Uncle Ben; Makerere St. Francis Chapel’s Longest-serving Steward.
“Uncle Ben attributes this shift to the fact that St. Francis was barely open to the public. The doors were opened on Sunday for the two services, then closed until Wednesday when the church was supposed to offer mid-week Holy Communion then it was closed again until Sunday.”
As part of the year-long centennial celebration, the University has been curating experiences of the Makerere Community aimed at highlighting and celebrating the excellence it has attained over the years. It is through these efforts that we were lucky to have a conversation with the Reverend Benoni Mugarura, about his experiences at Makerere in an interview that was recorded, published, and can be found here.
In 1944, Mr. George C. Turner, the then Principal of Makerere University College, who had tried to offer pastoral services to non-Catholic students wrote to the department charged with overseas work of the British Government to source a chaplain for the then young university.
The first chaplain of St Francis of Assisi Chapel, Rev Fred Wilburn doubled as a teacher too. Makerere was small at that time and therefore, he ran both his duties in the chapel and class with ease.
According to Uncle Ben, Rev. Wilburn was amiable and always related with his students and members of staff all alike. He was also an interesting character. As an anthropologist, he tried to replace the traditional church service cassock attire with a Kanzu and also tried to replace the commonly used wine for Holy Communion with the native Mwenge. However, these changes were resisted by the higher-ups in the Anglican Church, then known as the Church of Uganda.
He was replaced by the Reverend Dennis Pyne who was credited with the immense improvements in the chapel choir. Then came Rev. Tom Tucker Nabeta who went on to become the Assistant Bishop of Busoga. From the Ankole sub-region, St. Francis got its fourth chaplain, Rev. Yoram Bamunoba who also went on to be elected as the first Bishop of West Ankole Diocese. Reverend Lusaniya Kasamba was the St. Francis chaplain from the turbulent time of the Idi Amin regime in the 1970s right up until the time the NRA government took power in 1986 giving way to Rev. Mugarura Benoni.
In 1988, Uncle Ben says, Makerere University had an enrolment of approximately 7000 students and about 200 administrative, teaching, and non-teaching staff. St. Francis operated in such a way that there were only two services on Sunday morning with 40 celebrants combined who were mostly old people, lecturers, and administrators. There were no young people.
The students who were looking for activities in the church had found alternatives such as Kampala Pentecostal Church (KPC) now known as Watoto, Full Gospel church around Makerere, and Redeemed Church found opposite Makerere College School. The Baptist church too had started a ministry around Wandegeya, where they hosted an evening event that was organized by the youth.
Uncle Ben attributes this shift to the fact that St. Francis was barely open to the public. The doors were opened on Sunday for the two services, then closed until Wednesday when the church was supposed to offer mid-week Holy Communion then it was closed again until Sunday.
Himself having grown up in a revival Anglican Church in South-western Uganda, he was used to seeing a vibrant church community where people of different age groupings, such as Mothers Union and the youth, were always present at the church throughout the week. This was in stark contrast to what he was experiencing at St. Francis.
So he simply started by opening the church doors every day of the week for a change. In the beginning, he was only there with the custodian who was in charge of cleaning and ensuring the chapel was in proper condition. But with time, people started streaming in.
As a man of faith, he says that this was an opportunity to wait on God, re-elicit, and further question why a population of 7000 or so students did not reflect in any way in the congregation of the chapel.
Of the many realisations that came to the fore, was the fact that the chapel was still holding onto the form of worship and praise from many generations past. The use of the age-old Common Prayer Book and the Ancient and Modern revised hymn book had caused younger people to become detached from their original Anglican orientation.
Rev. Benoni Mugarura then decided to make some even more immediate changes. One of these, widely considered to be radical to a conservative section of the Anglican Church, was the renewal of worship. This was done by making the experience of praise and worship more immersive and expressive including actions such as clapping jollily, singing new non-conventional songs, and dancing during the service. In contrast to the erstwhile practice of reserved and somber worship characterized by age-old songs, this new change caused backlash as it was deemed ‘Pentecostal’ and not mainstream Anglican practice.
He however was not alone in his pastoral duties. His wife played a significant role at the chapel in organizing and mobilizing congregants during praise and worship. The institution of ‘marrieds fellowship’ catered to young couples who were looking to grow their marriages on spiritual terms. Undoubtedly, there was some hesitancy from the original crowd which was slightly uneasy about this whole new approach, some older people even left the church. But with time, the rest grew to like it since, he says, they found that this was something the reverend and his wife genuinely enjoyed and loved to do.
With help from the Anglican Church outside, Rev. Benoni took on the task of re-thinking the approach of the prayer book. One of the guiding questions in his attempt was “What was the spirit of the prayer book when it was written in 1662?”
He says that he read around it and studied the examples given to him by people from elsewhere which led him to discover that it was Holy Spirit-led and a revival at that time that had been lost in tradition over generations, language translations, and cultures.
“The spirit of the text had been lost.” He said.
He recalls how exciting it was to discover that the very same text he sought to re-think had guidance on how to lead renewed worship with new songs thus bringing about a revitalized church that encouraged many students to come back to their home, to St. Francis.
The influence the chapel grew to have on new students who would arrive at Makerere having interacted with old students of the university, affiliated with St. Francis Chapel through mission groups such as the West Nile Anglican missions and others that were spreading the gospel across the country.
The revival that was going on at St. Francis, particularly with the growth of the praise group, was also a notable memory. It had been transformed completely and had become more engaged with the students. For example, every so often, in the evenings, the praise group members met at one of the church residences, at 191B Kasubi, to practice and reflect on the nature of their work.
Rev. Mugarura recalls that the university administration had stopped him from making any drastic changes to the chapel by way of renovation. The reason behind this had been that the initial design of the chapel was to resemble the main administration building and all while flanking to one side as the catholic chapel, St. Augustine flanked it on the other.
He then tells a story of how the University mosque came into place. The Sultan of Zanzibar came to visit his son at the University and on his tour around Makerere, he asked where Muslim students had their daily prayers. He was pointed to a mosque a little further toward Wandegeya and since there was none inside the university premises, he offered to build one.
The reverend notes that, because of prejudice and bias towards the Muslims in a predominantly Christian colonial institution, the mosque was allocated land further away from the other places of worship, in a eucalyptus forest at the corner of the university. Years later, in a dramatic turn of events, after the main administration building was shifted to its current site, the main access gate into the University was put right next to the mosque, making it fairly more accessible as it now occupied a prime location.
Message to the current St. Franciscans
Uncle Ben calls on the Makerere community and that of St. Francis to always remember the history of the Chapel. It was set up to cater to all non-Catholic Christians, including Presbyterians and Baptists, characterizing its ecumenical spirit.
‘The chaplains should be reminded of this history’ he said.
He also highlighted the significant role played by St. Francis as a lead church in the country. Whenever there is a change at St. Francis, for example, the revival of praise and that of prayer, these changes are reflected in other churches in the country further affirming the fact that it sets the pace, to an extent, in the Anglican Church. This he calls a gift from God and asks the Makerere community to serve in the church fully knowing this.
The changes at the St. Francis chapel came at a cost, expressly that of constantly being misunderstood. He recalls a time when Archbishop Livingstone Nkoyoyo expressed to him the concerns of the people from the Church of Uganda. He had been told that people were sending their children to Makerere as Anglicans, but were worried that St. Francis would transform them into ‘Pentecostals.’ He says that whereas this might not have been a concern of the archbishop in his personal capacity, it reflected the fears and anxieties of the people from the center of the church leadership.
His revival church background characterized by expressive modes of worship, which he was now introducing, went ahead to cost him opportunities.
The construction of the St. Francis community center was another trying moment for Rev. Benoni Mugarura. Having been given land by the university administration on the condition that the church first presents 150 million shillings for whatever construction project they intended to embark on, the Chapel then decided to start a fundraising campaign for this enormous amount. With efforts proving to be futile and St. Augustine vying for the same plot for a project extension, St. Francis was facing the possible loss of this land.
Rev. Benoni says he went for one Sunday Service and poured his heart out to the congregation about this challenge. He expressed his discontent throughout the sermon and called on everyone to help raise this amount and luckily, or by God’s grace, as he says, they had raised 250 million by the next day.
The plot of land was retained, and the community center was built up to completion with no debt, owing to volunteers from the church who did professional work for the project starting from the architecture down to the construction engineering.
Rev. Benoni opines that during Uganda’s troubled political past which was characterized by senseless killings such as the Idi Amin period, people were very afraid and didn’t know who to trust, therefore they turned to the church and this made the Church a very strong institution. That and coupled with the fact that most independent churches had been put under the church of Uganda by decree. However, when the political dispensation changed and these smaller churches broke away in more peaceful times, this weakened the church since people relaxed on their spiritual lives.