Thursday, September 1, 2016

Father Francis Coveney: "the Providence that gave joy to my youth"

Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda

With the kind permission of Father Francis Coveney, we present some of his recent reflections upon his work in Uganda.


Just after Mass in November 2008 a young couple spoke to me:

“Good morning Father, we want to see you about getting married.”
“Congratulations. Have you already decided where you are getting married?”
“Yes Father - in Kampala.”
“Very good. Are you both from Uganda?”
“Yes Father.”
“Whereabouts in Uganda are you from?”
“He’s from central Uganda. I’m from Western Uganda.”
“Oh!  Which part of Western Uganda.?”
“Which parish in Kabale?”
“Christ the King Parish.”
“How is my friend Fr Narcisio Bagumisiriza?”
“Do you know him?”
“Yes I taught him in St Paul’s Rushoroza.”
“That’s strange, my father went there. I wonder if he knows you.”
“I wonder if I know him. What’s his name?”
“That must be Serapio Rukundo. I remember him very well. Do give him my best wishes next time you speak to him.”
“Actually he’s visiting London next week.”

And so I met Claire and Julius - and Claire’s father again after almost forty years. I invited him round to supper and reminisced about old times when we were both young. Serapio was still able to quote sections from “A Man for All Seasons” at length. His class had put on the play and he was cast as Thomas More: now he was a minister in President Museveni’s government. A good role model to have – even though he hadn’t heard that Thomas More is now the patron saint of politicians.

It was a pleasant evening and almost inevitably I was invited to their wedding in Kampala the following January. I wasn’t too sure whether this was a serious invitation – until a very impressive invitation arrived through the letter box a few weeks later. I needed to get a move on. A few phone calls to arrange cover - and I was able to book the flights and arrange jabs, anti-malaria tablets and a visa.


“Coca Cola welcomes Pope Paul to Uganda” the posters said.

Paul VI had just visited Uganda from 31 July to 2 August 1969 and ordained twelve African bishops in Kampala - including four bishops for the four dioceses of western Uganda, the former Vicariate of the Ruwenzori. Amongst these were Bishop Barnabas Halem’Imana for Kabale Diocese and Bishop John Kakubi for Mbarara Diocese.

Uganda is a beautiful country and was dubbed “the pearl of Africa” by Winston Churchill when he visited East Africa as Under Secretary of State for the Colonies – and Kabale is generally reckoned to be the most beautiful part. (In fact the Missionaries of Africa used to say
it was a mistake to send a man to Kabale on his first appointment – as he wouldn’t want to go anywhere else afterwards!) If you doubt this – just google “Lake Bunyonyi” and you will see just how beautiful the area around Kabale is.

I arrived in Entebbe airport on 13 August with Gerry Hands from Drygrange who was going to teach in Mbarara for a year while I spent two idyllic years in Kabale.  I was met by my uncle Frank, a Fidei Donum priest who had been teaching in Rushoroza since 1966. For Christmas we stayed at Ruwesero in Rwanda where Trevor Hartley and Fred Robinson from Shrewsbury were teaching. There was an assassination attempt on President Obote the afternoon we crossed the border – and we heard on the radio at Ruwesero that the borders had been closed indefinitely but in fact they were reopened only a few days later. More excitement (and tragedy) followed a year later when Idi Amin staged a military coup in January 1971.


Claire’s father met me at Entebbe and took me to Lourdel House in Kampala, the house of the Missionaries of Africa in Kampala, to see if they had any spare rooms. They did – and by another coincidence the superior, Rene Brossard, had taught with me in St Paul’s. He had just been recalled to Switzerland and was leaving Uganda for good – just two days after Julius and Claire’s wedding.

I was treated with great kindness and friendliness by everyone I met – and especially by those middle aged men I had taught when we were all forty years younger. I had grown a beard in a vain attempt to kid them that I was older than I really was. (No need for that any more!)  I have always found the hospitality of the people of Africa – and of the missionaries working there - both inspiring and humbling. Fr Narcisio arrived from Kabale for the wedding and then took me on a trip down memory lane to Mbarara, Kabale, Rushoroza, Mutolere, Kisoro and his parents’ homestead in Toro – where we took a short cut to avoid road works and ended up in a dead end in a banana plantation much to the amusement of the little boys who perhaps had never seen a white man before. 

Changes I noticed include a huge increase in traffic both in Kampala and on the major roads, an amazing number of people using mobile phones (apparently Germany decided to target its aid programmes on the provision of a mobile phone network), more motor bikes than push bikes – and most men and boys wearing long trousers and shoes rather than khaki shorts and bare feet.

In 1969 there were about 20 African priests in Kabale Diocese and 30 European and North American priests (Missionaries of African and Comboni Fathers). Now there almost 100 priests in Kabale Diocese – and all of them are Africans. This pattern is repeated throughout Uganda: many African priests and now very few missionary priests.

This is a very healthy state of affairs for the Church – but it does mean that the grants from Propaganda Fidei now have to stretch much further and the extra financial resources provided by the friends and families of the missionary priests have almost completely disappeared. Most of the African priests live in real poverty – and the old red Mill Hill/APF boxes that used to provide so much assistance are in danger of being overlooked by Catholics in favour of charities that have more street-cred. And yet the Church in Africa provides so much materially as well as spiritually – in particular education establishments of every kind, hospitals, dispensaries, social work of many kinds and credit unions.

A whole series of amazing coincidences enabled me to work in Uganda in the first place and to return in such happy circumstances - except that I firmly believe it was Providence not coincidences, the same kindly Providence that gave joy to my youth and continues to fill me with joy and so many blessings.

Fr Francis Coveney, South Woodford, June 2009

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