27 November 2012

Uganda: Rural Churches Stagger Under Shrinking Offertory

When Fr Tourelle of the Catholic White Fathers society was posted to the remote Kitanga parish in 1940, his task was clear. He was not just sent there to preach the word of God. He was starting from scratch.

There was no church or any other social amenities to speak of, in what is now Rukiga county in Kabale. He had arrived on a motorcycle, riding it along village paths. So many miles away from home, Pere Tourelle, as he was known to the locals, found that the only way out was to mobilise the locals to build a makeshift church.

"Brick by brick we built that church and we are proud of the effort that he made by mobilising the Christians who had never seen a brick structure," Pancras Barugahare, a 72-year-old Catholic who grew up in Kitanga, says.

Apart from the church, Tourelle helped build a dairy farm, a dispensary, carpentry and the first schools in the area.

"It was the place to get an education or to get healed if you fell ill. Indeed, the smart guys built their homes near the parish," Barugahare recalls.

Kitanga parish set the pace for several parishes in Kabale diocese, to the extent that most of the churches there were built around that model. A priest arrived in an area and mobilised the Christians to offer their services, mostly labour and material support to build a parish. However, today Kabale diocese Catholics are coming to grips with the fact that Fr Tourelle's model won't work.

"In the past, it was taken for granted that the church collection was sufficient to keep a parish running; today they are lucky if they get Shs 10,000 in total on a Sunday," Barugahare laments.

Barugahare contends that the locals have not become stingy; just poorer. Overwhelmed by the poverty in their rural parishes, priests have started to appeal to former parishioners like Barugahare, who are based in the more affluent parts of the country, like Kampala, Entebbe and Jinja.

Nearly 10 years ago, Bakiga Catholics living in these areas organised themselves into an association that meets regularly at the Management Training and Advisory Centre (MTAC) in Nakawa, usually once a month, to reminisce about home.

They invite Kabale priests for a monthly mass, where fundraising efforts are organised. Their next gathering on December 15 will see the faithful gather to fundraise for the rehabilitation of the 85-year-old Rushoroza cathedral. For now it looks like a viable option, but some wonder if it is sustainable.

Former minister Serapio Rukundo recently said: "These priests should be asking themselves how the old missionary priests did it in even harsher circumstances than now."

Rukundo says the problem lies with the training priests get today.

"The old missionary priests were taught how to manage the most rudimentary facilities and make them viable. They built carpentries so they could use the students to build the churches. Today's priests are ill-equipped for this situation."

However, most think Rukundo's thinking is radical and insist that the church's contribution in their lives through education is invaluable; so, they feel duty-bound to give back.

The problem is spreading like a bush fire. As the offertory shrinks, several dioceses across the country are following Kabale's lead by appealing to their faithful in Kampala to help out.

"We can no longer maintain these aging churches; so, we look to our colleagues in Kampala who are happy to help," Vincent Langoya Okello, previously of Gulu Archdiocese, but now in Mbuya, says.

The matter may have Fr Tourelle and his pioneering missionary colleagues turning in their graves; the structures they left behind are ravaged by the vagaries of age and disrepair.

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