This story first appeared in Comboni Missions Magazine Spring 2019
An Extraordinary Story of Mission
By: Kathleen M. Carroll
June 3 is always remembered in central Africa as the Feast of the Ugandan Martyrs, when 22 young converts were executed by order of a particularly cruel king. The stories of the faith of these young men (and boys—St. Kizito was just 14) are retold in every village in Uganda; their gruesome martyrdom is memorialized in sculpture and painting at the shrine at Namugongo.
In 1972, the date marked another stunning story of faith and sacrifice. The mission of Kigumba, about 200 kilometers north of Kampala, was home to two young missionaries. Mario Pozza (37) and Paolo Ponzi (42). In establishing the mission, they dug a well. When it became clear that no amount of digging would produce water at the site, the project was halted and the remaining hole was used as a landfill.
That summer day, the parish cook tossed some kitchen waste into the hole; her knife slipped into the hole along with the refuse. She called to a nearby boy, just seven years old, to retrieve it.
From above the landfill, there was no way to know that the pit was filled with methane, a byproduct of decomposition. The boy was soon overcome by the fumes and began to cough and struggle. The cook ran to Father Mario for help. He ran to the site, scrambled down into the hole and, with a mighty effort, flung the boy up out of the pit. He himself was then overcome with the fumes, just as Father Paolo arrived at the scene. He leapt into the hole to save his friend.
Trapped in the pit, miles away from the nearest help, both men suffocated to death. It was late in the evening when the fire brigade arrived from Kampala to retrieve their bodies.
Today, they are interred in the church at Kigumba. They are memorialized in a mural in the church and in a plaque on their graves inscribed, “Greater love has no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
The boy survived and lives in the area to this day, as does the story of these heroic men.