The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Masaka Marks Century of African Priesthood

Masaka Catholic diocese has launched a string of activities to mark a century of African priesthood.

The activities started with a musical show at Mari-Flo hotel in Masaka, last Tuesday. The celebrations coincide with the 102nd anniversary of Katigondo Major Seminary. Formally known as St Thomas Aquinas Major Seminary, Katigondo has been training priests since March 7, 1911. According to the Bishop of Masaka diocese, John Baptist Kaggwa, more than 4,000 seminarians have gone through Katigondo, with 27 of these going on to become bishops.

Among these are the first African priests, Msgr Victor Mukasa Womeraka and Fr Bazilio Lumu, ordained on June 29, 1913, as well as the first African bishop in Joseph Nakabaale Kiwanuka and the first African Cardinal in Laurean Cardinal Rugambwa of Tanzania. Womeraka and Lumu, who had their initial studies in Rome before completing their training at Katigondo, were eventually ordained priests by Bishop Henri Streicher at what was then known as the Villa Maria Mission Home.

It was Womeraka who inspired deceased Bishop Kiwanuka to join the seminary in 1918. Kiwanuka was ordained in May 1929, before going on to become bishop in 1939. Rugambwa, on his part, joined Katigondo in 1926.

"We have a reason to celebrate the ordination of the first two pioneers of priesthood in Africa; who laid the foundation for all the current priests in the noble cause of serving God," Bishop Kaggwa said.

A fundraising event to raise Shs 240m for the renovation of Villa Maria parish church in Masaka was the first in a series of activities that will be crowned with a special mass at the Uganda Martyrs shrine in Namugongo, on June 3, 2013.

"We will be joining hands with all priests in Uganda in celebrating the event worthily," Bishop Kaggwa revealed.

The church was first renovated in 1929 when its grass-thatched roof was replaced with iron sheets and its mud and wattle walls replaced by brick walls. Its palm tree pillars and reeds for the ceiling were, however, maintained. It's hoped that the church will be ready by June 29 to host the centenary celebrations, including the ordination of priests.

Emotional ordination

According to church accounts, Womeraka and Lumu's ordination was no ordinary church event. Thousands trekked from far and descended on Villa Maria, days before the event to witness two Africans, who had decided that they would remain celibate for life. There were Anglicans in the crowd, including the then Katikkiro of Buganda, Sir Apollo Kaggwa, and Buganda's Finance minister, Zakaria Kisingiri.

There was loud ululation when the two were adorned with robes that had originally been reserved for White missionaries. Bishop Streicher is reported to have been overjoyed, his voice breaking down several times and tears rolling down his face during the ordination.

"To get one indigenous priest is for me more important than to convert 10,000 people," he later said.

After this, Streicher started a tradition that continues to this day; he knelt down before the two priests to receive their blessing, a move that brought more ululation, as no one had ever seen a whiteman kneel before an African. At the time of his ordination, Womeraka was 38 years old, while Lumu was 31. Today's young men attain the priesthood at about 27 years of age.

Katigondo legacy

Katigondo was started to take up students who completed preliminary priesthood training in minor seminaries around East Africa, including the pioneer one established at Lubaga in 1891. It remains a major magnet of priestly training with seminarians coming from as far as Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan.

The seminary, with a population of approximately 240, graduates an average of 30 seminarians each year, majority of whom go on to become priests. At the time of the first ordination, only foreign missionaries served in Africa, compared to today when indigenous priests are now returning the favour abroad.

An example is Archbishop Augustine Kasujja, now serving in Nigeria as the Pope's envoy (Pro Nuncio). Kasujja went to Katigondo in 1966 before proceeding to Rome and becoming a priest in 1973. The Catholic Church in Uganda now has an estimated 1,800 priests, serving 42.28% of Ugandans who profess Catholicism in 436 parishes.

Laid to rest

Lumu died on March 31, 1946 after 13 years in priesthood, while Womeraka died on August 11, 1979. Womeraka's last public sighting was during the special mass to mark 100 years since the execution of the Uganda Martyrs at Namugongo shrine on June 3, 1979.

Both Womeraka and Lumu were buried inside the Villa Maria cathedral, close to their former bishops Streicher and Adrian Ddungu.

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