Catholics from Africa and of African-decent will come together for thanksgiving and remembrance at Milwaukee’s St. Margaret Mary Church on the evening of June 3. The celebration of the Memorial of the Ugandan Martyrs, an annual event sponsored by the African Catholic Committee of the Archdiocese’s Black Catholic Ministry Commission, will include a festive liturgy and a time of fellowship featuring traditional African foods. This is the ninth year for this meaningful celebration.
Antoinette Mensah, Director of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Office for World Mission, said it was originally an initiative intended to recognize the presence of African Catholics — many of whom are recent immigrants. Mensah’s own family immigrated to the United States from Ghana in 1962.
“We want to be sure that we’re helping those who are already established, as well as the newer Catholics, find their way. And, we want to ask how we are ministering to them, as well as think about how we can lift up important people and events in African spirituality. The feast day of the Ugandan Martyrs,” she said, “is a time to do that and to celebrate the faith of these young martyrs.”
The Martyrs of Uganda, whose memorial is celebrated each year on June 3, is a group of 22 young African men who had served as pages in the royal court of Uganda’s King Mwanga II. In 1885, Mwanga had ordered the murder of Archbishop John Hannington and other Anglican-Christians. Later that same year, he called for the execution of the first Catholic martyrs, including St. Joseph Mukasa. Between May 26 and June 3, 1886, the king ordered the execution of another group, including St. Charles Lwanga and 12 other young men; the youngest of the martyrs, St. Kizito, was only 13 or 14 years old.
The Catholic martyrs were canonized by Bl. Pope Paul VI in 1964, during the Third Session of the Second Vatican Council. During the Mass, the pope also recognized the witness of the many Anglican martyrs. In 2002, Pope St. John Paul II beatified two additional Ugandan martyrs, Bb. Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa, who were martyred in 1915. The Martyrs of Uganda are honored as patron saints of Africa.
Recalling the martyrs, Mensah noted the Memorial of the Ugandan Martyrs is also an opportunity to talk about the witness of faith. “Their story is a reminder of people who make a commitment to their faith. For me, these people stood up against great odds. I don’t know that I could necessarily say, ‘Yeah, I could do that.’ But, it’s a reminder that when people come together and, when you’re united, it’s a little easier to say ‘Yes.’” The celebration of these martyrs is a source of pride. “For me,” Mensah said, “it’s a reminder and acknowledgement that we have a long-standing history and a long-standing tradition. The celebration also reinforces the diversity and universality of the Church.”
The Ugandan Martyrs Mass will take place at St. Margaret Mary Church (3970 N. 92nd Street, Milwaukee) at 5 p.m. on Saturday, June 3, and is supported by a grant provided by the Black and Indian Mission Office and through in-kind and free-will donations from throughout the community. Music will be provided by an African choir under the direction of Hilaire Nakigane from the St. Christophe Community, a Catholic Senegalese community in Milwaukee. All are welcome to attend.
“This is an opportunity for people to enhance their faith and to interact with a group of people you might not otherwise meet,” Mensah concluded. “When you come and see how others are engaged, you get to see evangelization in action. I think that all those who come are renewed to go back to their own parishes to do what they need to do.”