Churches Rush For Relics Of Ugandan Martyrs

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Catholic churches across the world are making requests for the relics of two Ugandan martyrs, Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa, who were killed in Northern Uganda in October 1918. Father Joseph Okumu, the rector of Wipolo Martyrs Shrine in Agago district, where the two martyrs were speared to death says this year alone, he has received requests from churches in Romania, Brazil, Argentina, United States, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Kenya and Tanzania among others.
A Vatican depiction of Daudi Okelo, born in 1902 and Jildo Irwa, born in 1906 who were both martyred on October 18, 1918 in present day Agago district.

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Catholic churches across the world are in stiff competition for the relics of two Ugandan martyrs, Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa.

The churches want to keep portions of the relics within their auditorium to inspire, encourage and motivate Christians to remain steadfast in their faith amidst suffering and human challenges.

Father Joseph Okumu, the rector of Wipolo Martyrs Shrine in Agago district, where the two martyrs were speared to death in 1918 on account of their faith, says many churches across the globe desperately seek to host the relics of the martyrs annually.

Father Okumu says this year alone, he has received requests and distributed portions of the relics to some churches in Romania, Brazil, Argentina, United States, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Kenya and Tanzania among others.

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The two catechists completed their catechumen formation from St. Mary's Kitgum parish in 1916 and were shortly after commissioned to evangelize Paimol following the death of Father Antonio, a missionary priest. Paimol was an area in East Acholi deeply rooted in famine, cultural beliefs and practices, slave trade and witchcraft.

Catechists Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa, were hounded, threatened and ordered to give up their religious activities before they were finally speared to death by assailants believed to have been sent by Rwot Ogal, the Chief of Paimol sub clan, on October 18, 1918.

A book titled ‘Too long in the Dark, authored by Father Mario Marchetti, one of the many Comboni Missionaries who served at St. Mary's Catholic Mission in Kitgum, quotes Akadamoi, one of the executioners as saying they were sent by Rwot Ogal. Other sources blame slave traders from South Sudan and Ethiopia as the catechists preached against their activities.

Father Okumu says the two catechists are remembered for introducing a new dimension of faith, generosity, and love for humanity, humility and courage for sharing the good news of the gospel with the people.  He says many churches around the world ask for their relics to introduce these characteristics among their congregations.

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Major portions of their preserved relics are being kept in three churches in Gulu Archdiocese including St. Joseph Cathedral in Gulu town, St. Mary's Catholic Mission Kitgum and at the location of their martyrdom in Wipolo Martyrs Shrine in Paimol Sub County, Agago district.

At St. Mary's Parish in Kitgum, a piece of humerus bone, the jaw bone and a skull are jointly being kept tightly in enclosed square wooden box with a transparent glass face under lock and key in front of the alter of the main chapel. Anniversaries of the two martyrs making up the 23rd and 24th Catholic martyrs in Uganda are celebrated every October 20th at Wipolo Martyrs Shrine in Paimol, following their beatification by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

Father Anthony Nyeko, the Parish priest of St. Mary's Catholic Parish in Kitgum district, says the Churches write through the Archbishop of Gulu John Baptist Odama.

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Father Nyeko explains that bishops of churches intending to receive portions of relics of saints and martyrs write through the presiding bishop of a martyr detailing the intended use of the relics. The bishops then engage in discussions before the relics are sent.

Who were Okelo and Irwa

The Vatican documents details of Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa among the martyrs as two young catechists from Uganda at the beginning of the 20th century. They belonged to the Acholi tribe, a subdivision of the large Lwo group “whose members even today live mostly in the North of Uganda, but they are also present in South Sudan, Kenya and Congo.”

“They lived and were martyred in the years immediately following the foundation of the mission of Kitgum by the Comboni Missionaries in 1915,” says The Vatican.

Daudi Okelo

Church records show that Daudi Okelo was born around 1902 in Ogom-Payira, a village on the Gulu-Kitgum road. The son of pagan parents, Lodi and Amona, Okelo attended the instruction to receive baptism at the age of 14-16 years. Okelo was baptized by Fr. Cesare Gambaretto, a Comboni missionary priest, on June 1, 1916 and received his first holy communion on the same day. On October 15, 1916 he was confirmed. After completing his formation, Okelo accepted to be enrolled as a catechist.

Church records further show that at the beginning of 1917, a catechist in charge of Paimol named Antonio, died. It is at this time that Okelo went to Fr. Cesare, then head of the mission of Kitgum, offering to take Antonio's place.

Okelo's appointment came towards the end of 1917, during one of the catechists' monthly meetings.

The young Jildo Irwa was to go with him as his assistant, according to the records. Before setting off, the two of them reportedly went to Fr. Cesare who informed them of the difficulties of their work, like the long distance from Kitgum to Paimol—some 80km from the mission. He also mentioned the frequent in-fights of the local people, “instigated by gangs of raiders and traders of slaves and gold, sporadically visiting the area.”

To all this Okelo is reported to have answered: "I am not afraid to die. Jesus, too, died for us!"

Around November-December 1917, with Fr. Cesare's blessing, a one Boniface, the head-catechist of Kitgum, accompanied the two young catechists to Paimol where Okelo immediately began his work by gathering children to take religious instruction.

Early morning “he beat the drum to call his catechumens for morning prayers and, for Jildo and himself, also for the Rosary,” the records published on the Vatican website show. He taught them the prayers and the catechism's questions and answers, using songs for ease of memorising.

Okelo emphasised the first elements of faith, the Lok-odiku, or the words of the morning, namely the essential parts of the catechism. Okelo also visited the nearby small villages from where the catechumens were coming to assist their parents to look after the cattle or work in the gardens.

Okelo is described as “a young man of peaceful and shy character, diligent in his duties as a catechist and loved by all.”

“During the weekend of 18-20 October 1918, long before dawn, five people headed for the hut where Daudi and Jildo were staying with the clear intention of killing them, the church records state.

A village elder is said to have confronted the new comers telling them they were not allowed to kill the catechists, as they were his guests. But Okelo reportedly appeared at the door of his hut and told the elder not to get involved. It was at this point that the intruders entered Okelo's hut and insisted with him that he gave up teaching catechism.

Realising that he was not giving in to their threats, they reportedly dragged him outside, pushed him to the ground and speared him.

“His body was then left unburied until a few days later some people tied a rope around the neck and dragged it over a nearby empty termite hill.

The relics, collected in February 1926, were later placed in the mission church of Kitgum, at the foot of the altar.

At the age of about 16-18 years old, Daudi Okelo chose his faith over his earthly life.

 Jildo Irwa

Church records show that Jildo Irwa was born around 1906 in the village of Bar-Kitoba, North-West of Kitgum, also from pagan parents. His mother was named Ato, while Okeny was his father who later became a Christian.

Like Okelo, Irwa was baptized by Father Cesare Gambaretto on June 6, 1916, at the age of about 10 or 12 years. On the same day he received his first Holy Communion before he was confirmed on October 15, 1916.

The church quotes Father Cesare on Irwa's life: "Jildo was much younger than Daudi. Of lively and gentle nature, like many Acholi youngsters, he was quite intelligent and occasionally acted as secretary to the vice-chief Ogal who had given hospitality in Paimol. He was of great help to Daudi in gathering the children for the instruction with his gentle way and infantile insistence. He knew also how to entertain them with innocent village games and noisy and merry meetings…"

According to Father Cesare, Irwa had “spontaneously and very willingly offered to go with Daudi” to Paimol, where he was a likeable character “because he was always available and exemplary in his duties as assistant-catechist.”

On the morning of their martyrdom Irwa is said to have answered to Okelo who was warning him about a possible cruel death: "Why should we be afraid? We have done nothing wrong to anyone; we are here only because Fr. Cesare sent us to teach the word of God. Do not fear!"

He is said to have repeated the same words to those who were urging him to leave that place and his duty as assistant-catechist.

After watching Okelo being speared to death, Irwa reportedly confronted his killers and demanded that they kill him too. "For the same reason you killed Daudi you must also kill me, because together we came here and together we have been teaching God's word".

He was reportedly grabbed, pushed outside the hut and, just like Okelo, speared. As he writhed in pain, one of the attackers struck Jildo's head with a knife. At about 12 or 14 years old, the young catechist gave up his life.

On October 21, 2002, Pope John Paul II beautified Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa, raising them one stage before canonization.

The pope said: “These two young catechists are a shining example of fidelity to Christ, commitment to Christian living and selfless dedication to the service of neighbour. With their hope firmly set on God and with a deep faith in Jesus' promise to be with them always, they set out to bring the Good News of salvation to their fellow countrymen, fully accepting the difficulties and dangers that they knew awaited them…Through their intercession may the Church be an ever more effective instrument of goodness and peace in Africa and in the world. God bless Uganda.”