2021 Uganda Martyrs Day celebrated virtually due to COVID-19 pandemic

Last year’s event was also low key with access to pilgrims cancelled due to a national coronavirus lockdown.

  • Only 200 pilgrims invited this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Ugandan martyrs were first-ever black saints from sub-Saharan Africa to be canonized
  • The Catholic shrine was built at the spot of the martyrdom of St. Charles (Karoli) Lwanga and St. Kizito

This year’s Uganda Martyrs Day annual celebrations that falls on June 3  were celebrated virtually with only 200 pilgrims invited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, the event was also low key with access to pilgrims cancelled due to a national lockdown.

The 23-acre Namugongo Martyrs Shrine located 12 Km from Kampala City Center had been a magnet for annual celebrations on the Roman Catholic  and Anglican church calendars before the pandemic, attracting up to 3 million pilgrims from all over the world,  walking for days and weeks or commuting from Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Sudan, Zambia, Malawi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and beyond the continent in commemoration of 45 young Christian converts including 23 Anglicans and 22 Catholics who were martyred  between 1885 and 1887 on the orders of reigning (monarch) Kabaka Mwanga of the Buganda Kingdom in a  test of divided loyalty between king  and faith.

The Catholic shrine was built at the spot of the martyrdom of St. Charles (Karoli) Lwanga and St. Kizito. Built of steel, each of the 22 pillars, represent each of the 22 catholic martyrs .

In 1969, Uganda was the first country in Africa to be visited by a reigning Pontiff, when Pope Paul VI celebrated mass at the newly constructed shrine in commemoration of fifty years since the beatification of the martyrs by Pope Benedict XV in 1920.

Five years earlier in 1964, the Uganda Martyrs had been canonized at St.Peter’s Basilica in Rome making them the first-ever black saints from sub-Saharan Africa to be canonized.

When Pope John Paul II visited in 1993, he elevated the Shrine  to a Minor  Basilica in 1993 .

In 2015, when the visit of Pope Francis was confirmed by the Vatican, the government of Uganda and the Archdiocese of Kampala committed $24 million to upgrading the Shrines originally conceived by Monsignor Mbwega (Parish Priest 1954-1980)  into a world class site of international standing for Christianity and tourism by reconstructing the pavilion around the existing Martyrs Lake.

During reconstruction engineers had dredge the lake and  to ensure that Mbwega’s  tress punctuated by chirping bird choirs  be incorporated in the designs  in order to preserve the serenity of the  holy shrine .    

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