Paimol Martyrs Shrine, "The Heaven Of Uganda"

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Father Joseph Okumu says the strong belief that the Church attaches to Paimol Martyrs Shrine is what compelled it to rename the shrine Wipolo, which means in-heaven in the native Acholi language.
The Main Gate Entering Wipolo Martyrs Shrine

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Paimol Martyrs Shrine in Agago district is fast becoming a popular destination for pilgrims in Northern Uganda. Although the shrine was opened less than ten years ago, the number of pilgrims visiting it has been growing exponentially each year.

This year alone, an estimated 20,000 people celebrated the Holy Eucharist among other religious rituals at the Shrine hosted by Gulu Catholic Archdiocese, on October 20th. 

Pilgrims flocked the shrine to commemorate the martyrdom of blessed Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa, the two youthful catechists who were hounded, threatened and speared to death in October 1918 by a group of executioners sent by Rwot Ogal, the then Paimol Sub chief in Agago district. 

The authorities in charge of the Shrine are confident that it is on track to becoming the second biggest religious destination in the East Africa region after Namugongo, the home of 45 distinguished Uganda martyrs. The martyrs were killed between 31 January 1885 and 27 January 1887 on the orders of King Mwanga II of Buganda.

The Shrine comprises of a chapel cushioned in rock tiles, a modern prayer basilica, a tomb and underground changing rooms among others. The Rector of Paimol Martyrs Shrine, Father Joseph Okumu says the Shrine enjoys a unique position among many faithful due to its serene location in the open wooded Savannah grassland with soothing mountainous climate.

Father Joseph Okumu says the strong belief that the Church attaches to Paimol Martyrs Shrine is what compelled it to rename the shrine "Wipolo", which means "in-heaven" in the native Acholi language.


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Incidentally, while being commissioned as Catechists to Paimol in 1917 by Father Cesare Gambaretto, the Parish priest of Kitgum Mission, blessed Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa spoke fondly of going to heaven if killed on a mission to Paimol. The two were replacing Catechist Antonio who had died the same year. 

Many pilgrims consider it a place of elation, which presents a rare opportunity for modern day Christian revival. A giant concrete cross adjacent to two huge concrete hugging arches face the direction of the rising sun at the main gate through, which pilgrims enter the shrine. 

Father Joseph Okumu says the hugging arches symbolize the two martyrs Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa embracing each other in humility, strength and show of support for each other.

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Inside Wipolo martyrs Shrine, a beehive of activities take place in perfect order. Pilgrims head straight to embrace the tombs of Duadi Okelo and Joldo Irwa in prayers almost immediately after stepping foot in the vast Shrine. Those with ill health are helped to enter the tomb with their Rosaries tightly held in hands. 

At the foot of the triangular tomb, which slant westwards, pilgrims drop written petitions and prayer requests as well as monetary offertory and seeds of their faith. Piles of water jerry cans of various sizes surround the tombs. They are brought inside the tomb to be sanctified, blessed and turned into powerful healing spiritual material.

Many pilgrims queuing to enter the tombs reduce the amount of time one spends inside the tombs praying through the intercession of the martyrs. So rosaries are passed to priests manning the tombs to hug the giant grave cross. It is with this blessed rosaries that pilgrims pray the most. Father Joseph Okumu explains the significance of these rosaries in prayers.

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Pilgrims who are unable to enter the tomb, venerate from outside the tomb with their right hands resting on the wall of the iron roofed tomb. About two meters south of the tomb, a tiny hall is fast becoming a vast manhole. It is here that a palm tree once sprouted many years ago. 

Richard Olum, one of the priests manning the tomb, says the palm was destroyed by pilgrims who feasted on it on account that the relics of the martyrs were dumped at this very spot by their executioners. The leaves of the Palm tree, its branches and stem got plucked to nothing before Christians went for its roots. Right now, they collect soil from where it was and the demand is huge.

Olum says the soil is used in production of food. "The soil is scattered in the gardens before crop seeds are planted. Many people believe that it gives bumper harvests" he said in Luo language. 

Rebecca Arach, a mother of two from Kitgum district says she collected the soil to relieve her family from the fangs of pains associated with a cesarean labour. She is not the only one with a prayer request for healing, financial breakthrough and a stable job.

These rituals are happening hand in hand with the ritual of confession of sins to a number of priests attending to faithful in long winding queues. The young and the old from all walks of life, school boys and school girls press forward to find forgiveness. 

After a short interchange of words whispered in confidence to the priests, the pilgrims once more bow down in prayers, just a short distance from the confession table in a climax of communion with the Lord. Father Joseph Okumu says the confession is a critical ritual in Wipolo Martyrs Shrine.

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Everyone in the Shrine struggles to be identified with the martyrs of our time Daudi Okelo and jildo Irwa. And to get this close and personal, young people sit at the very spot they sat 100 years ago to take a chance in the game of Omweso. 

According to guides in Wipolo, the board games were drilled on this rock bounder under an indigenous African Albizia Adianthifolia tree by the martyrs themselves before being executed by their host community. With major construction set to begin any time soon, the future of Wipolo Martyrs Shrine is surely in safe hands.