Brother Leon Lwanga: Companion to the first missionaries in Uganda (PE nr 1091 – 2018/05)

This is an appreciative memory of Brother Leon Lwanga. He played a remarkable role at  the beginning of evangelisation in his native country, Uganda. He was of enormous help to the first missionaries in difficult and particularly unfavourable conditions. He helped the missionaries to lay the foundations of the first Christian communities. It is very unlikely that the first Missionaries of Africa, received in audience by King Mutesa on the 27th June 1878, could have imagined that one of the members of the King’s Royal Guard was going to join them so soon. And yet, all our missionary confreres who passed through Algiers in the 1890s remembered Bro. Leon Lwanga, son of a chief from the Baganga peninsula. He was a member of the Royal Guard. In fact, the first catechumens came from the Royal Guard and the pages in the court of the King. They were, for the most part, young noblemen placed at the service of the King for military training and for service in the royal palace.

When asked by one missionary, if he had seen Henry Morton Stanley (around 1875) on his travels to find the source of the Nile, Bro. Leon Lwanga replied, “Yes, I was taking part in a raid against the Bavuma, but I was not yet able to handle a spear.” This would mean that Leon Lwanga would have been about 15 years old when Stanley passed through Uganda giving him a date of birth around 1860. While still a child, he left the family home and entered the service of King Mutesa. A study of his life gives the impression that the contact with the first missionaries (circa 1880) and the newly baptised Christians created a small space within him to which he was much attached and which no one should ever question. Even though he was not yet baptised, he became permanently attached to the missionaries around 1882.

In October 1884, King Mutesa died. The new Kabaka was his son Mwanga who was enthroned as King at the age of 18 years. Leon will be a witness to the tyrannical behaviour of the young king. Leon was baptised in 1885, probably by Fr. Lourdel. It was a period of uncertainty just before the outbreak of the persecution of the period from 1885 – 1887 in which Uganda was to become a land of martyrs. He received the Christian name of Bishop Livinhac, ‘Leon’ and he was to remain Livinhac’s faithful companion. The Chronicles of the time state, “Léon Lwanga, one of the first neophytes of Uganda, was one of the most faithful servants of the missionaries in the period following the persecution of 1886.”

On the 6th June 1886, three days after the holocaust at Namugongo, Leon Lwanga received the sacrament of Confirmation at the hands of Bishop Livinhac himself. Knowing his courage and his resilience no matter what the hardship, the missionaries entrusted him with the perilous task of collecting the bones of Charles Lwanga who had just been burned to death on the 3rd June 1886. Leon and Baazilio Kamya found and collected the precious remains and brought them by night to the missionaries now installed at Nalukolongo near the royal palace. On the same day (6th June) about 10 catechumens came to receive the sacrament of Baptism. Fr. Lourdel encouraged them in their faith in the face of sufferings.

Because of the very tense situation in the country as Mwanga was continuing to harry the Christians, many felt obliged to take the route of refugees so that they could freely practice their religion. Leon too decided to take the same route and so we find him with Fr. Ludovic Girault, superior of the mission of Bukumbi (now in Tanzania) and in charge of the Pro-Vicariate of Unyanyembe (also in Tanzania). He was travelling to found the mission of Usambiro. At Fr. Girault’s request, Leon enthusiastically accepted to join the young Christians and bring them to serve as the nucleus of the new foundation.

Brother Leon Lwanga, acting a part in a play.

In September 1888, a rebellion broke out in Uganda and ended in a religious war which opposed Muslims and Christians and provoked fighting among Christian groups as well. Christians were forced to flee from their own areas and forced to take refuge in the Ankole Mountains. On the 10th October 1888, the missionaries finally arrived in Bukumbi. The mission had been burned down, they had been imprisoned by Muslim chiefs and had been robbed of what little they had left and then expelled from the country. They wanted to contact the Christian and neophyte refugees. Bishop Livinhac asked Leon to undertake the dangerous mission of trying to get in touch with the refugees in order to encourage and comfort them.

Leon, always the zealous and brave man, accepted without hesitation and set out accompanied by two trusted companions. In this dangerous mission, Leon came up against many serious obstacles mostly from the followers of the rebellious leader, Karema, the son of Mwanga. They had to retrace their steps hurriedly to escape the danger. Because of the proximity of the threat, Leon and his companions separated. He was never to see his companions again. They were probably taken prisoner and put to death. After having suffered much hardship and exhaustion and thanks to the help of a more hospitable tribe, Leon finally made it back to Bukumbi after an absence of several weeks and presented himself to Bishop Livinhac. From that time, Leon never left the Bishop’s side.

A short time later, Bishop Livinhac, accompanied by Fr. Jules Chantemerle and Bro. Amans took the road back to Uganda. However, the continuing insecurity obliged them to stop in the Ssese Islands. They took advantage of this setback to found the mission of Our Lady, Help of Christians. In September 1889, during these precarious times, Bishop Livinhac received news of his appointment as Superior General of the Society of the Missionaries of Africa with the instructions to leave straight away for Algiers. On Pentecost Sunday, 28th May 1890, Bishop Livinhac ordained Fr. Jean-Joseph Hirth in the humble little chapel of Kamoga to succeed him as Bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Nyanza. Livinhac left Kamoga definitively on the 6th June 1890 en route to the Coast. He was accompanied by Fr. Celestine Hauttecoeur and a small group of young Baganda men. It was a journey of six months in caravan from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean coast, 1,200 kilometres on foot through the interior of the continent, virgin forests and interminable savannahs. Because of insecurity on the roads, Livinhac was accompanied by an armed escort commanded by Leon Lwanga. He relied on the courage and vigilance of his men and especially their chief when the caravan came to cross the territory of the Banera, a tribe with whom the explorer Stanley had also clashed.

During the passage through Banera territory, the caravan was pursued for a time by a hostile group. Leon courageously went out to confront the dangerous bandits, who were well-able to rain a shower of arrows on the peaceful travellers. In other circumstances, he preferred to use traditional methods such as palavering with the local chiefs in order to secure safe passage through their territory. The caravan finally arrived in Bagamoyo and then crossed to the Island of Zanzibar with its palm trees and carnations, its banana and sugar cane plantations. Here, Bishop Livinhac wrote a letter to Cardinal Lavigerie about the 14 young Baganda men including Leon Lwanga. He wrote, “They are willing and ready and still young enough to be trained and to become aides to the missionaries. They are asking me to bring them to Europe where they hope to receive an education that they cannot find in their own troubled country.” Lavigerie penned a favourable response. He wanted to present the young Baganda to the Anti-Slavery Congress, soon to be held in Paris. So the group stayed together and travelled as a family on the long sea voyage to Marseille.

On the 19th September 1890, the members of the caravan disembarked at Marseille. They were just in time to participate at the Anti-Slavery Congress due to start two days later in Paris. Their arrival was seen as a providential twist of fate. On Sunday the 21st the date foreseen for the opening of the Congress, the young Bagandans met Cardinal Lavigerie. On the same evening, the Cardinal along with Bishop Livinhac presided over Solemn Vespers in the Church of St. Sulpice. There was a large crowd present which was curious to see the first apostle and Bishop of Equatorial Africa as well as the young Ugandan Christians.

After the Congress, the group of voyagers seem to have sprouted wings and were on their travels once again. They passed through Lyon on their way to Marseille and then on to Rome where Pope Leo XIII received them in audience on the 10th October 1890. Cardinal Lavigerie presented them to the Holy Father who showed a special pastoral interest in them. He asked Lavigerie about their future and after having been given the information, he expressed the wish that those who might have a vocation be directed into ecclesiastical studies. This visit affected Leon Lwanga deeply and he resolved to consecrate his life to the service of God as a missionary in the family of his friend and father, Bishop Livinhac. After the papal audience, Livinhac took all 14 of them on a tour of the Vatican.

In the “Capitol of all Christians”, Leon wrote a long letter addressed to his friends in Uganda, in particular to Gabriel Kintu, a military chief, and to Cyprien Mutagwanwa , the senior steward of the royal kitchens and his brother Caroli Buuza. Paoli Nalubandwa, the very first Ugandan person to be baptised was also named in the letter.

“My dear friends” he wrote, “We are about to leave Rome. Six will go to Malta; Pauli, Caroli and others, Leon, Yohana will go to Algiers for studies. It is I, Leon who is writing these words. Pray for us, our dear friends and we will pray for you. Ask God to help me. You know that I am quick-tempered, ask that I might have the gentleness of Jesus. I often think of you when I hear Mass and recite the rosary…” (Archives, Rome).

Who were these friends Leon mentioned in his letter? They were members of the first group of four people who were privileged to receive Baptism on Holy Saturday, 27th March 1880 after only four to five months of instruction. Among them we know of Paoli Nalubandwa and his brother Petro Ddamulira and Yosef Lwanga. Among these first conversions were some administrators and pages of the royal court. On the 14th May 1880 four other adults, Fouke Jean Marie, Mathew, Boniface and James received Baptism also. These baptisms took place before dawn as in the time of the catacombs. Very likely, the friends of Brother Leon were among the very first Ugandans to be baptised and some were future martyrs. Their took their responsibilities as Christians seriously and their instructions played an important role in the first small communities of neophytes and catechumens. Despite the zeal of these first Christians and the diligence of the catechumens, there was still a threat to the future of the Church in Uganda. The missionaries felt it incumbent on themselves to quit the country and believed it better to wait for safer times. On the 8th November 1882, they went into voluntary exile and arrived at Bukumbi near Mwanza on the southern shore of Lake Victoria in present day Tanzania. During the absence of the missionaries from 1882 to 1884, the newly baptised took up the responsibility of continuing to teach, helping one another and praying together. They had learnt the importance of baptism in order to obtain eternal salvation and they did not hesitate to give baptism to those in danger of death. On the 12th July 1885, the missionaries returned to Uganda welcomed by a population which had never forgotten their good works.

After the visit to Rome, the 14 Ugandans were divided into two groups. Six left for Malta for studies as catechist-doctors and the others were sent to the junior seminary of St. Eugene near Algiers and so became the first Ugandan seminarians. As for Leon Lwanga, he along with Bishop Livinhac and Fr. Hauttecoeur took the route to Algiers and he joined the postulancy of the Brothers.

In November 1890, Leon was admitted to the novitiate. Here, he renewed acquaintance with Fr. Ludovic Girault whom he had known in Uganda. When they had first met, Fr. Girault was in Uganda and he was responsible for all the missionaries in the area during the time that Fr. Livinhac was in Europe for his episcopal ordination. Leon had made a big impression on Fr. Girault. A story of the time tells us that Fr. Girault, accompanied by Leon, was travelling on the dangerous roads of south Nyanza when Leon had to jump on the leader of a troop of warriors whom he disarmed and brought before Fr. Girault. He, preferring to  keep things calm, released the attacker and sent him on his way with a small present. The caravan could then continue on its journey without danger but a small group of the attackers fired at the missionary without happily hitting him.

On the 29th March 1891, Leon Lwanga was judged worthy to receive the missionary habit. On the same day in Rubaga, Bishop Hirth, the successor to Bishop Livinhac conferred the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation on 50 catechumens, among them was the old mother of Bro. Leon.

From the Chronicles; “The day on which Brother Leon received the white habit and put on the gandoura, bournous and red chechia of the Society in the Chapel of the Generalate in Algiers was the same day his old mother was baptised and confirmed by Bishop Hirth, successor to Bishop Livinhac in the ‘Cathedral’ of Rubaga in Uganda.”

The novitiate was not easy for this man of 30 years. Only recently, as a young man, he was used to carrying arms in the defence of his honour and his country. He took part in military operations and long forays into neighbouring kingdoms leaving the ravages of war behind and returning home with large flocks of animals. A description of his life at that time was that of a member of the royal guard and above all a soldier of the King renowned for his energy, perseverance and resolve, not cold hearted but refusing to back down before any kind of danger. This did not prevent from becoming a model of regularity, moderation, great piety and even loyalty.

BrotherLéon Lwanga with two confreres

“With exceptional courage, he got down to the work of training himself to become a Missionary of Africa and a Brother. For him it is not a question of a call to do something, but more to be, to be a missionary in a love that wants to imitate Jesus whom he has only known for such a short time ” (Obituary)

6th November 1890: “the Brothers’ novitiate has a black postulant. He is Leon, the chief of the caravan that brought Bishop Livinhac to Zanzibar. Let us hope that he will not be the last and that the brave Baganda will not shy away from a religious rule any more than they did before persecution and martyrdom. (Diary of Maison Carrée).

29th March 1891 “Easter, ‘Haec dies quam fecit Dominus’ alleluias all round particularly among the Brothers. Five of them, Brothers Jean, Salvador, Octave, Arcade and Hilaire have taken their Oath. Two took the habit. A new recruit has arrived from St. Laurent d’Olt in the last few days and then Brother Leon our first black brother arrived. At High Mass, dressed in the white habit which contrasted with the colour of his face, he carried the crozier of the first Apostolic Vicar of Uganda. This was a well-deserved honour.” (Diary of Maison Carrée)

After his novitiate, Brother Leon Lwanga remained at Maison Carrée and he worked mainly at book-binding. He was also an advisor to the missionaries appointed to Uganda. He taught them the rudiments of Luganda. On the 25th March 1894, he bound himself to the Society of the Missionaries of Africa by a temporary oath and after a further nine years, on the 31st October 1903, he took his (final) Oath on the Gospels to “consecrate myself and henceforth until death to the Church’s Mission in Africa.” By his fervent piety and his attachment to celibacy, he gave birth to a more positive attitude towards Africans in the mentality of future missionaries.

Having only just emerged from paganism and used to doing anything he liked, Leon courageously got down to work on his vocation and became a model of devotion and attachment to holy religion, a model life consecrated to God. To his most ardent faith, he joined a burning love for God, the Lord and his Mother. His pious exercises were always carried out with great care.

The life of Brother Leo Lwanga among his confreres was a sign of the Gospel proclaimed, first of all by the witness of thanksgiving to God and the community in which he lived. It was also a testimony to the great value of his fidelity already manifested from the time in Uganda when he was the companion of Bishop Livinhac.

Leon was quick witted and intelligent. He studied French without too much trouble and managed to speak it correctly. Very attached to the Society, he could expose himself to any danger to defend a confrere. Each year, on the eve of the feast of St. Charles, a bunch of flowers in his room before a portrait of Cardinal Lavigerie testified to his deep veneration and affectionate respect to the person who had sent the first missionaries to Uganda.

Brother Leon Lwanga, Missionary of Africa, Ugandan worked for 12 years in the motherhouse of the Missionaries of Africa in Algiers. At the end of 1904, he was struck down with tuberculosis of the bones. This illness lasted a year and caused him great pain and suffering. In prayer, he joined his sufferings with those of Our Lord. Despite undergoing an operation, he died in St. Joseph’s Sanatorium at Maison Carrée on the 1st March 1906 having courageously borne his illness to the end. He was 46 years of age.

From the depths of his heart, he carried the virtues of faith, hope and charity with courage to believe that we are destined for happiness guaranteed by God. There was a truth present in him which was supported by the memories of the time of great trials when his friends, the Martyrs of Uganda, sacrificed their lives for Christ.

Kees Maas, M.Afr.

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