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Who preserved the martyrs' remains?
Publish Date: Jun 03, 2014
Who preserved the martyrs' remains?
A missionary priest carries a gold plated urn containing the martyrs bones. Photo/Steven Musoke
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  • In 1886, Mapeera (Fr. Simeon Lourdel) put the bones of the martyrs in a small metal case, dug a hole in the sacristy of their church in Rubaga and kept them there

Pilgrims today marked the Uganda Martyrs Day at Namugongo in remembrance of the 22 Catholic and 23 Anglican pages who were burnt to death because of their religious beliefs. Juliet Lukwago tells how the martyrs’ bones were discovered and preserved against all odds.

The Uganda Martyrs were executed at Namugongo on the orders of Buganda’s Kabaka Mwanga II between November 1885 and January 1887.

PHOTOGRAPHY/Steven Musoke

The relics of the martyrs being carried to the main altar during the mass at Namugongo

Nobody could have predicted that the martyrs would become famous. Most of them were burnt to ashes, but for Kalooli Lwanga and Matia Mulumba, the story is different.

At the time the martyrs were burnt, Buganda went through many inter-religious wars that posed a threat to the preservation of the martyrs’ relics.

In his book Eddiini mu Uganda, Fr. J.L Ddiba, assisted by former Kampala Archbishop Joseph Kiwanuka and Fr. Perinet, explain how the remains of the martyrs were preserved from 1886.

Kalooli Lwanga

At 25, Kalooli (Luganda for Charles) Lwanga was the chief page at Mwanga’s palace, who protected the others from the Kabaka’s advances.

Ddiba wrote that on June 3, 1886, the day of the Feast of the Ascension, Lwanga was separated from the others at Namugongo and burnt a few metres away.

Fr. Simeon Lourdel put the bones of the martyrs in a small metal case, dug a hole in the sacristy of their church in Rubaga and kept them there

One Ssenkoole tied him down and set his feet on fire. As Lwanga burnt, Ssenkoole promised he would put out the fire if he renounced his faith, but Lwanga refused.

According to the book, he mocked Ssenkoole, saying: “You are burning me, but it is as if you are pouring water over my body.” Lwanga eventually died under a ggirikiti (Erhrina Abyssinica) tree at Namugongo where the Martyrs Shrine stands today.

The book says the following day (June 4, 1886), one Matayo Kirevu went to the place and saw the bones that remained after Lwanga had been burnt.

Pilgrims from all over the world converge at Namugongo to pray for the intercession of the Uganda Martyrs

He narrated what he had seen to his friends and many people started going to the place to see the remains of the brave young man.

Later, on October 29, after Pere Simeon Lourdel (the Catholic missionary referred to as Mapeera), had returned from exile in Tanganyika, he was told of the brave men who had died for their faith.

When one Bazilio Kamya told him about Lwanga’s bones which had become a tourist attraction, Mapeera asked him to find a way of getting the bones to him.

The book adds that after a month, Kamya and his friend, Leo Lwanga, sneaked to Namugongo at night and collected the remains. They first wrapped them in Kamya’s cloth and then barkcloth.

By 8:00am the following day, they had delivered the bones to Mapeera’s home in Rubaga.

Mapeera cleaned and wrapped them in a red cloth, which they had used as a flag during their journey to Uganda. He then put them in a small metal case, dug a hole in the sacristy of their church in Rubaga and kept them there.

Matia Mulumba

These relics were presented at the St.Peter's Basilica during the canonisation of the Uganda Martyrs

After Christians realised Mapeera’s interest in the martyrs’ remains, they promised to get him those of Matthias (Matia) Mulumba Kalemba, who had been killed earlier during the martyrs’ journey from Munyonyo to Namugongo.

Mulumba, who was one of the oldest of the Kabaka’s pages, reportedly screamed: “God will rescue me. But you will not see how He does it because He will take my soul and leave you only my body.”

The executioners cut of his arms and legs and left him to die at present day Old Kampala, where the St. Matia Mulumba Parish Church stands.

The book says Mulumba died three days later. His body was eaten by animals, which scattered his bones. Although people knew where Mulumba’s remains were, they were afraid to give him a decent burial.

Christians later gathered Mulumba’s bones and took them to Mapeera, who, together with a colleague, labelled each one of them, wrapped them and kept them with Lwanga’s remains.

 

The remains are a great testament of the faith the Uganda Martyrs died for

Lost treasure

On October 12, 1888, during the war between Muslims and Christians, the missionaries fled back to Tanganyika. The church was burnt down during the fight and the place where it stood grew a bush.

By 1890, after Christians had chased away Muslims and the missionaries had returned, they could not locate the place where the church had been, and hence where the remains were.

According to Ddiba, this was a blessing in disguise. Had they found the case, they would have transferred it to Rubaga and it would then have been destroyed by the subsequent war between Catholics and Protestants, between 1890-1892.

Rubaga church was razed to the ground on January 24, 1892. Later, on November 13, 1892, a catechist who was digging, found the box intact.

Confusion

A painting depicting the martyrdom at present day Namugongo Catholic shrine

The book narrates that Msgr. Hirth hid the remains in Bukumbi-Tanganyika, which was more peaceful than Buganda.

He put them in a case, on which he wrote: ‘The remains of Kalooli Lwanga’ and sent them to the priest’s house in Tanganyika.

In 1899, Msgr Streicher, who was the bishop of Buganda, brought back the case containing the remains. He thought it contained only Lwanga’s remains, until February 3, 1915, when the church, which had started the canonisation process, was doing research on the martyrs.

They discovered that the case also contained Mulumba’s bones. They were differentiated basing on how the martyrs died.

The black bones were deemed to belong to Lwanga who had been burnt to death.

From 1915, the remains were stored at the Archbishop’s chapel at Rubaga. In 1964, the relics were taken to Rome during the canonisation of the martyrs and were placed in the Basilica of St. Peter.

When the Martyrs’ Shrine was built in Namugongo, some of the bones were placed under the altar, which is where Lwanga was killed. The rest were preserved in gold plated urns at the Archbishop’s place in Rubaga.

Fr. Joseph Mukasa Muwonge, the promoter of the Uganda Martyrs devotion, says the bones are always carried by priests of the congregations of the missionaries.

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