Martyrs’ Day

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Martyrs’ Day

***** Location: Uganda and
..... ...worldwide in Christian communities
***** Season: Cool dry season
***** Category: Observance


Martyrs’ Day is celebrated in Uganda as a public holiday on 3 June every year. It is one of the main national festivals in Uganda, and is the celebration of a major turning point in the country’s history. On 3 June 1885, 26 young men were executed for their Christian faith. Altogether, 45 Anglican and Catholic martyrs are known by name and were killed mostly in a period leading up to and including this date.

The 22 Roman Catholic martyrs were beatified by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, and canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1964 -- the first Africans to be recognised as Saints by the Catholic church and a source of pride for many throughout the continent.

Every year, thousands of pilgrims from all over Uganda and many other countries flock to the Martyrs’ Memorial in Namugongo in the outskirts of Kampala and give thanks -- all Christian denominations together at the main site of execution, where a beautiful modern memorial shrine has been built by the Catholic Diocese of Kampala. The Anglican Diocese has a smaller memorial shrine about 1 km away, where some of the weaker martyrs were killed off, when they could not reach the main place of execution.

The grounds of the shrine contain a small lake, believed to have water with healing capacities. The faithful gathered for the annual celebration, fill their bottles with this water to take home.

The Uganda Martyrs are remembered by Christians worldwide on 3 June every year.

Text © Isabelle Prondzynski


A modern painting at the Memorial Shrine in Namugongo, celebrating the Martyrs’ death


The Uganda Martyrs

Christianity was very new to Uganda in 1885 when the first of 22 young Catholic converts gave his life as a martyr for his faith.

Catholic Missionaries led by French White Fathers (called White Fathers because of the long white robes worn by the missionaries), taught that both slavery and polygamy were wrong. King Mutesa had tolerated these teachings. When his son, King Mwanga, took the throne at 18, these same teachings led to the persecution and martyrdom of Christians.

To be baptized it was necessary to reject many traditional practices and many Ugandans looked on the young Catholic converts as rebels. The new King, who had, as a prince loved the missionaries, now feared the new religion and hated their admonishment of his behavior.

Joseph Mukasa Balekuddembe was the first Catholic convert to be martyred. Joseph had been a chief advisor to the King and had spoken out, condemning the King's order for Anglican Bishop Hannington's death. The King would not tolerate this criticism from his advisors and ordered Joseph beheaded on November 15, 1885. Joseph proclaimed "Mwanga has condemned me without cause, but tell him I forgive him in my heart."

King Mwanga may have believed that by killing Joseph he would convince other converts to give up their new faith. However, others in the King's service responded not with fear, but faith.

Charles Lwanga was the chief of the 400 pages who were the young men in the service of the King. When Charles learned of Joseph's death he went together with Bruno Sserunkuma, James Buzabalyawo and several others to the White Fathers and asked to be baptized. They escaped from the confines of the palace grounds at night to be instructed, knowing that they were putting their lives in God's hands.

Denis Sebuggwago, who was a servant of the king, was found teaching catechism and was killed on May 26, 1886. Andrew Kagwa who was the bandmaster to the King was also a catechist who had converted his wife and gathered many others to the new faith. Andrew and Ponsiano Ngondwe were beheaded the same day.

As the chief of the pages, Charles Lwanga also tried to keep the young men safe from the King's behavior and this angered the king further. The King's anger and distrust of Catholics grew and he announced that it would be necessary for the pages to choose between their faith and life. He ordered that all the "who prayed" stand aside. Charles Lwanga led the way and was followed by others, all knew what their fate would be.

Tied up, the next day they were forced to walk 12 miles to the hill that would be their place of execution at Namugongo. Gonzaga Gonza collapsed and he and Antanansio Bazzekuketta were killed on the road.

One of the pages, Mbaga Tuzinde, was the son of the chief executioner who tried to hide him. He escaped from his family and joined the others.

Once they arrived at Namugongo, the place of their death was not ready, and they waited for seven days. They were cold and hungry, but despite this they were filled with joy and kept praying the Our Father and Hail Mary. On Ascension Thursday, the drums alerted them that their execution was about to take place. Charles Lwanga was first; then the others were brought out and tied in bundles of three and thrown into the fire, where they kept singing and praising God until they perished.

June 3 is remembered as the Martyrs Day in Uganda, and today Christians travel to Namungongo for celebrations.

The King's intention had been to deter the growth of Christianity, but the martyrdom of these early believers sparked its growth instead. It has been observed in many other instances, that the blood of the martyrs proved to be the seed of faith. Christianity is now the dominant faith in Buganda and Uganda as a whole. The 22 known Catholic martyrs were declared "Blessed" by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. On October 18, 1964 Pope Paul VI canonized the 22 Catholic martyrs during the Vatican II conference. These 22 young men are recognized for their sacrifice and witness of faith.


The Martyrs’ Memorial Shrine in Namugongo
Photos © Isabelle Prondzynski


More history here, with a complete list of the Martyrs and their details :

An Anglican view :


The stunning ceiling of the Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrine
Photo © Isabelle Prondzynski


President attends Namugongo Martyrs’ Day celebrations

President Yoweri Museveni and his wife Mrs. Janet Museveni were among over 1 million pilgrims that converged at Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrine in Wakiso district to celebrate the annual Uganda Martyrs’ Day.

The colourful ceremony that started from Namugongo Basilica with a liturgical procession of Bishops, priests and the laity, was this year hosted by Nebbi Catholic Diocese under the theme “Love One Another as I Love You”.

Pilgrims from Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Malawi, South Africa and Nigeria as well as from the United Kingdom and the United States of America attended the celebrations in memory of the Uganda Martyrs who died for their Christian faith over 120 years ago.

Addressing the congregation, President Museveni highly commended the main celebrant of the High Mass Bishop Martin Luluga of Nebbi Diocese, for his sermon that emphasized love for one another. He pointed out that the message from the Bishop’s sermon sums up the fundamentals of Christianity.

The main celebrant, Bishop Martin Luluga, called on the people of Uganda to emulate the Uganda Martyrs, their ancestors in faith, by practicing Godly love, be rich in faith and above all, be good citizens.

Uganda Episcopal Conference Chairman, Bishop Matthias Ssekamanya of Lugazi Diocese, appreciated the presence at the function of President Museveni and his wife Janet Museveni as well as other civic leaders. He emphasized the need for forgiveness and reconciliation to achieve peace in order to root for the development of the nation and its people.



Praying at the very spot of execution in the Namugongo Martys’ Shrine
Photo © Isabelle Prondzynski

Worldwide use

Things found on the way

Nowadays, the Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum (killed 1977) and many other Christians, who suffered death for their faith under the tyrant Idi Amin, are also remembered among the Uganda martyrs.


The shrine of the Matryrs’ Memorial in Namugongo was built in 1973 by the Swiss architect Justus Dahinden, who was inspired by Africa’s building shapes as well as its vegetation. It seats well over 1,000 people.

More here :


Namugongo --
praying so fervently
at the Martyrs’ Shrine

Praying at the Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrine

Haiku and photo © Isabelle Prondzynski

Related words

***** .. .. Saints: Their Memorial Days

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this is a very thorough presentation, of readings and photos on
The Ugandan Martyrs

much love
a Haiku friend