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Restoring pride of Munyonyo martyrs shrine

Pope Francis expected to visit monument next year

When you set foot on this hill, there is a feeling of simplicity and nobility that comes your way. From the winds that create a rhythmic wave among the thick trees, you can sense eminent holiness.

This is at Uganda martyrs’ shrine at Munyonyo hill – the hill where Kabaka Mwanga took a historical decision to kill Christians on May 25, 1886. Despite being the source of martyrdom in Uganda, Munyonyo has, over time, been overshadowed by Namugongo martyrs shrine, where the largest number of martyrs was killed.

For 127 years, only a small church stands in honour of three brave young men, Andrew Kaggwa, Pontian Ngondwe and Dennis Ssebugwawo – the first Catholic martyrs. Though this church accommodates less than 20 people, residents say it overflows with Christians every Sunday and most of them sit on the steps.

At some point, this land was at risk of land grabbers, only to be rescued by the Polish missionary Greyfriars priests. According to Fr Marian Kajubi, the Franciscan rector of Munyonyo martyrs’ shrine, Namugongo could be the climax of martyrdom in Uganda, but Munyonyo remains the most historical.

“Have you ever imagined what would have happened if the three had denied Christ? Maybe the rest would have done the same,” he says.

Reviving Munyonyo

Next year, Uganda will mark 50 years since the canonization of Uganda martyrs in 1964 by Pope Paul VI. In his message during this year’s Kampala diocesan celebrations, the archbishop of Kampala, Cyprian Kizito Lwanga, launched the project of reviving this site.

The Greyfriars have designed a master plan to transform this site into an international centre. The plan endorsed by the archbishop, consists of a 1,000-seater shrine, similar to that of Namugongo, which will sit at the highest point of the site.

According Father Voyteck Ulman (Male), the plan will involve improvement of the martyrdom spot  (monument) of St Andrew Kaggwa and his tomb, construction of an open amphitheatre (that seats 4,000), formation house /block, retreat centre, pastoral centre, cottages, meditation gardens, information centre and parking.

Fr Kajubi says the project is still under architectural development with no conclusive budget. He confirmed that Pope Francis was expected to visit the shrine when he comes to Uganda next year.

“We are hopeful that when the pope comes, he will visit the shrine. We pray that funds are raised and we start the revival process,” he said.

The Ggaba parish head of laity, John B. Sserunjogi, said it was a plausible project and fundraising had started. A countrywide campaign started where people were asked to contribute through their churches while others support through MTN mobile money and Centenary bank.

The Centenary account, opened at Mapeera branch in the name of Munyonyo martyrs shrine, is number 3710600083. To donate using MTN mobile money, you go to pay bill, then goods and services, type SHRINE as the code, the amount of money, and your name as the reference.

How it happened

Father Charles Ssengendo, the parish priest briefly narrates the martyrdom of the three below.

Denis Ssebuggwawo

On the afternoon of Tuesday, May 25, 1886, Mwanga went hippopotamus hunting. He was then staying at his Munyonyo palace after a fire that gutted the Mengo palace earlier in February. No hippo was sighted. After shooting at a few birds the royal party returned and on his way back, Mwanga lost his modern rifle in the lake.

The king immediately sought advice from his diviner who prophesied that Mwanga had to kill all his Christian attendants. On reaching Munyonyo, Mwanga found none of his attendants at home.

“They have gone off to the white men to study religion. Now I know that the country is no longer mine, but the white men’s,” Mwanga is believed to have said.

He then ordered the killing of Anglican convert Musa Mukasa, who refused to denounce his faith. Then, 16-year-old Denis Ssebuggwawo, Mwanga’s immediate attendant, came back. Mwanga asked him to renounce Christianity and he refused.

He became the first Catholic object of Mwanga’s violence that evening. Mwanga stabbed him with his spear and ordered his executioners to finish him. It is believed that he was left to suffer with this spear in his chest until the next morning when he was finally cut into pieces.

After that, Mwanga seriously started the Christian persecution, which claimed the lives of 22 Catholic and 23 Anglican martyrs. The morning after Ssebuggwawo’s execution, a meeting was organized where everyone was asked to denounce the white man’s faith or get killed.

Led by Charles Lwanga, about 17 young men stuck to their faith. Mwanga ordered for them to be taken to Namugongo (25km away) and  killed.

Pontian Ngondwe

On the way to Namugongo with fellow prisoner Abdul Aziz Buliwadda late in the evening, they met chief executioner, Mukaajanga at Munyonyo Kyamula.

Mukaajanga asked drunkenly: “Who of you two is a Christian?” Pontian Ngondwe confessed three times and was immediately killed.

Andrew Kaggwa

When the storm of persecution broke on May 25, 1886, Kaggwa was not at the palace and missed the meeting where fellow martyrs were sentenced. But the following day, Mukasa, Mwanga’s chancellor, reminded Mwanga that Kaggwa was still at large.

Mwanga could not afford to lose his chief drummer but Mukasa replied that Kaggwa was the principal Christian instructor of the king’s pages and other servants.

Kaggwa was summoned to Munyonyo palace where he confessed his Christianity. Mukasa ordered Kaggwa’s execution and asked the executioners to bring him his hands. Today Kaggwa is the patron saint of Munyonyo shrine.


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