Years ago, my family and I were members of a large, vibrant parish in Allentown, Pennsylvania -- so large that we had three daily Masses! Bringing in priests from outside the parish was a necessity.
One quickly became my favorite. He had a kind face, a beaming smile, and gave homilies that fed my soul. By staying after Mass to chat, I learned he was a missionary priest from Uganda. The concept intrigued me: we were receiving missionaries from Africa. In fact, his order was started for that very purpose.
Founded by two Comboni missionary priests to evangelize Africa and the world, the Apostles of Jesus' charism commits them to service to the poor and most vulnerable. In that same spirit, these two Comboni missionaries had made room years before in one of their orphanages for an eight-year-old boy.
They could hardly have known that he would one day become an Apostles of Jesus priest.
Father Paul Gaggawala, AJ, shared stories about life as a Ugandan Catholic, both the blessings and the hardships. He told me about the Ugandan Martyrs, twenty-two young men who gave up their lives rather than renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. Father explained that the witness of their sacrifice kept the faith alive in Uganda even after missionaries were expelled. Each time we talked, he would say the same thing: "Maureen, you must come to Uganda!"
A few years later, I was offered a job in this mission ministry in Allentown. I met many people, each with incredible stories of faith and sacrifice; Father Paul kept Uganda in my heart. Every time he went home, he would bring me pictures and stories to help me in my work. A school built in a village, an orphanage enlarged, a clinic opened...
After my move to Boston's mission office, I called Father Paul and told it was time for me to go to Uganda. He put me in the capable hands of a local AJ priest who brought me to projects we helped them fund. I couldn't believe my eyes when we rounded a dirt road corner and there was the very school that Father Paul had given me photos of years before. I had told his stories; now I was seeing the work of his hands.
Father was reassigned by his order and returned to his beloved Uganda a few years ago. He began a retreat center where one of his greatest joys was teaching children to pray the rosary. He went home to God on January 10, 2022, after battling COVID19.
May he be dancing with the Martyrs.
- Maureen Crowley Heil is Director of Programs and Development for the Pontifical Mission Societies, Boston.
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