Each year on the week leading up to June 3, Catholic faithful from dioceses in Uganda and surrounding countries begin long journeys to the shrine of the martyrs St. Charles Lwanga and his 22 male companions. Walking miles in rain, mud, hot or cold weather, the pilgrims prepare themselves to celebrate the witness of the martyrs, who willingly died for their faith, their love of God and his commandments.
The annual Feast of the Ugandan Martyrs in Milwaukee began at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, moving to various parishes and showcasing the presence of African Catholics in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
This year’s celebration will take place at 4 p.m. Saturday, June 5, at All Saints Catholic Church, 4051 N. 25th St., Milwaukee.
The celebrant for the Mass will be Fr. James Arthur. Loved ones who died this year will also be remembered. The scripture readings, some songs and prayer of the faithful will be in various African languages, English and French. In previous years, an African choir comprised of singers with African national backgrounds would sing at the Mass.
Charles Lwanga was a 21-year-old page in the royal court of the king of Buganda, in the southern part of modern-day Uganda. Christianity was new to the area in 1879, brought by the Society of Missionaries of Africa, a congregation of priests founded by Cardinal Lavigerie. King Mutesa welcomed the missionaries and before long, a number converted and were baptized, most prominently some of the young pages and men in his court.
After Mutesa’s death, his corrupt son, King Mwanga II, succeeded him. At first, he allowed Christianity but then recanted. Lwanga received baptism, became the head page and baptized four other pages. Mwanga later told the pages to recant, but they refused. Lwanga and his companions were all murdered.
According to Fessahaye Mebrahtu, director of Black Catholic and Ethnic Ministries, the Feast of Ugandan Martyrs was chosen as a rallying event for African and African American Catholics. He began this event to bring together African Catholics while a member of the Black Catholic Ministry Commission and National Advisor for USCCB-PCMRT (United Council of Catholic Bishops—Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers) prior to holding his current position.
“Initially, the name Ugandan Martyrs seemed to apply only to people from Uganda; however, over the years, people started seeing (more individuals) of African descent. There is always discussion of expanding the name to include all saints and martyrs of African descent, but we have not settled it,” he said. “We plan to have the (celebration) at Three Holy Women next year.”
Normally, after the Mass, a potluck reception would follow, consisting of food shared from various African countries and cultural traditions, but this year, due to COVID-19, there will be snacks and bottled or canned drinks to grab and go.
“We started doing this in 2007,” said Mebrahtu. “In the past, we had bishops as celebrants. Bishop Joseph Perry and Bishop Richard Sklba are the two I personally remember.”
The principal coordinator of the celebration, Reine Marie Assana, said they are happy to celebrate the Ugandan Martyrs this year after having to cancel it last year.
“I get excited when planning the Ugandan Martyrs, because it is a way for us to share in the history of the Christian faith in Africa. Many people in the Milwaukee area never heard about these martyrs and their great sacrifice in affirming their love of Christ,” she said. “In our effort to evangelize in the greater Milwaukee area, we were able to hold the Mass from parish to parish, bringing awareness and educating the local Church about the contributions of Charles Lwanga and companions to the faith. It helps us showcase our spirituality, share our food when we are able to, in one word celebrate in the authentic African way.”
Ugandan native Dr. Sebastian Ssempijja is excited to bring this celebration back to his parish as it is reminiscent of the pilgrimages to Namugungo, where the shrine sits.
“This celebration has brought many miracles throughout the Catholic world and beyond, including Anglican and other communities of Africa, such as West Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya,” said Ssempijja. “We will see upwards of a million people over the two to three days before and after, as they congregate close to the shrine to pray together with other believers.”
Each of the parishes within 18 dioceses in the nation of Uganda prepare in various ways to celebrate the Feast of the Martyrs and travel to local churches and cathedrals and congregate within the community to pray.
“Many of these are the young people who are especially looking at the age of the martyrs who were so young but so inspired by faith,” said Ssempijja. “Many have taken to them and use (their story) as a reminder of the role faith plays in their own lives. Many have lived through great hardships and depend on their relationship with God, and the stories of the miracles attributed to the martyrs in particular are very powerful in their lives. With so many coming from different areas, it is an important intercultural moment of faith.”