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.