by: Kathleen M. Carroll This story was originally featured inComboni Missionsmagazine Winter 2019-2020 edition.
It is an oft-cited and integral part of St. Daniel Comboni’s vision: Save Africa with Africa. He did not intend to form a band of European “saviors;” on the contrary, he sought ways to lift up the people of Africa, to give them the education, spiritual formation, and material support needed to find their own way in the world.
I imagined what a world-changing event it would be for a community in a country like Uganda to see one of their own people join the ranks of the missionaries. In June of this year, I could stop imagining.
I met him—the first Ugandan Comboni Missionary, Father Justine Ogen. He celebrated his golden jubilee at Holy Cross Parish in Ombachi. Fifty years is a long time in ministry, but such a short span in history. To realize that the first Ugandan Comboni Missionary was still here to tell his story was a revelation: The regeneration of Africa is not something that happened in centuries past. It is a living, evolving, growing movement of the Holy Spirit. Lands whose names we might forget are not forgotten by God.
“St. Daniel Comboni coming to Africa to bring Christ to this land gave me so much joy,” says Father Justine. Though he has served in many dangerous places during destitute times, the most difficult phase of his journey was his formation in Europe. “To be so far away from my people and everything that I know was hard. And it was so cold!”
When considering his vocation, Father Justine says simply, “It was God’s will that I became a priest. I just followed God’s will.”
Three of his Comboni confreres (and one Marian Brother) were celebrating as well—two with 50 and the others each with 25 years of priestly service.
Father Roberto Pegorari arrived in Uganda just after the fall of Idi Amin. He had one day in Maracha before he was forced to flee along with his flock, ultimately to the Democratic Republic of Congo as a refugee. Their time in exile was difficult, but the people continually shared with him their gratitude that he did not abandon them. When they were finally able to return to Uganda, even though they suffered great poverty and hardship, they shared a sense of joy. “Every day in Maracha was special,” he says.
Father Roberto is back in Ombachi, certain that the priesthood was the right decision for his life.
Father Isaac Martin was a professor in Spain in the spring of 1960. While recovering from surgery on one of his legs, friends brought him magazines to help pass the time. One day he received two magazines published by the Comboni Missionaries—and his life changed. “That was the day,” he says. “Just this little bit of information about the Comboni Missionaries and I thought, ‘That’s the life for me.’”
He made his first vows two years later and was ordained in 1969. He has since worked in Syria and Sudan, with a brief stint in Spain where he opened the African Museum of the Comboni Missionaries in Madrid in 1985. His work in Kajo-Keji in South Sudan led him to the refugee camp at Palorinya in northern Uganda.
While he has served in challenging posts, Father Isaac has no regrets. “I would wish there to be less tribalism; it causes so much conflict,” he says. But “every day I spend with my people makes me happy.”
The North American Province’s own Father Ruffino Ezama also joined the festivities, celebrating his 25th anniversary of ordination. Ombachi was a homecoming for him. He completed his secondary education there and, in the school chapel, decided he would become a Comboni Missionary.
Among his many academic credits, Father Ruffino holds bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and theology, a master’s degree in philosophical anthropology, and a doctorate in philosophy. He served in Benin, in West Africa, before returning to Uganda to work at Lodonga and Mbuya.
In 2009, he was transferred to the US and in 2019 will begin his term as provincial superior of the NAP. His biggest challenge, he says, was being so far way from his mother during her last days. “But the Lord who sent me far away knew how to stand in; he never let my mother feel the gap.”
Would he choose the missionary life again? “One hundred times!” he says. “So many people still need to hear the Gospel. The work of Comboni has only begun.” ∎