Warning: Trying to access array offset on value of type bool in /usr/www/users/urnnet/a/story.php on line 43
Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrines; Scene of Silent Clashes Between 'English' and 'French' Catholics :: Uganda Radionetwork

Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrines; Scene of Silent Clashes Between 'English' and 'French' Catholics

Facing strong resistance, the Archbishop could not even place the foundation stone close to the church. Muwonge says the stone was instead placed some meters away near the martyrs’ lake and was recently relocated to another place during the recent renovation of the place.
Uganda Martyrs Shrines Namugongo

Audio 6

The construction of the current Uganda Martyrs’ Minor Basilica at Namugongo was not a walk in the park as it ignited the silent clashes between two catholic missionary societies; Mill Hill Missionaries and Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers).

The Mill Hill originate from England while the White Fathers came from France.     

The unique structure whose construction commenced in 1967 and was completed in 1975 was one of Archbishop, later Cardinal Emmanuel Nsubuga signature projects in memory of 22 Catholic martyrs who were executed between 1885 and 1887.


Rev Fr Joseph Mukasa Muwonge, promoter of devotion for Uganda Martyrs, says at the initial stages of the project, Mill Hill Fathers were opposed to the construction of the current shrines.     

Fr Muwonge says months after he was appointed the first Metropolitan of Kampala Archdiocese on October 30, 1996, Archbishop Nsubuga mooted the idea of demolishing the existing church at Namugongo which had been constructed in 1935.


//Cue in; “The construction... 

Cue out...demolishing our church.”//  


The Missionaries of Africa were the first Roman Catholic congregation to come to Buganda. However, to demystify the myth that Catholicism originated in France, the Mill Hill Fathers, from England, were called in. That explains how the Catholics got to hills in Kampala - Lubaga and Nsambya. Although the two groups belonged to the same faith, at times they had disagreements.  

Rev Fr Joseph Nkeera, priest formator at Ggaba seminary notes that even before the Namugongo incident, there was some misunderstandings between the two Catholic groups but they would always resolve them as brothers.   

Rev Fr Nkeera who is also the former Kampala diocesan communications chief says the minor disagreements were possibly rooted in personal differences among other factors.


“Even the late archbishop (Cyprian Lwanga) would talk about these divisions and ask the priests and lay faithful to forget whatever could have happened so that we keep united going forward,” says Rev Fr Nkeera.


Although the martyrs had been initiated into the faith by white fathers, the Mill Hill Fathers also established a bond with Namugongo and martyrs given the fact the area where they had been killed was under their jurisdiction.


Records obtained from different sources indicate that even the first pilgrimage to the sacred place was made by Mill Hill Fathers led Rev Fr Stephen Walters. This took place on June 6, 1920, on the same day that Pope Benedict XV beatified the Uganda Martyrs. 


After the pilgrimage, Rev Fr Walters suggested the idea of constructing a church over the grave of St Charles Lwanga at the site where twelve martyrs had been burned. 


Rev Fr Muwonge says Archbishop Nsubuga’s idea of demolishing the Martyrs’ Church was seen as undermining the historical building that had stood for over 30 years and him having been nurtured mainly by white fathers made it more complicated.  


With resisting forces, the Archbishop could not even lay the foundation stone close to the church. Muwonge says the stone was instead placed some meters away near the martyrs’ lake and was recently relocated to another place during the recent renovation of the place.  

//Cue in; “Cardinal Nsubuga was...

Cue out...in good custody.”// 


Despite the resistance, Cardinal Nsubuga remained determined with his idea and soon launched a fundraising drive for its construction using a bag made of palm leaves (locally referred to as ekikapu) which he took to Rome to be blessed by Pope Paul VI.


Among the first donors was the pontiff himself who contributed USD 20,000. During the visit, Nsubuga also dared to invite the Pope to come to Uganda and consecrate the Shrine of the martyrs whom the holy father had canonized on October 18, 1964, at St Peter’s Basilica. The request was granted, culminating in the first papal visit to Africa. Three popes - Paul VI, John Paul II and Francis have thus made a pilgrimage to Namugongo.         

According to a story published by a local newspaper, the Archbishop Nsubuga wanted the Martyrs Shrine at Namugongo to be the tallest church building in Africa to symbolize the spiritual aptitude of the Uganda Martyrs to Africa and the world. 


With his wish being unattainable, Rev. Fr Vincent Lubega, the Rector of Namugongo Catholic Martyrs' Shrine, says the archbishop settled for less and Roko Constructing Company was contracted to start the contraction works.

Rev. Fr Lubega, who belongs to the congregation of White Fathers, says Archbishop Nsubuga ordered that architectural design had to have the appeal of a local hut with 22 pillars, each representing one martyr.     

//Cue in; “I think that... 

Cue out...Uganda Martyrs.”//     

Another priest who preferred anonymity says that even after the construction of the new church, the Mill Hill fathers and lay Christians who had been under them remained unhappy over demolition of their old church.     

“Some families even refused to return to Namugongo for Mass," the priest confided. "It was a sensitive era. First of all, this was one of the ways Mill Hills showed their resentment resulting from events that came before the creation of the Kampala Archdiocese. The white fathers had appeared favorites and during the process, Bishop Vincent Billington of Kampala diocese resigned at an early age of 60, with rumors that he could be transferred from his seat in Nsambya to a new diocese in Jinja.”


Rev Fr Muwonge says that with time, the opposing forces faded, and by the time Pope Paul VI visited the shrines, construction was going on smoothly.


Namugongo was treated like any other parish until the late Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga put it under White Fathers. (The other special case is Munyonyo which is also under a specific congregation, the Franciscans.) Although Archbishop Lwanga’s decision didn’t attack much resistance, it is said that silent voices were questioning the move.      

From his personal view, Rev Muwonge says the White Fathers appeared to be most suitable for the role given their forefathers' role in converting the men who later were martyred because of the faith.     

However, Rev Fr Sylvester Chirenge, a white father from Zambia currently stationed at Namugongo, says the decision of who should run the sacred place is under the discretion of the archdiocese and has nothing to do with the different congregations.       

//Cue in; “You cannot... 

Cue out...makes more sense.”// 


The Mill Hill Missionaries in Uganda also distance themselves from having bad blood with their counterparts or even resisting the construction of the martyrs’ shrine.   


Rev Fr Ronald Kajja, the country vocation director of the congregation, shares that although there might have been  ‘some minor issues’, these normal interpersonal issues cannot be regarded as tensions between the two groups. 


//Cue in: “I really don’t...

Cue out...come to Uganda.”// 


Concerning the administration of Namugongo, Rev Fr Kajja says that although the Mill Hill Fathers would like to be the caretakers of shrines they don’t have enough manpower.


He further shares even when Archbishop Lwanga fronted an idea asking them to take care of the shrines they turned the chance down. This was how it was handed over to white fathers. 


//Cue in: “We have so...    

Cue out...primary evangelization.”//