During this past year the diocese of Jinja celebrated the 50th anniversary of its existence. The Jubilee book published to mark the occasion underlines the key role played by the Mill Hill Missionaries in the evangelization of Busoga.
THE GENESIS OF CATHOLICISM IN BUSOGA.
The first attempts to evangelize Busoga were made in 1891 by the White Fathers who opened a mission at Kiyunga Kitwekyambo, of now Luuka District, in the heart of Busoga, It is necessary from the outset to make this clear since some people might think that the celebration of the 50 years of the establishment of the Diocese of Jinja, also means the introduction of the Catholic faith.
The diocese of Jinja is celebrating 50 years of existence, and as the Kisoga saying goes: nothing just happens on its own – meaning there is always either a cause or precedence, it is right and fitting that a brief background is given, concerning the Mill Hill Missionaries in Uganda who are responsible for evangelizing Busoga and opening up the diocese of Jinja,
In 1995, the Mill Hill Missionaries celebrated 100 years of their arrival and loving service in Uganda. In the magazine for the day of celebration, it is reported that: “On the 6th May 1895 a solemn departure ceremony to bid farewell to the first Mill Hill Missionaries to go to Uganda was held in the Chapel of St. Joseph’s College at Mill Hill, London at which Cardinal Vaughan preached.” Cardinal Vaughan is the founding father of the Mill Hill Missionary congregation.
The delegation that was prayed for comprised of five missionaries namely: Bishop Hanlon, leader of delegation, Fr. Thomas Mathews, Fr, Gregory Kestens, Fr. James Prendergast and Fr. Luke Plunkett. Ordained Bishop at the age of 32for the mission in Uganda, Bishop Hanlon led the group of missionaries through the thick and thin, since the means of transport and communication were not as developed as that of the time of my reader. It is here that God’s grace can be seen at work. As the saying goes: “to be forewarned is to be forearmed”, they had been warned, and at same time encouraged in the homily of Cardinal Vaughan, of the impending difficulties they were likely to encounter. “We know that the heroic French Missionaries who went out to Uganda lost no less than a hundred missionaries in fourteen years,., and this might well befall the Mill Hill Missionaries”, the Cardinal is quoted to have preached, And indeed the journey was no easy walk, the authors of the Mill Hill Centenary celebrations wrote: “The route was approximately 795 miles and they covered it in sixty stages, spending some nine to ten hours travelling daily. They had to contend with disgruntled porters, they fell sick and went at times short of food, occasionally even had to disarm slave drivers.”
Entering Uganda from the East, it is said that life becomes only a little easier once the caravan had crossed into Busoga. Here they were impressed by the warm welcome, neatLy dressed people, their banana gardens, and bridged swamps. Bishop HanLon and his colleagues arrived at Lubaga, the seat of Catholicism, on 6th September 1895, and headquarters of the White fathers, exactly four months after being bade farewell.
Having been introduced to the Kabaka of Buganda, Bishop Hanlon told him that they were Englishmen who had come to preach the Good News to his people and to promoted peace and understanding between the followers of Christ. The Kabaka gave them land at Nsambya for establishing their base; nevertheless, they took some time staying with the White fathers at Lubaga, pending establishment of shelter. On 3rd October 1895, fathers Kestens and Prendergast moved to Nsambya and occupied their first house, a grass thatched hut at
A place where they were going to establish a Mill Hill Parish. They were later joined by Bishop Hanlon and Fathers Thomas Mathews and Plunkett. This was later to become the seat of the Mill Hill Mission and headquarters of the Upper Nile Vicariate which stretched from Nakivubo Channel Eastwards to 35 far as Kisumu. In May 1897 a group of seven more Mill Hill Missionaries joined the first group and among those in this second group was Fr. John Biermans who was later to become bishop succeeding Bishop Hanlon in 1912.
How the Mill Hill mission reached Busoga.
According to Tourigny Yve a White father, the Mill Hill missionaries arrived in Busoga in 1897 during the Sudanese mutiny. Thus he states: “A few months earlier, the Sudanese troops had broken into open mutiny at Captain Macdonald’s camp near the Eldama Ravine Station (September 1897) and deserted, returning to Uganda. By the end of September the mutineers reached Busoga and seized the fort at Bukaleba. The government troops put up a new fort and camp in the same area (Bukaleba), and Bishop Hanlon sent two Mill Hill Fathers, Frs. Mathews and Kestens, to attend to the 600 Catholic Baganda in the camp and to the few Europeans and Egyptian Catholics in the new fort itself. A temporary church and hut were built in the fort.”
When Bishop John Biermans was elected Superior General of the Mill Hill in 1924, Fr. Thomas Matthews was administrator of the Vicariate until Fr. John Campling, was appointed Bishop in 1925 to succeed Biermans as Bishop of the Upper Nile Vicariate, Campling retired in 1937 and was replaced by Bishop John Reesinck till the time of cutting off Kampala Diocese from the Upper Nile Vicariate in 1948.
Note that Kampala Diocese is different from what we know today as Kampala Archdiocese. The then Kampala Diocese stretched from the earlier quoted Nakivubo channel taking all present day Lugazi and Jinja Dioceses. It was this Kampala Diocese that was placed under Bishop Vincent Billington, retaining the Diocesan headquarters at Nsambya, Billington was bishop of Kampala Diocese until 30th June 1965 when he retired and went back home where he later died from on 6th October 1976.
The Diocese was left under the Apostolic Administration of Rev. Msgr. John Wierts who was pronounced Vicar Capitular till 1966 when the Diocese of Jinja was created comprising of the entire region of Busoga. The remaining part of Kampala Diocese was annexed to Kampala Archdiocese. Meanwhile, Msgr. John Wierts remained Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Jinja pending the appointment of its bishop. It was on 13th July 1967, that Rome decided to appoint Msgr. Joseph Bernard Louis Willigers as the first Bishop of the Diocese of Jinja, who was till then a Parish Priest of Chepteret Parish, in the Nandi land of Western Kenya.GOLDEN JUBILEE.
Rt. Rev. Bishop Joseph Bernard Louis Willigers first Bishop of the Diocese of Jinja
He had served as Vicar General to Bishop John de Reeper of Kisumu, before being transferred to Chepteret Parish in early 1967 as Parish Priest among the Nandi of Western Kenya, It was while serving there that, on 13th July 1967, that Rev, Msgr. Joseph Willigers was appointed by His Holiness Pope Paul VI, Bishop of the Diocese of Jinja. Forty years Later when he was celebrating 40th anniversary of Ordination to the episcopate, Rt, Rev. Bishop Joseph Willigers told the gathered Christian community that he had had no idea and it was a complete shock for him. That he had gone to the Post Office to pick mails when he found among those he picked, one appointing him Bishop of the Diocese of Jinja.
In his own words, he said, the following month of November 1967 he decied to visit the diocese which had then become his and reaching Busowa he said to himself that he was in the new Diocese and getting out of the car, knelt under a tree and prayed. According to him, he did not have a professional strategic plan, but asked the Lord to help him build and form fellow pastoral agents – priests an catechists. And indeed, God answered his prayers, for at the taking over of the Diocese, there were only four indigenous priests namely Frs. Thomas Kasadha, Ben Kizza, Sylvester Mudago and John Baptist Musana. Butr when he was retiring in April 2010, he handed over slightly above 70 indigenous priests. It is important however to note that at his appointment as Bishop of Jinja, there were some other two Basoga priests, Frs. Christopher Isiko and Andrew Isabirye, who were serving outside the Diocese of Jinja and only returned later.
The appointed bishop took over the care of the flock of the Church he had been entrusted with on November 12, 1967; and was ordained bishop on 3rd December that same year at St. Joseph’s Cathedral Jinja. The journey wasn’t a smooth one for the new bishop, but it was the cross he had been called to carry. Remember the diocese was created a same year 1966, where Uganda experienced what has come to be known as the “Mengo Crisis”. Politically, the country was undergoing a crisis or turbulent times with coming up with a new constitution and in 1971, there was a Military Coup that saw Dr. Milton Obote, then President of Uganda overthrown by his Army Commander followed by the expulsion of expatriates, in November 1972 President Amin issued a decree expelling all missionaries whose work permits had expired. They were given only 72 hours to leave the country.
In an interview with Fr. Robert O’Neil, author of Mission to the Upper Nile, Fr. Arnold Jurgens who was working in Soroti narrated thus:”What began as a rumour ended as an order a presidential decree. All those Europeans who at that moment did not have a work permit had to leave the country.
….On Saturday, I think it was the 30th of November I began my last trip to Kampala after calling at Bishop’s House in Mbale.In Jinja we stopped for a night with Bishop Willigers. It was there that we saw the 7 o’clock news where President Amin had the ‘proof’ in his hands which he showed to the bishops who had gone to see him in order to attempt to have the expulsion order withdrawn, that we were involved in a plot with the Israeli government to overthrow the government, and make Uganda into an Israeli Colony. It was such a ridiculous charge that notwithstanding our down cast spirits and the prospect to leave the country we had a good laugh, But when the news reporter mentioned the name of Bishop Willigers, we were alarmed, since Bishop’s house was on top of the hill surrounded, at a lower level by army barracks.”