The making of the Catholic martyrs shrine

By the time of beatification of the Uganda Catholic martyrs in 1920, there was nothing like a memorial site for them. On that day, a Dutch priest, Rev Fr Stephen Walters, from Nsambya Catholic Parish, led a group people on a pilgrimage from Nsambya to Namugongo. The closest Catholic Church to Namugongo was at Kyaliwajala, the current location of Vienna College. It was under the jurisdiction of Nsambya Parish.

Fr Walters and his fellow pilgrims went straight to Namugongo from where Charles Lwanga was burnt. He wondered why a place of such importance did not have a church. A temporary shade made out of tree poles, banana and palm tree leaves was erected for the day’s Holy Mass.

He was informed that it was not possible to build a church as the land did not belong to the Mission. He asked if the landlord was willing to sell. The land belonged to a Muslim who was not ready to dispose it.
“I am not selling this land unless you are giving me a very good price of Rupees 100 per acre,” the landlord is quoted as saying, according to archives of the Catholic Church at Rubaga.

“Walter paid Rupees 800 for the eight acres and he put a cross where the present day altar of the Basilica stands. He set the pace for the Catholic Church to acquire land in Namugongo, then Kampala Archbishop Emmanuel Nsubuga is quoted as saying in December 1966.

After securing the land, Fr Walters went ahead and started making bricks for the construction of the church. Unfortunately before the church could be finished, he died of sleeping sickness in 1923.
In 1927, Bishop John .W. Campling of the Mill Hill Fathers opted to set up a monument at the site of the shrine.

But an organisation that had earlier been formed called Friends of the Martyrs pleaded with him not to put a monument. They wanted to collect money to buy more land and build a shrine in memory of the martyrs.
“Members of the Friends of the Martyrs fundraised enough money to buy 23 acres at Shs5,980,” records in the church archives show.

The 23 acres were on top of what Fr Walters had bought.

The friends of the martyrs in 1928 started constructing a boys’ primary school on part of the land they had bought and later a girls’ school.

“The parents built the primary schools. Though there were plans for a secondary school, they were put on hold due to lack of teachers,” the archives state.
After the construction of the church and the schools, Christians in the area asked Bishop Campling to give them parish status with priests. The bishop replied: “Don’t even think about it, I have many places much bigger than yours that want priests.”

In 1928, the friends of the martyrs wrote to the head of the Mill Hill Fathers in England, asking him to send priests to Namugongo. The request to England was granted but it was Bishop Campling to implement it. He set terms and conditions to be fulfilled before priests were sent there.

“You can only have a resident priest if you can afford to feed them, house them, build a decent church, and also to make sure you don’t lead them into debts,” declared Bishop Campling.
The above conditions were met and in February1935, Namugongo became a parish with Rev Fr Peter van Rooyen as the first priest.
The first modern rectangular church that was at Namugongo was razed down to give way for the construction of the befitting church in 1967.

Fundraising for the shrine
The present basilica was the idea of Kampala Archbishop Emmanuel Nsubuga who started a fundraising drive for its construction. Among the donors was Pope John Paul VI who contributed $20,000 then.

Using a bag made of palm leaves (Kikapu) which he took to Rome to be blessed by Pope John Paul VI, Archbishop Nsubuga traversed the world looking for funds to construct the basilica.

With funds secured, a contract to construct the Shrine was awarded to Roko Construction Company.
In 1969, two years after the commencement of the construction, Pope Paul VI, who became the first Pontiff to visit the African continent, laid the foundation stone for the shrine.

After eight years of work on June 3, 1975 the shrine was officially opened. Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli, representing Pope John Paul VI, presided over the basilica’s official opening. When Pope John Paul II visited Uganda in 1993, he declared the shrine a mini basilica.

In 2015, before the visit of the current pontiff, Pope Francis, the site was redeveloped into an international standard pilgrimage site.

The Shs44b project included three modern VIP pavilions to enable Christians from all corners to see the main celebrant at the altar.

A new pilgrimage route was created and named Martyrs Way. The lake trough was reconstructed, the dirty water being drained and fresh spring water allowed to flow.

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