The spread of Catholicism in Tooro from 1895 -1961

Fort Portal Diocese choir perform final rehearsals for today’s Martyrs’ Day celebration at the Namugongo Catholic shrine on June 2, 2022. PHOTO/DAVID LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • Rev Dr Christopher B. Mukidi, the deputy vice chancellor of Uganda Martyrs University, traces the genesis of the Catholic faith in Tooro.

The beginnings of the Catholic faith in Tooro can be traced to Fr Augustine Achte (Pere Achte), a member of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers), who arrived on the hill of Virika on November 16, 1895.  Fr Achte first worked in Buddu and was later transferred to Bunyoro where he established a missionary station in Bukuumi. From here, Fr Achte went to Tooro and established himself as the first Catholic Missionary.  
Meanwhile, after returning from his exile in Buganda in 1891, King Daudi Kasagama of Tooro invited missionaries of the Church Missionary Society to his kingdom. His request was honored with the sending of the first Protestant catechists to Tooro in June 1894, who included Marko Luyimbazi and Apollo Kivebulaya; the latter became a key evangelizer of Tooro and Mboga-Zaire (now the Dr Congo). 

In Tooro, Fr Achte was joined by Fr Toulze with whom they convinced the King to allow them preach their faith.  However, given the King’s experience at the Kabaka’s court where Protestants and the Catholics fought their religious wars,  King Kasagama initially preferred the Protestants.  However, with time, Fr Achte convinced the King to allow him to preach the Catholic faith, albeit to the lower class and the less influential in society (the Bairu).  
While the King was in Kampala, he was baptised as an Anglican on March 15, 1896.  Upon his return to the Kingdom, he became hostile to the missionaries and to the Catholic Church.  Fr Achte voiced his complaints to Mr Sitwell, the colonial district commissioner of Tooro.  Later, King Kasagama adopted a friendlier attitude and allowed the Queen Mother, Victoria Kahinju, to donate her land at Kijanju to Fr Achte. 
In addition, King Kasagama allowed his two children to be baptised Catholics, namely, Prince Rwakatale and Princess Nkwenge. By the close of 1896, many chiefs led by Siras Kagoro, the provincial chief of Mwenge, and Kasagama’s relatives had embraced the new faith.  Elsewhere in the Kingdom, the Catholic Church found it hard to acquire land for missionary work until the colonial administration took that power away from the local chiefs. 

Later, the Catholic Church was able to acquire land and register it with the colonial government.  After one year of teaching catechism, the first catechumens were baptised on the December 8, 1896.  Three years later, the whole of Tooro, comprising of the present districts of Kabarole, Kamwenge, Kitagwenda, Kyenjojo, Kyegegwa, Ntoroko, Bundibugyo, and Kasese had only 289 Catholics.  
Mission yields fruits
However, the rate of growth of the faith was so rapid that by mid-1903, the number of baptised Catholics had become 2,200 and Catechumens were 8,000.  The opening of Catholic churches and the teaching of catechism was mostly done by Baganda catechists,  priests were still few.

In 1897, Fr Achte was transferred to Kampala to work as an administrator of the Uganda Vicariate in the place of Bishop Streicher for six years. When he returned to Virika in 1902, the number of Christians had grown and the mission had expanded. He commissioned some of the unbaptized Christians to act as catechists.  He also recruited the first young men to train for the priesthood, among them was the first Mutooro priest Leo Bwogo, ordained a priest in 1918.  
Another fruit of faith (fidei donum) of his from Tooro was catechist Joseph Rutebemberwa, who in 1902 accompanied Fr Lesbros and Bro. Hermann and catechist Jean Kamodo to mark the places of future mission in Ankole. They had been sent by Bishop Streicher.  However, it was in 1904 that the first resident missionaries in the names of Fathers L. Gorju and A. Varangot set camp at Nyamitanga Hill.   Rutebemberwa established himself and his family in Ankole and later one of his sons (Msgr) Thomas Bishanga was ordained a priest of the present archdiocese of Mbarara in 1944.  

Fr Achte died of malaria on the February 2, 1905 and was buried at Virika.  For many years, Virika remained the only parish from where Fr Achte and his confreres (fellows) served the rest of the region.  However, he had used Butiiti on his first journey from Bukuumi to Virika and thus he kept it as a pivotal outstation of Virika Parish under the care of catechists from Bukuumi such as Placidi Ssetyabi, John Kaparaga, Semeo Balironda, and John Kitana, but supervised by priests like Fr Toulze and Fr Varangot from Virika Parish.  These catechists used to instruct the catechumens; and when they were ready, they would be taken to Virika for further catechetical instructions and baptism; a practice that ended on the December 14, 1904.  

This move contributed to the growth of numbers of Christians in Butiiti.  Thus, by 1928, Butiiti Parish had 8,047 baptised Christians.  On the November 5, 1904, the parish of Butiiti under the names of  “Our Lady of Salvation” (Notre-Dame de Salut) was opened with Fr Gremeret as the first parish priest, assisted by Fr Debrulle and Bro. Martin.  Butiiti Parish comprised of the areas surrounding Butiiti and the present-day parishes of Kyarusozi, Katoosa, Butunduuzi, Kagoma, Mabira, and the whole of Kyaka (Wekomiire, Hapuuyo and Mpara parishes) and Rwamwanja in the present Kamwenge District. 

Arrival of White Fathers
The Catholic mission in the Tooro region was further strengthened with the arrival of the White Sisters in 1911.  In 1918, the sisters were joined by the “Bannabikira” who settled at Butiiti. In 1933, Bishop Streicher (Stenseera), who was the ordinary of the Nyanza Vicariate, requested propaganda Fide to create another Vicariate in Western Uganda to cater for the pastoral needs for the Christians of Kigezi, Ankole, Tooro and Bunyoro. 

The Holy See (government of the Roman Catholic Church) granted Bishop Streicher’s request in 1934 by creating the Rwenzori Vicariate with Fr Francis Xavier Lacoursiere as its first Bishop.  As for the headquarters of the new Vicariate, as opposed to Virika in Tooro because of its centrality and rich historical heritage, Bishop Lacoursiere chose Mbarara because of the large Catholic populations in Ankole and Kigezi.  

Our Lady Of Snows, Virika Cathedral - Diocese Of Fort Portal. Photo/Diocese of Fort Portal

Among his achievements, Bishop Lacoursiere started Kitabi Seminary in Mbarara in 1935 for the training of the local clergy for the Vicariate.  There were 13 young men from the western region that joined the seminary who included Msgr Musiko Boniface, who became a priest in 1951, and Msgr Bahemuka Andrew, who joined the same seminary in 1936.  For Tooro and Bunyoro, Bishop Lacoursiere, with the assistance of Fr Ulric Beauchamp, in 1937 started the local religious congregation of the Banyatereza Sisters.  The primary purpose of this congregation was to assist the Bishop in the teaching of catechism in the spirit of St Therese of Lisieux to the expanding Catholic population.  

In the training of the sisters, Bishop Lacoursiere and Pere Beauchamp were assisted by the Missionary Sisters of our Lady of Africa (earlier known as the White Sisters), among whom included Sr Adelaide (1937 to 1939), Sr Nicholas (1939 to 1949), Sr Victorinus (1949 to 1955) and Sr Pierre Michel-First Superior General (1955 to 1968).  In the work of formation, the White Sisters were assisted by the Daughters of Mary (Bannabikira) who were sent by their Superior Mother Mechitildis of Bwanda. 
The first Bannabikira sent in January 1940 were Sr Scholastica and Sr Sabina. The first thirty Banyatereza candidates joined the congregation as aspirants in 1937; twelve received their novitiate habits on the February 10, 1940; another 10 made their first religious profession of vows on the February 10, 1942; and on June 3, 1958,  another 5 of them made their perpetual professions.  These were Sr Maria Mechitildis (R.I.P), Sr Anna Maria (R.I.P), Sr Maria Honorata (R.I.P), Sr Maria Majella (R.I.P), and Sr Maria Tibagwa (R.I.P).

1945 celebration
As an Ordinary of the Rwenzori Vicariate (1934 to1956), Bishop Lacoursiere contributed greatly to the development of Tooro.  When the Catholic Church celebrated its golden Jubilee anniversary in 1945, Sir George Rukidi III, the King of Tooro, expressed his happiness by mobilising all his subjects that is Catholics and Protestants for the celebration.  A total of Shs5,000 (equivalent to Shs50m today) was raised from the subjects and handed to Bishop Lacoursiere as the Kingdom’s support for the celebration and acknowledgement of the Roman Catholic Church’s contribution to the development of Tooro.  Despite the creation of the Rwenzori Vicariate in 1934, the Vicariate remained quite big for a meaningful and effective pastoral work apostolate.  Thus, at the request of Bishop Lacoursiere through Bishop Streicher, Rome in 1953 created Mbarara Diocese with Bishop Lacoursiere as the first Ordinary. 
 In 1956, Bishop Lacoursiere retired. He died in 1970 and was succeeded by Bishop Jean Marie Ogez in 1957.  One of the first key things the new Bishop did was to divide Mbarara Diocese into four deaneries, namely; Ankole, Kigezi, Tooro, and Bunyoro, which later became independent dioceses. 
Until 1958, the diocese of Mbarara, comprising of the old regions of Ankole, Kigezi, Tooro and Bunyoro, was pastorally served by only one Congregation of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers).  Realising that Mbarara Diocese was still too big,  Bishop Ogez in 1958 wrote to Propaganda Fide in Rome requesting for another Missionary Congregation. His request was premised on four major reasons: One, Mbarara Diocese was too big an area to be administered efficiently.  Secondly, the priests were too few to meet the pastoral needs.  Third, Tooro and Bunyoro, having a common cultural heritage and Runyoro-Rutooro language, needed to be administered separately as opposed to administering them with the districts of Kigezi and Ankole, which had a slightly different cultural heritage and Runyankole-Rukiga language. 

Lastly, Bishop Ogez felt Tooro and Bunyoro would create a wonderful opportunity for creating another diocese with its own bishop.  
Propaganda Fide responded positively by sending the Holy Cross Missionaries to Uganda in the persons of Frs Robert Hesse, Francis Zagorc and Burton Edward Smith led by Vincent Joseph McCauley, who landed at Entebbe on the November 4, 1958.  Thus, Fort Portal Diocese was canonically separated from the diocese of Mbarara with the decree issued by Pope John XXIII on April 19, 1961.  

The priest chosen by Propaganda Fide was Fr McCauley; who was ordained a bishop in the Sacred Heart Church of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA on May 17, 1961.  A formal installation of Bishop McCauley was done on July 2, 1961 at a Mass celebrated at St Michael’s Secondary School (currently St Mary’s Seminary) led by Archbishop Guido del Mestri, and assisted by Bishop Lacoursiere, who gave the sermon.  Others in attendance were Bishop Ogez of Mbarara and superiors of Holy Cross and Missionaries of Africa.  The new diocese of Fort Portal comprised of the then kingdoms of Tooro and Bunyoro, “comprising the current dioceses of Fort Portal, Hoima and Kasese.” 

Birth of Hoima Diocese
Shortly after, Bishop McCauley saw the need of creating Hoima Diocese, partly out of Fort Portal Diocese.  This was mostly after Buganda lost the counties of Buyaga and Bugangaizi to Bunyoro.  Bishop McCauley stated in a letter to Archbishop Joseph Kiwanuka of Lubaga that “the annexing of Buyaga and Bugangaizi [the lost counties] will not be an acceptable solution. I propose rather that a diocese be erected in Bunyoro with Hoima as the new see. This would give a third residential African Bishop to Uganda, would be in line with the Holy See’s policy of Africanisation, would be acceptable to the central government, and would delight the government, clergy and people of Bunyoro.”   Archbishop Kiwanuka consented and applied to Rome for its granting.  Thus, Hoima Diocese was erected by Pope Paul VI on August 9, 1965; carved out of the western parts of the present-day Kampala Archdiocese and the northern parts of Fort Portal Diocese under the leadership of Bishop Cyprian Kihangire who was installed as the Local Ordinary on January 9, 1966.   After his ordination on August 1, 1969, Bishop Edward Baharagate became the second Bishop of Hoima. 

Meanwhile, in 1988 it was felt that Kasese deserved a diocese to meet the pastoral needs of the people.  Thus, when Bishop Serapio Bwemi Magambo requested Rome for the creation of a new diocese, Rome heeded the request and the diocese of Kasese was opened on April 1, 1989 with Fr Egidio Nkaijanabwo of Mbarara Diocese, who was ordained Bishop on June, 17 1989 at Our Lady Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Kasese. 
Bishop McCauley was succeeded by Bishop Magambo from 1972 to 1991 and by Bishop Paul Kalanda from 1991 to 2003.  From 2003, the diocese is currently under the leadership of Bishop Robert Kasaija Muhiirwa under whose leadership the liturgy at Namugongo has been celebrated.  

Right from the time of Hirth and Streicher as Bishops of the Nyanza Province, which included the Rwenzori Vicariate up to the time of Bishop McCauley taking over as the Bishop of Fort Portal, a number of changes had taken place, including among others the ordination of the local clergy, who were envisioned to step in the shoes of the missionaries and continue the work of evangelisation.  These priests in their order of ascendency were Fr Leo Bwogo (1918), Msgr Francis Kibira (1920), Fr Serapio Wamara (1921), Fr Paul Eribankya (1927), Fr Erikanjeru Katuramu (1936), Fr Charles Byaruhanga (1945), Msgr Hilario Kaijanabyo (1949), Msgr Boniface Musiko (1951), Msgr Andrea Bahemuka (1951), Bishop Serapio B. Magambo (1957) and Msgr Bonaventura Kasaija (1958). 

Through Fr Achte and his confreres, these priests, and many others that followed to the present period, the task of evangelising Tooro region continued and still continues unabated.  

Authored by Rev Dr Christopher B. Mukidi, the deputy vice chancellor of Uganda Martyrs University