in the current Buikwe District was his next port of call. The seminary was then managed by the mill Hill fathers, before proceeding to Ggaba Major Seminary then also belonging to the Mill Hill Fathers.
• James Odongo was at Ggaba between 1951 to 1952. He was so talented and such a bright students that he was sent for further studies to Pontifical Urban seminary in Rome where he spent four years studying Theology.