Cardinal Maurice Michael Otunga was the first Kenyan to become an archbishop and a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church.
Maurice Michael Otunga was the son of a traditional tribal chief of the Bakhone named Wasike Lusweti Sudi Namachanja and of a diviner named Rosa Namisi. He was born on January 31, 1923 in Chebukwa (Bungoma District), Kakamega Diocese in Western Kenya. Cardinal Otunga’s father, Paramount Chief Sudi Namachanja, had forty wives.
Otunga was baptized in 1935. He entered the seminary in Kakamega after graduating from Mangu High School. He finished his major seminary training in Rome where he was ordained a priest on October 3, 1950 at age of twenty-seven. After ordination he completed his studies at the College of Propaganda Fide before returning to Kenya. He taught theology at Kisumu Major Seminary for three years and was nominated chancellor of the Curia. He also worked with the Apostolic Delegation in Kenya.
On November 17, 1956, Pope Pius XII named him titular bishop of Tacape and auxiliary bishop of Kisumu, where he was installed on February 25, 1957. Three years later, on May 21, 1960, Pope John XXIII appointed him bishop of Kisii where he remained until November 15, 1969 when Pope Paul VI made him titular archbishop of Bomarzo and coadjutor archbishop of Nairobi with right of succession.
On October 24, 1971, after serving for two years under the archbishop of Nairobi, Most Rev. John Joseph McCarthy CSSp, Otunga was made archbishop of Nairobi. As archbishop, he served as president of the National Episcopate and as a member of the Permanent Commission of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM). He was also the vice president of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA),
On March 5, 1973, Pope Paul VI elevated him to the office of cardinal. As cardinal, Otunga received the titular Church of St. Gregory Barbarigo. He attended the third ordinary assembly of the World Synod of Bishops in the Vatican in 1974, the fourth assembly in 1977, and the fifth assembly in 1980. He was a member of the General Secretariat between 1977 and 1983, and participated in the conclaves of August and October 1978. Cardinal Otunga also attended the Plenary Assembly of the Sacred College of Cardinals in the Vatican in November 1979, and was a member of the Council of Cardinals for the Study of Organizational and Economic Problems of the Holy See in 1981.
In 1994 Cardinal Otunga attended the Special Assembly of the World Synod of Bishops for Africa, in Vatican City where he gave a paper entitled “Evangelization as Justice and Peace.” He opened by saying he was speaking “in the name of the Kenyan Episcopal Conference.” Here are some of his words:
Peoples on the move cannot be ignored. The displaced persons in Kenya are those citizens rendered homeless on account of tribal violence. Urbanization is another major cause. The victims of discrimination, I think, are particularly those citizens who have to move from place to place in search of employment and this may be due to nepotism, religious discrimination or corruption in the administration of the country.
For these people it is difficult to establish stable contacts. For those who already believe, many are in great danger of losing their faith. It becomes more difficult when the situation is politically originated and perpetuated as is the case in Kenya now. Here the bishops have exercised their prophetic role and have spoken out to the government. It is not easy. (ICN, p.2)
At the synod Cardinal Otunga made several recommendations, one of them urging SECAM, to “come up with a guideline to work and to feel and follow up ever more in solidarity to obstacles, particularly political ones, against evangelization as justice and peace.”
When Cardinal Otunga retired as archbishop of Nairobi in 1997, he chose as his retirement home a house for the poor, the Nyumba ya Wazee (house of elderly) run by the Little Sisters of the Poor in Nairobi. This was true to his lifestyle as archbishop for he never chose to live in luxury and always implored his priests to beware of materialism as an obstacle to the gospel witness.
Cardinal Maurice Michael Otunga died on September 6, 2003, at the age of eighty, after serving the church for fifty-three years as a priest, a bishop, and a cardinal. Kenyans remember him as a great minister and a devoted pastor in the history of their land. Along with his counterpart of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Festo Olang,’ Cardinal Maurice Michael Otunga is remembered in Kenyan history as a great apostle and a father of African Christianity.
Otunga is remembered most for his distinguished and humble leadership which fostered phenomenal church growth, making the Roman Catholic Church the largest and fast growing church in the country. The church grew not just in its evangelization efforts but also in the areas of education, health, and social welfare. He encouraged holistic development: this vision for people’s physical, spiritual, social, and economic development enabled the Roman Catholic Church to reach the community by establishing the best schools, hospitals, and colleges among many other community development projects. His leadership also brought a liturgical renewal, making the form and style of worship in the church more African, something that has attracted a large following.
Reporting on his death, Father Richard Quinn, the priest in charge of Ukweli Video Productions, a Catholic organization, said: “Michael Cardinal Otunga was a gentleman, a great listener to the people who spoke to him.” Father Quinn went on to describe Cardinal Otunga as a very simple, brilliant, spiritual man whose spirituality was never doubted. “He was kind and he had a smile for all; constructive, open to change, he trusted in humanity and was able to bring most of the members of his father’s forty-wife family into the Catholic faith” (quoted in Sunday Nation Newspaper). He was a simple and humble pastor who lived all his life for Jesus Christ. He was a deeply spiritual and a much admired cleric and statesman. Kenyans will forever remember Otunga for his wisdom and sterling contribution to the growth of the church in Kenya.
Alfred Sheunda Keyas
Ogola, Margaret A. Cardinal Otunga: A Gift of Grace. Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1999.
Catholic College of Cardinals Collection: Biographical Notes (Updated: 06.09.2003) http://www.vatican.va/news_services/press/documentazione/documents/ cardinali_biografie/cardinali_bio_otunga_mm_en.html (accessed January 18, 2005).
Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga †, Catholic Hierarchy of Bishops and Dioceses at http://www.catholic-hierarchy.org/bishop/botungamm.html (accessed January 18, 2005).
“College of Cardinals Collection,” Daily Catholic, Monday, August 30, 1999 Vol. 10, no.158.
“Kenya’s First Cardinal Dies,” ICN (Independent Catholic News) at http://www.indcatholicnews.com/kitung.html, Nairobi, September 8, 2003 (accessed January 20, 2005).
“Kenyans Mourn Otunga” in Sunday Nation Newspaper, Nairobi, Sunday, September 7, 2003.
“Cardinal Otunga Dies at Age 80” in East Africa Standard Newspaper, Nairobi, Sunday, September 7, 2003.
The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church: Biographical Dictionary (1903-2004) at http://www.fiu.edu/~mirandas/a-z-all.htm, ©1998-2005 Salvador Miranda (accessed January 18, 2005).
This story, submitted in 2005, was researched and written by Rev. Alfred Sheunda Keyas, a priest in the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK), diocese of Mumias, serving as a missionary in Mwingi, Eastern Kenya Province, and DACB Project Luke fellow (2004-2005).