ROCHESTER — For almost two hours on Pentecost Sunday, you could have mistaken St. Bridget Church, 14 Mark St., for a church in Africa, as its walls resonated during Mass with the sounds of various African languages, songs and musical instruments.
“Are you ready to speak Swahili?” Father Paul Gitau, pastor, asked the congregation at one point during the service. “You are discouraging me,” he said with a chuckle as the worshipers laughed and struggled with responding to him in Swahili.
More than 200 Catholics — African, African-American and white — were on hand at the church for the Diocese of Rochester’s first-ever Feast of the Ugandan Martyrs Celebration. The Mass featured liturgical dancing, drumming, singing and a presentation of the gifts that called on worshipers to leave their pews and carry to the altar various gifts, including fruit and flowers. Prayers were said in a variety of languages, including English, Swahili, Ibo, Tigrigina and Arabic.
Marked in Africa by Catholics and Anglicans alike, the June 3 feast is a national holiday in Uganda and commemorates the martyrdom of Ugandan Catholics and Anglicans in the 1880s. According to several histories, dozens of Ugandan Christians were killed for refusing to renounce their faith, and many of them were burned alive as punishment for rejecting the orders of King Mwanga II of Buganda province.
In 1964, Pope Paul VI canonized 22 Catholic martyrs and later visited Namugongo, the site of the killings, where today stands a basilica church built in the martyrs’ honor. Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury, head of the worldwide Anglican Communion from 1980-91, visited the basilica in 1984, as did Pope John Paul II in 1993.
In addition to St. Bridget, the Rochester celebration was organized by Immaculate Conception Church as well as the diocese’s Public Policy Committee, which made education about Africa one of its policy objectives for 2005-06, according to Sister of Mercy Janet Korn, a committee member.
“We thought this would be one way of focusing on one African country, but bringing the wider African community together,” she said.
She added that Esther Akeem, a native Ugandan who sings in St. Bridget’s choir, was instrumental in planning the celebration of the feast day.
“In Africa, it’s a big day for the Christians,” Akeem said.
She noted that she had lived next to the basilica in Namugongo and that thousands of people from all over the African continent came to the church for the June 3 event. The martyrs’ influence is still being felt in Africa today, she said.
“These people were just a few people, but Christianity spread all over Africa because of them,” she said.
She added that the liturgy brought back memories of her homeland and noted that it was a change from the more solemn liturgies American Catholics generally have.
“It’s good for your spirit,” she said.
Fred Kakeeto, who also is from Uganda, also noted the importance of the martyrs’ celebration. He added that he is a member of the Baganda tribe to which the martyrs belonged.
“We celebrate this day for our brothers who were burned by the ruthless king for their beliefs,” he said. “It’s like Easter Day or Christmas Day in Uganda.”
Stan Rose, who leads St. Bridget’s pastoral council, also sings in the parish’s choir and noted that he and his fellow members rehearsed hymns in the various African languages spoken at the Mass.
“It was the first time a lot of us had done African songs,” he said. “It was enjoyable, something new.”
He added that he lived in Ghana, on Africa’s west coast, from 1996-97 and recalled people there dancing up to the altar during the offertory.
“Getting up is an action, more of an involvement (in the liturgy),” he said.
Morin Coleman, Akeem’s niece, said she was glad that the diocese had chosen to celebrate a holiday so important to Ugandan Christians, one that honored her nation’s martyrs.
“Many people don’t know that these people died for us,” she said.