Pilgrimage to Ugandan Martyrs’ Shrine Paved by Prayer and Perseverance

Thousands of pilgrims trekked hundreds of miles on foot to honor the Uganda Martyrs and invoke their intercession.

Mungujabero Eric, one of the physically challenged pilgrims, listens to the news as the pilgrims break their journey for the day.
Mungujabero Eric, one of the physically challenged pilgrims, listens to the news as the pilgrims break their journey for the day. (photo: Sister Grace Candiru)

NAMUGONGO, Uganda — Thousands of pilgrims from Uganda and beyond trekked hundreds of miles on foot to honor the Uganda Martyrs and invoke their intercession

In the lead-up to the celebrations of Uganda Martyrs’ Day on June 3, pilgrims journeyed to Namugongo’s shrine to commemorate the heroism of St. Charles Lwanga and Companions.

On May 15, Archbishop-elect Raphael p’Mony Wokorach, who is also the administrator of the Diocese of Nebbi, the host diocese for this year’s celebrations, saw 724 pilgrims set off on foot from Nebbi’s cathedral parish for the 450-kilometer (279-mile) journey. Diocesan authorities put the total number of registered pilgrims at more than 2,800 from the diocese.

Eleven-year-old Solomon Munguromo (“God is enough”) and an unidentified 82-year-old woman were among the Nebbi pilgrims. During their stopover at Our Lady, Queen of Peace Cathedral in Luweero, which is 60 kilometers (37 miles) to Kampala, Munguromo told the Register he was overwhelmed by the attention he was receiving.

Ugandan Member of Parliament Emmanuel Ongieritho, who is a parishioner at the cathedral parish, was present at the step-off. The politician rejoined the group for the 37 miles to Kampala, with a special intention to pray for his future bishop.

“Our bishop has been transferred to Gulu Archdiocese, and so I am dedicating my pilgrimage to pray for a new bishop and a good one,” he said.

The MP, whose wife recently died unexpectedly, told the Register he was also praying especially for widows and widowers. He said the experience of his wife’s sudden passing had given him a glimpse of what widows and widowers go through.

“My prayer to God is to change the hearts of relatives of the deceased not to take away the lands and property [of the deceased], especially of the widows upon the death of their spouses,” he said.

Meanwhile, Father Melkisedek Thokerunga, one of the three priests on the pilgrimage, told the Register he valued the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the holy martyrs. He recalled that St. Luke Baanabakintu, one of the Ugandan Martyrs who lived in Kiyinda-Mityana, used to walk 60 kilometers (37 miles) to attend Mass in Rubaga Cathedral, the only place the missionaries celebrated Mass in the late 1880s.

Over the years, the numbers of Christians making pilgrimage to Namugongo to honor the memory of the 45 Christian converts (23 Protestants and 22 Catholics) has continued to grow. This year alone, more than 2 million pilgrims attended celebrations that marked the 60th anniversary of their canonization. The martyrs were murdered at the order of Kabaka (King) Mwanga II between Jan. 31, 1885, and Jan. 27, 1887.

Additionally, the priest, who is also concerned about the road network in the three districts that make up Nebbi Diocese, noted with concern the bad roads. “I am presenting the issue of the roads to God because many of our people have died in bad accidents due to the bad roads,” he said, adding that the martyrs should now intercede for his people.

Ugandan walking pigrims 2024
Clockwise from left: Sister Susan Eyokia (r) and her fellow sister, who were sponsored by a well-wisher to go on the pilgrimage. Their main intention is to pray for their young congregation, among other intentions. Solomon Munguromo, 11, with Honorable Emmanuel Ongieritho; an unidentified pilgrim ready for the journey; and Father Melkisedek Thokerunga, one of the diocesan priests who went on the pilgrimage.(Photo: Sister Grace Candiru)

Mungujabero Eric, 32, who was one of two wheelchair-bound pilgrims, put his prayer intentions for the pilgrimage this way: “I want to use this time of my pilgrimage to communicate with God.”

Mungujabero (which literally means “God is good”), a shoemaker, said he has two children whom he wishes to educate and bring up well, but noted with concern that he is currently unable to raise start-up capital to set up his own shoe workshop, and that intention was his pilgrimage prayer.

He studied shoemaking in 2016 and knows how to make new shoes; but he currently relies on repairing old shoes, which earns him an equivalent of $4, on a good day, to support his family of four.

Moreover, his wooden tricycle, which is his only source of mobility, is now too old to support him; it has had to be repaired several times.

Ugandan walking pilgrimage combo
Clockwise from left: Mungujabero Eric with the young man who helps to push his tricycle whenever it becomes difficult for him to go on his own, especially on hilly or sloppy terrains. Representatives of Centenary Bank, which belongs to the Uganda Episcopal Conference, participate in the pilgrimage. Some of the pilgrims during their stopover at Our Lady, Queen of Peace Cathedral in Kasana, Luweero Diocese in Central Uganda.(Photo: Sister Grace Candiru)

For Sister Susan Eyokia, who hails from the neighboring Diocese of Arua, didn’t know how she would participate in the pilgrimage, since she had no money at the time — and the pilgrimage was 50,000 Ugandan shillings (equivalent to $13.33). She attended due to a sponsorship for herself and another sister, which she joyfully accepted.

The nun, who is a member of the Daughters of the Merciful Love of Jesus and Mary, Queen of the Apostles, said her first intention was to pray for her newly founded congregation.

“Our congregation founded by an African sister who has nothing is still new, and I need to pray and make sacrifice for our sisters, our foundress, Mother Elizabeth Boroa, and our mission,” she told the Register. Moreover, with a childlike confidence, she was hopeful that the pilgrimage would bear fruit.

“I am also praying for my family, too,” the soft-spoken nun continued, adding that she was praying for unity in both her nuclear and extended family.

Regarding her experience of the journey, Sister Susan noted that the first days of the pilgrimage were quite overwhelming, as she had never walked so far before. However, as the days passed by, she got used to it; plus, there were first-aid teams and an ambulance on standby, and they advised the walkers on how to handle the long journey.

Sister Susan also noted the generosity of the people along the way, especially in towns and trading centers. She said that total strangers readily gave the group provisions like bottled water and food — and even money — to individuals, who then presented them to the leaders to be distributed for the good of all.

Politicians as well as corporations, such as banks and telephone companies, offered support to the pilgrims, too, in order to ensure that they were safe on the road and that they had enough to eat.

Uganda pilgrimage theme
Unidentified pilgrim wears a jacket displaying the theme of the June 2024 Martyrs’ Day celebrations.(Photo: Sister Grace Candiru)

To emphasize the theme of the Martyrs’ Day celebrations — “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15) — the pilgrims walked amid a prayerful atmosphere. They prayed the Rosary, the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy and sang songs of praise, only breaking their journey to sleep at designated places where a Mass was offered, after which they washed and rested before embarking on the next leg of their journey.

Despite trekking almost 300 miles in 14 days, the pilgrims were in high spirits on May 29 as they triumphantly entered the Uganda Martyrs’ Shrine in Namugongo, where 13 of the 22 martyrs were burned to death. Few pilgrims showed signs of fatigue or adverse effects like blisters.

Above all, Father Thokerunga said his prayer was to benefit from the plenary indulgence granted to those who participate in the pilgrimage.

“I am also praying for my family to love and serve God,” he said, “and that their faith may grow so that they can love and serve God wholeheartedly.”