Brother Norbert McAuliffe — American Missionary to Uganda

“I sit and let the love of God come to me.”

Brother Norbert McAuliffe in 1941
Brother Norbert McAuliffe in 1941 (photo: Wikimedia Commons/Colorized by Register Staff)

Classes and sports were done, the students had gone home, and the hot Ugandan day was cooling off.

Brother Geoffrey and Brother Norbert left the secondary school for the convent. Brother Geoffrey always enjoyed the evening walk with the veteran missionary, the founder and humble leader of the work of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart in Uganda.

Many considered Brother Norbert a holy man. He was so calm and strong, so prayerful and joyful, so ascetic and kind, so perceptive and peaceful.

They arrived at the convent with time before the community’s evening prayer, but Brother Norbert went straight to the chapel. With reason the Ugandans had long ago named him Dano Ma Lego, “The Man Who Always Prays.” It was a habit he had had since his novitiate 50 years ago. Perhaps it started even further back, in his childhood with the Dominicans.

Born in 1886, Brother Norbert, then known by his baptismal name, John, lost both his parents at the age of 9 and went to live at St. Agnes Home for Children run by the Spark Hill Dominicans. After six years under the care of the Dominicans, he found a new passion and his vocation with the Brothers of Sacred Heart, dedicated to teaching and caring for orphans. In 1902, along with John, 11 other young men also started down the path of religious life at the brothers’ novitiate in Metuchen, New York.

On Nov. 21, 1903, John McAuliffe, now Brother Norbert, took his religious vows. He then launched into teaching, starting with the 60 first- and second-graders at St. Patrick’s school in Indianapolis. Over the following years, he earned his teaching license and a Bachelor of Science from Loyola University in New Orleans.

Brother Norbert had a natural talent for teaching. He won his students’ confidence and threw interesting anecdotes into his lectures to keep their attention.

In religion class, he transformed when he spoke about the love of God, and his sincere enthusiasm kept his pupils transfixed. For Brother Norbert, everything related to God. Language helped man communicate with him. Through geometry he could find God everywhere. Biology and chemistry showed God's creative power and warned men of the destructive consequences of misusing it.

In 1931, he answered the call for volunteers for a new mission in Uganda and was appointed director of the six chosen brothers. They left for Africa the spring of 1931, stopping in Lourdes along the way. From Marseilles, they then took a ship to Mombasa, Kenya, and then a train across the country to Soroti, Uganda. There an Italian missionary priest met them with a car and took them the last 225 kilometers to Gulu, Uganda. They arrived in Gulu on the Feast of the Assumption, Aug. 15.

The brothers were in Uganda to take over the teaching and management of St. Louis College. The school had been started by Italian missionary priests, but as Uganda was an English colony, the colonial authorities required English-speaking teachers.

Through the quality of their teaching, the brothers quickly won the respect of the Africans. Of the six brothers, Brother Norbert stood out. He prayed constantly, the rosary beads slipping through his hands and his lips moving silently as he waited for the students to finish an exercise or for the food to be served in the refectory.

In that community there was a custom of taking a needed rest hour after the noon meal, but Brother Norbert spent it praying in the chapel. If he couldn’t be found elsewhere, he was almost always in the chapel, so absorbed in prayer he seemed like another statue.

“I sit and let the love of God come to me,” he told another brother who asked him what he did in long hours of prayers.

He was also a subtle ascetic. At meals, he always took the smallest portion necessary to just satisfy his hunger. He never raised his voice or spoke ill of anyone, and he ended every conversation with a kind word. He observed his religious life so perfectly, you could set clock by him, they said. If he was mistaken, he asked pardon with sincere humility.

Under his decades of leadership, the mission gathered African recruits and expanded to Sudan and Kenya. He dedicated his later years to the novices and supervising the school children at recess.

“The Lord has been sweet with me,” he said during the last year of his life.

After a brief illness, he died peacefully on July 3, 1959.

The Bishop of Gulu asked the brothers if he could celebrate a solemn funeral Mass for Brother Norbert. Like others did, he considered the brothers the most influential force in bringing the Gospel to northern Uganda.

After the Mass, the funeral procession followed the casket while praying the Rosary, just like Brother Norbert.

He was declared venerable in 2018. Brother Norbert’s canonization cause seeks to find one miraculous physical healing — an instantaneous, complete and lasting cure not due to medical treatment — through his singular intercession to be identified and validated by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in order that he might move on to the next step on the path to sainthood.