North Africa, including Egypt and Sudan, had seen Christian missionaries since the time of Christ and the Roman Empire. Although they travelled some way up the River Nile, penetration deep into the interior was too much of a challenge.
The modern evangelization of Africa started in the XIX Century along the coastal regions of the continent by many groups of missionaries and within a short time a chain of Apostolic Vicariates all around the coast of Africa was established. But the interior of the continent was still largely unknown to the outside world. As soon as the first routes towards the interior were opened, the Church felt the responsibility for the evangelisation of the people living there.
Sent by Egypt, the first explorer to come close to the source of the Nile was an Italian, Girolamo Miani in 1861. He was the first European to reach what today we call northern Uganda among the Madi, east of the Nile. There his porters refused to go further because they would have to pass through impenetrable forests. (Miani carved his name on a Tamarind tree, which was seen by Madi elders up to a few years ago.)
In the years 1838 – 1839, an explorer, Ignatius Pailme, from Central Europe, visited Cordofan, a region in the North Western Sudan. He reported that an estimated 100 million Africans were living in Central Africa, without the minimum knowledge of the Gospel and victims of a cruel slavery. A priest from Malta, by the name Annetto Casolani informed the Holy See. A decree of Pope Gregory XVI of 3rd April 1846 established the Apostolic Vicariate of Central Africa which practically comprised all the territories of the interior of Africa not already part of Vicariates along the coast. Its centre was at Khartoum. It was entrusted to a group of priests of different nationalities with the aim of fighting slavery and preaching the Gospel.
As far as Uganda was concerned, three main routes made the missionary penetration into the interior possible: the northern route via the Nile Valley, through which evangelisation was brought first to Sudan and then to northern Uganda; the southern route from Zanzibar to Bagamoyo, then to the southern shores of Lake Nyanza and by boat to southern Uganda, the third from Mombasa to the north eastern shores of Lake Nyanza. The first route was followed by the Comboni Missionaries, then known as the Verona Fathers, the second by the White Fathers now known as Missionaries for Africa and the third by the Mill Hill Fathers (of the Missionary Institute of St Joseph).
A team of five catholic missionaries from different institutes, sent by Pope Gregory XVI, reached Khartoum on 11th February, 1848. A mission was opened and a boarding trade school for orphans and freed slaves was started. From Khartoum, along the While Nile Valley, missionaries intended to reach the source of the Nile, the zone of the Great Lakes and the legendary Mountains of the Moon (Rwenzori). They established a mission on the Nile at a place called Gondokoro, about 200 miles north of the present boundaries of Sudan with Uganda.
In 1857, Daniel Comboni joined the group, while he belonged to the Mazza Institute. He later founded the missionary Congregation of the Sons of the Sacred Heart which became known as the Verona Fathers. After two years in Southern Sudan, sick with fever, he returned to Italy. In the twelve years from 1848 to 1860, 24 missionaries died along the White Nile from Khartoum to Gondokoro. On 5th September 1861, the Pope entrusted the Vicariate to the Franciscan Order but in less than a year, 22 out of 58 missionaries were laid in graves between Khartoum and Gondokoro. The Holy See closed the Vicariate and entrusted the territory to the Vicar Apostolic of Egypt. 46 graves in just 13 years were too many.
Daniel Comboni would not accept defeat: he was determined to continue to work for the evangelization and redemption of the African slaves. He believed he was born for this.
At the age of 17, when still a seminarian, he made a promise to consecrate himself to the evangelization of Central Africa and he prepared for his future apostolate by learning languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, French and English.
After his first experience in Southern Sudan he realised more than ever before the need for evangelization and development. Since many missionaries had no resistance to sickness at that time and Africans brought to Europe were also getting sick and even dying, he spent time reflecting on how this obstacle could be overcome: the methods formerly used were obviously not working, there must be another way of bringing the Good News to Central Africa. In September 1864, “while praying at the tomb of St Peter in Rome, during the beatification of St Margaret Mary Alacoque, there burst upon me like a flash of lightening the idea of drawing up a new Plan for the Christianisation of the poor black peoples. The individual points of the Plan came to me from on high like an inspiration”. This became his Plan for the Regeneration of Africa. Its aim was clear: “Let us all work together without any other incentive than that of winning more souls for Christ; let us take each other by the hand; one be our wish; one be our aim, one the commitment of all those who love Jesus Christ: to win for him the unhappy Africa.
This plan re-echoed the principle of other missionaries: To save Africa with Africa. It could have been implemented by taking Africans to Europe, training them and then sending them back to Africa. However, Comboni’s methodology would be different: the training had to be in Africa, not in the interior where Europeans could not survive, but along the coast where both Europeans and Africans could safely live. After this illumination, he felt heartened to plan for the evangelization of Central Africa.
He went around Europe, especially Austria and France to get support and managed to persuade others of his idea: while in France he met Mgr Charles Lavigerie, then Bishop of Nancy. This meeting was important for both men. Comboni’s Plan for the Regeneration of Africa is thought to have contributed to Lavigerie’s own missionary vocation in the years immediately preceding his appointment to the See of Algiers. His strategy of evangelization, the intention that Africans should become apostles and themselves regenerate their own countries was based on an idea which came from Comboni, who presented a stirring “Petition on behalf of the Black Populations of Central Africa” to the First Vatican Council (1870) and in 1872 was entrusted by Pope Pius IX with the mission of Central Africa as its first Pro-Vicar Apostolic. In 1867 he had founded the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus (Verona Fathers) and in 1872, the Comboni Missionary Sisters (Verona Sisters). Cardinal C Lavigerie started his “Institute of Missionaries for Africa” and the “Missionary Sisters of Lady of Africa” (White Sisters) in 1869.
COMBONI PRO-VICAR APOSTOLIC
The two institutes which Comboni started were a direct result of a challenge which a Cardinal in charge of Propaganda Fide, the Department in Rome which dealt with the Missions, had put to Comboni when he expressed the desire to go back to Central Africa. The Cardinal told him: “Either bring a medical certificate that assures me that you will live for another 30 years or start an Institute”. Comboni founded what are now called the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus and the Comboni Missionary Sisters.
In 1872 he was made Pro Vicar Apostolic; although he was still a priest he had the full authority of a bishop in an area which extended from the south of Egypt to the Great Lakes, ie including Uganda. In 1877 he was appointed Bishop, Vicar Apostolic of the area. His Episcopal See was in Khartoum and from there he planned to visit Uganda. Gordon Pasha, the Governor of Khartoum invited him to visit it, telling him he would meet all the expenses of the trip provided Comboni started a dispensary in Wadelai on the west bank of the River Nile, north of present day Pakwach.
Due to drought and famine in north Sudan and a journey back to Italy for health reasons and the situation of his Institutes, Comboni could not take up the offer to reach Uganda. On 10th October 1881 he died of fatigue and fever in Khartoum at the age of 50. His dream of reaching the zone of the Great Lakes and Lake Nyasa died with him. From 1872 to 1881, 30 of his young missionaries died. From 1847 to 1881, there were 76 graves of missionaries who had died along the White Nile in their attempt to bring the Gospel message to the interior of Africa through the Nile Valley right up to Uganda. These deaths had nothing to do with colonization; the missionaries died bringing Christ. Jesus had said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”. (Mt.28:18-20). The Berlin Conference was held much later, in 1884.
Cardinal Lavigerie, who knew the vastness of the territory entrusted to Comboni, submitted a plan in 1878 for the evangelization of those territories which had not yet been reached by the missionaries of Comboni. Pope Leo XIII approved the plan and so the sons of Lavigerie took responsibility for the evangelization of the territories south, east and north of Lake Victoria. In the north, not only Uganda but also a large part of southern Sudan was taken from the territory entrusted to Bishop Comboni.
Fr Lourdel and Br Anans landed in Uganda on 17th February 1879. Fr Livinhac and others followed. The great adventure started and reached the milestone of the deaths of the Uganda Martyrs between 1885 and1887.
THE MAHDIA AND THE MISSIONS OF COMBONI
The intervention of Cardinal Lavigerie was providential because the institutes of Comboni suffered a serious setback in Sudan. Bishop Comboni died in the first stages of the revolution of the religious and political leader Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi. On 29th June 1881, he proclaimed he was the expected Mahdi and urged his countrymen to join him as he rose in arms against the Turkish-Egyptian government of Sudan. While Comboni was dying, the Mahdi and his followers were heading for the Nuba Mountains, where the revolutionary movement attracted thousands of disaffected tribesmen. Here they annihilated two armies sent against them and, marauding across the plains of Cordofan, laid siege to the capital, al-Ubayyid, which they captured. In November 1883 they obliterated an Egyptian relieving force commanded by General W. Hicks. In the course of the campaign, the rebels overran the missions started by Comboni at El-Obeid, Dilling and the farming settlement at Malbes. The missionaries were taken prisoner and subject to terrible torture: the sisters were brutally flogged in an attempt to make them deny Christ and accept Islam. The missions of Khartoum, Berber, and Scellal had to be abandoned.
After the killing of Gordon Pasha, England sent a military force led by Lord Kitchener who defeated the Mahdi in September 1898; Khartoum and Omdurman were free and the missionaries of Comboni could return to their deserted missions.
In January 1894 the whole of southern Sudan and northern Uganda was returned to the Vicariate Apostolic of Central Africa and Mgr Roveggio was appointed Vicar Apostolic. After the defeat of the Mahdi he was able to take up his duties, based at Khartoum. He died of fever in Berber in 1902 and was replaced by Bishop Geyer. At this time, the establishment of missions further south and efforts to enter Uganda were impeded by the problems between Belgian and British authorities over the Lado Enclave.
COMBONI MISSIONARIES REACH UGANDA
The successors of Bishop Comboni as Vicar Apostolic of Khartoum were Mgr. Francis Sogaro (1882-1894); Mgr Anthony Roveggio (1894-1902) and Mgr Francis Xavier Geyer (1903-1922). Mgr Roveggio applied for permission to enter Uganda in 1900 but Entebbe refused. Mgr Geyer applied to enter Uganda through the north. Permission was given in 1906. Due to lack of personnel and money it was only in 1910 that he was able to start his journey to Uganda.
The Comboni Missionaries reached Gondokoro, where a mission had first been established in 1848, although there was nothing left either of it or of the nearby mission station of Holy Cross, where Comboni had lived for a short time. But the three missionaries were overjoyed to find their first Ugandan Catholics, some Baganda porters, working in the area. As soon as they heard the new arrivals were Catholic priests, they asked to receive the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Their religious fervour impressed the missionaries deeply and enhanced their eagerness to enter Uganda and their hopes for the success of their expedition. They proceeded, by donkey and on foot for Nimule, with 60 porters, and reached it on 2nd February 1910. It was an exhausting journey, travelling across hills and swamps and through forests. In spite of the documents they carried which gave them permission not only to enter Uganda, but also to settle (as long as the location was south of Parallel 3 degrees 30’North and near a Government Centre) the British Officers at the border were reluctant to let them enter to settle.
This reluctance was based on a number of factors: the climate was considered unsuitable for non-Africans; there were too few Catholics in the area, in their opinion, to justify a permanent mission; they regarded the people as too primitive to receive the missionaries and their message of the gospel; they foresaw great difficulty in ensuring the safety of the missionaries.
Bishop Geyer realized that such arguments reflected the personal opinion of one particular officer who was in fact, new to the place. The bishop therefore requested he contact Entebbe for confirmation of the permits. This took four long days but by means of the newly installed telegraph lines, the visas came through in the first telegram to use this line. Of great encouragement to the missionaries – and officers – was the arrival of a tourist expedition led by the former President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. In the presence of the British Officers, he manifested great enthusiasm for Catholic missions and their contribution to the development of Africa, something he had witnessed in his journeys throughout the Continent.
KOBA – OMACH (PAKUBA)
At last, on 17th February 1910, the missionaries boarded the steamer that twice a month sailed between Nimule and Butiaba on Lake Albert and reached their destination: the Government post of Koba, a settlement on the eastern bank of the River Nile, south of present day Pakwach. It was the 31st anniversary of the landing of Fr Lourdel and Br Amans at Entebbe in the south of Uganda who had arrived in Uganda on 17th February 1879. The group composed of Bishop Geyer, his secretary Bro Cagol and Fr Albino Colombaroli. Fr Albino had been working in Bahr-el-Ghazel in Sudan where he had learned the Luo of the Jur tribe there; he was pleasantly surprised to realize that the Alur around Koba spoke a similar language.
At Koba the missionaries were welcomed by Mr. Paul Hannington, the British Commissioner, son of the Anglican Bishop James Hannington, murdered by order of Kabaka Mwanga in 1885. He received the missionaries kindly and welcomed their proposal to begin a mission there. “Very good, this is exactly what we want here”. He gave them permission to use the government “rest house”, while they pitched their tents nearby.
However the Comboni Missionaries were not the first Christians in these places. They found men of the Baganda, Banyoro and Alur tribes who had been baptised in the south and now worked for the Protectorate Government in the north as clerks, soldiers and servants. In fact, an Alur catechist was already teaching catechism in Panyimur when the Comboni Missionaries arrived. So the Gospel was first brought to the north of Uganda by lay people! An interesting fact.
Koba was a small village tucked away in a wild corner of land, bound in the south by the Nile entering Lake Albert and in the west, by the same river flowing out of the lake northwards, marking the boundary between Uganda and the Congo. The people of the area were Alur and Acholi. In a letter to the Superior General in Verona, Fr Crazzolara wrote: “The land of the Alur, properly, is on the other side of the Nile, the western side, the “Enclave”, but a number of them have crossed the river to escape from the vexations of the Belgians ruling in the Congo and to seek peace under British rule in Uganda, waiting for the time when they would be able to go back to their land.”
A few days after the arrival of the missionaries, all Acholi and Alur chiefs were assembled together to meet them (see Bro. Fanti’s painting in the church at Pakwach). Mgr. Geyer, through an interpreter, told them that the missionaries had come to preach Christianity and would like to hear their ideas as to the most suitable place where to start a mission. They replied that they were very pleased to hear that a mission was to be opened among them and they would certainly send their children to learn to read and write; as for the place, the missionaries themselves should inspect the country and choose a suitable place; they would be very welcome anywhere.
The following days were spent in visiting the villages of the five Alur chiefs along the river and of the two Acholi chiefs further eastward. Finally, Bp Geyer decided to plant the first mission station among the Alur of chief Omach, a few miles north of Koba. We read in Fr. Crazzolara’s letter: “The Alur, who are refugees from the west banks of the Nile, have formed a few villages around here. They are simple people, quite accessible and peaceful; those belonging to Chief Omach number nearly 800. Omach himself has come here from Paroketo, on the west bank of the river; he is a good man, quite intelligent, and approachable. He is proud of having us among his people.”
The Bishop chose an elevated place some 600 meters from the Nile, and with the help of the Baganda porters and some local workers, the missionaries began to build their house. At the same time, they visited the elders, eager to get to know them, be friends with them and learn their language and customs. In a short time the first hut, 15 yards long and six yards wide, was somehow ready and the missionaries left the camp and took up residence in it. A chapel was added to the main house and the Blessed Sacrament kept in it.
On March 6, 1910, Bp. Geyer blessed a big cross made of two rough tree trunks and with tears of joy in their eyes the three pioneers of Christ raised it high in the sky as a sign of faith and hope. The bishop dedicated the new mission to the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. They could hardly imagine that in a few years most of the people of Northern Uganda, namely the Alur, Acholi, Logbara, Lango and the Karimojon, would benefit from the redemption which Jesus Christ brought to all humanity through the Cross. Neither could they imagine how many trials they would have to undergo to make their task become true. For “the works of God grow at the foot of the Cross” (Comboni).
At the end of March four more missionaries arrived from Italy; they were Fr. Pasquale Crazzolara, Fr. Luigi Cordone, Bro. Clement Schroer and Bro. Benedetto Sighele. They were welcomed with great joy and affection by the three pioneers.
Bp. Geyer appointed Fr. Albino Colombaroli superior of the enlarged community, and together with Bro. Cagol he left Omach with the steamer that took them to Butiaba, their first stop on their way to Europe via Kampala and Mombasa. This route proved a much easier one than the Nile route. At Hoima they visited the White Fathers who promised that in due time they would send some catechists to the new mission at Koba. They visited several missions of the White Fathers (Missionaries for Africa) on their way and witnessed their dedication to the apostolate and were encouraged by how much they had achieved. They were impressed by the progress made by the Church among the Baganda. Mgr Geyer told Bishop Streicher who had invited him to visit their mission in Villa Maria Parish, Masaka: “…My Lord Bishop, you do not have a mission, but a diocese: what I see here goes beyond all that I had heard about it; in Khartoum, there is nothing like what we see here”. Bishop Streicher gave him the Acts of the Synod they had held in October 1909. In the journal of Fr Raux, WF we read “…the missionaries of Uganda have realized that Providence has given to the Khartoum mission a good bishop, whose humility and piety are only counter-balanced by his learning and zeal.”
Mgr Geyer asked Bishop Streicher for two priests from Hoima and two permanent catechists which he was given. Later Fr Colombaroli asked for four catechists and three were given, though only one, Lazaro, remained until his death. He is buried in the cemetery in Gulu. (A close descendant is now a Marian Brother).
At the beginning of 1911, three more priests arrived and this time by boat to Mombasa, through Kenya to Kisumu then onto Kampala. They were Frs. Fornasa, Beduschi and Audisio. In 1913 Frs. Molinaro and Vignato joined the group. The five living at Omach were very busy making contacts with the people, first with the elders of chiefs of the place. Fr. Crazzolara writes:” Fr. Colombaroli and I went by donkey to visit Koba, the government outpost. We met the postmaster, the Goan clerk and the “Collector”, Mr. Hannington; also the Indian doctor. We were shown a list of our goods, waiting to be delivered when porters would be available. We met merchant Alidina Visram, who said that he was a friend of the missions in Buganda, where he owned many shops. There we found also a telegraph communications system, connecting Koba with Hoima and Nimule”.
They visited the people in their villages, caring for the sick and learning the two languages: Alur and Acholi. Learning the language is one of the first duties of a missionary and Fr. Crazzolara was the most successful in this and after a few months he was able to prepare a simple prayer book and catechism in Alur, (How would you translate into Alur “Trinity”, or “Eucharist”? “God” was called “Rubanga”, but later Fr. Vignato changed it into “Mungu”). He was the first to put the language in writing, building up the orthography and grammar of the language into a book. The missionaries did this with all the local languages they met.
Soon a little school was started, to which the Chiefs, as promised sent their boys; some came out of curiosity, others attracted by what the missionaries might give. The missionaries knew that education is a key to evangelization; ignorance is one of the greatest obstacles to progress. Delegates from the chiefs would come to offer a goat in exchange for a piece of cloth. The mission was always crowded with people; sick people asking for a medicine; old men and women showing their empty pipes and asking for a pinch of tobacco; young men watching Bro. Clement busy in his workshop and commenting on his tools; everything was so new to them. Most of all, there were crowds of little children, curious and chattering, enjoying the sight of the “mondo” (foreigner) so busy and gentle.
Those beginnings, however, were not easy. Our missionaries were soon faced with quite serious and unexpected problems. As the water from the river was undrinkable unless boiled, the Brother started to excavate a well, but he went down over 15 metres without results. When the rainy season came, the grass roof of the house began to leak badly; it had to be repaired; other huts had to be built in a hurry. The termites badly damaged the chapel, another had to be built. Clouds of mosquitoes rising from the river bank attacked the missionaries, sucking their blood. Fr. Albino, whose health had never been strong, became sick and weak and had to rest frequently. Malaria was a daily unwelcome visitor for one or another of the missionaries; all of them found it hard to adjust to the climate and the new way of life. Poverty was extreme in their house; they lacked proper medicines and even food and rest. The roar of wild animals not far away often disturbed them and even frightened some of them. Communications and transport of provisions were rare and difficult. Their goods were still on the way from Nimule. Worst of all, somebody who did not like foreigners, began to call them “Khartoumi”, which was the name applied to slave traders. The Commissioner had to intervene forbidding the use of this nickname.
A very heavy cross was weighing all the time on the spirit of our pioneers: the government’s refusal to allow them to establish a mission on the west banks of the Nile (the West Nile), which was for them like God’s Promised Land. The British Protectorate Government refused to allow the missionaries to cross the Nile because the boundaries were not yet clear between the British and Belgian governments. All these difficulties did not dampen their courage: they were young, full of enthusiasm for their vocation like St. Daniel Comboni, and encouraged one another with brotherly charity. The good Lord was their consolation and hope.
On 3rd June they celebrated the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for the first time in Uganda with great joy and devotion. The same day, the first solemn baptism was administered by a Comboni Missionary, Fr. Cordone, to a Ugandan: he was ENJUMA, the Baganda Fathers’ house-boy, who took the name of Paulo.