Catholics mark 133 years of evangelism in Uganda

Faithfuls pay respects to the statues of the fathers. Photo by Martin Ssebuyira

What you need to know:

Milestones: The White Fathers set foot in the country 133 years ago hoping to win souls. Much as they achieved this, it was not an easy journey.

The aroma of roasted meat and fried fish and vendors selling merchandise welcomed thousands of pilgrims who visited Father Lourdel and Brother Aman’s arrival spot at a memorial church in Kigungu, behind Entebbe Airport on February 17. They had gone to pray and pay homage to the first white Catholic missionaries to Uganda on February 17, 1879.

Thousands of Catholic pilgrims from Masaka, Jinja, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Kampala among other areas started their pilgrimage to Entebbe one month prior TO D-day.

Kasana/Luweero diocese Bishop The Right Rev Paul Ssemwogere and Cardinal Emmanuel Wamala then led a procession of priests from Entebbe, Kisubi, Nabulagala among others to kick start a mass the Christians eagerly awaited.

Like the culture is at Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrine, churches in Kampala and Entebbe are given chance to arrange the celebrations and Lweza Catholic Church this year organised the colourful Kigungu event.
“Atrocities committed by our children stem directly from us the parents. We need to follow the footsteps of the two white fathers who have made us gather here to today to have a better generation,” Bishop Paul Ssemwogerere said in his sermon.

He also decried the current corruption in the country comparing it to a patient whose sickness has failed to respond to treatment and people are just praying for him/her as they await the patient’s death.
He then urged Christians to be the light and salt of the world to revise the current trend of corruption in the country.

According to Fr Von John Van De Venn Sajjalyabene a.k.a Fr Miilo of Nabulagala, an association has been formed to pray for the beatification and canonising of the White Fathers to be named saints.

The making of saints
The process of beatification starts with choosing a candidate. The faithful then offer their opinion of the sanctity of the candidate for sainthood and the process begins in the diocese (Inquisitional Time). Here the faithful pray until the person makes some miracles that are investigated and proved.

This is followed by dicussion and decisional times at the Vatican. After the research is completed, the candidate who has been proclaimed blessed needs to perform more verifiable miracles which takes place after the beatification and he is then affirmed at a congregation in order to be canonized. The Holy Father, then makes the final decision.

The journey of Mapeera
According to Fr De Ven, the journey of the White Fathers began 133 years ago in 1879. Fr Simoen Lourdel a.k.a “Mapeera” and his nine companions set out for the central or equatorial Africa, which was at that time commonly called the territories of Victoria Nyanza and Tanganyika.

In Algiers, they went aboard a ship that took them to Marseilles in the south of Africa from where they boarded a big ocean steamer that was destined for China and this ship took them through the Suez canal all the way to Aden.

“They had to disembark and continue with a smaller ship all the way to the island of Zanzibar where they arrived on the May 30,” he narrates. Two white fathers, Charmetant and Deniaud had preceded them to Zanzibar to prepare the long journey of the nine missionaries into the deep interior of the continent and on their arrival, they were happy to meet those two missionaries in Zanzibar, who were working hard to get everything ready for the caravan at Bagamoyo, a coastal town in Tanzania.

Fr De Ven says: “Leaving Bagamoyo, they entered uncharted territory because they had rudimentary knowledge of the interior and depended on diaries and travelogues written by explorers like Stanley, Grant and Speke among others, but hardly had a precise idea of all the difficulties, hardships and diseases they would have to cope with”.

The porters caused the missionaries a lot of trouble as well as some would take off at night with the luggage and every time they passed through the territory of another tribe, they had to pay the ‘Hongo’ -the right of passage to the chief of that area.

He says some chiefs were very demanding and there was a lot of wheeling and dealing before they would agree on the price considering they were paying bales of cloth materials and other items because money was almost unknown at that time. One of the fathers, Joachim Pascal died of fever and exhaustion on August 20, 1879 and was buried in a forest.

At Tabora, the caravan split into smaller groups with four continuing to shores of lake Tanganyika and five headed for lake Victoria (Nalubaale). When these five arrived at the southern shore of the lake, they were absolutely exhausted and needed some rest.

Fr De ven narrates, Simeon Lourdel wanted to continue the journey to Uganda and after long discussions, Fr Livinhac who was the superior of the group agreed that Lourdel and Aman should go ahead of the group. They bought a boat and hired eight oarsmen and five guards. On January 20, 1879, they set off at Kageye and started to cross the lake keeping close to the shoreline because they had to buy some food and spend nights in tents and mend their boats daily on the main land.

On Febuary 15, they reached Bugoma on Ssese Islands and on 17, they went ashore at the landing place Kyettale at Kigungu where a monument marks the spot.

He says their boat was miserable and on February 19, they wanted to row all the way to Mutungo, a little close to one of the palaces of King Muteesa but near the landing site Kaweta at Bugonga in Entebbe, they suffered shipwreck. They then continued on foot as their journey lasted for 10months with two months by boat from Algiers to Bagamoyo and 8 months on foot from Bagamoyo to Kigungu.
The cleric sums up by saying the Catholic church in Uganda is built on the sweat, blood and tears of the first missionaries. What kept them going was their unshakable faith, their life of prayer and unflinching trust in God.