Siméon Lourdel, was born at Dury, France, in the Pas de Calais, of a devoutly Christian peasant family. His parents, Charles-Albert and Esther-Honoré, had four other boys besides Siméon. All five attended the junior seminary. Siméon was a lively and exuberant child, hardly amenable to discipline. In 1870, when the second son, Ernest, was already a parish priest and two other brothers had been drafted for the Franco-Prussian War, Siméon belatedly presented himself at the major seminary, after helping his father bring in the harvest. He was rejected out of hand.
Determined to prove that his priestly vocation was genuine, Siméon attended Saint Bertin College at Saint-Omer, and then became a boarder at Austreberthe in Montreuil-sur-Mer. His performance was so good that he was accepted by the Arras Major Seminary in 1872, at the age of nineteen. At the same time, his priest-brother Ernest became a Carthusian monk at the monastery of Neuville-sous-Montreuil. During his philosophy studies, Father Charmetant, a Missionary of Africa (“White Father”) came to speak to the seminarians, and two classmates, Bridoux and Toulotte decided to become missionaries. Lourdel was struck by their decision and began already to experience the attraction of a missionary vocation. His parents consented to this at the end of 1873 and his application to the Missionaries of Africa was accepted.
Lourdel arrived at the novitiate in Algiers in February 1874 and received the habit of the Society on March 25th. He was one of a group of ardent young men, whose high ideals were nourished by the personality of the founder, Charles Lavigerie. Like them, he was ready for any suffering, the probability of a premature death and even the possibility of martyrdom. On February 2, 1875 he took his missionary oath and commenced theological studies. Lourdel was profoundly affected by the massacre of three fellow missionaries, Paulmier, Menoret and Bouchand, in the Sahara desert in 1876, and this event increased his fascination with martyrdom. On April 2, 1877, Lourdel was ordained priest at Algiers. He was then twenty-four years old.
On March 15, 1878, Lourdel learned that he was among the ten missionaries designated for the mission to Equatorial Africa, under the leadership of Léon Livinhac. These were to be the first Catholic missionaries to the interior of Africa. On April 22, the party set sail from Marseilles on the mail boat, Yang-Tse. On board Lourdel began teaching himself Kiswahili. At Aden, on May 18, they embarked on a packet boat of the British East India Company, reaching Zanzibar on the 30th. From there, they crossed to Bagamoyo on the mainland opposite the island, whence they set out on June 16 for the African interior, walking or donkey-riding. Three and a half months later, they entered the town of Tabora. One missionary had died en route and all had suffered varying degrees of sickness. Porters had absconded and there was a constant threat of attack by brigands.
On November 15, 1878, Léon Livinhac, Ludovic Girault, Léon Barbot, Siméon Lourdel and Amans Delmas, an auxiliary brother, set out for Lake Victoria Nyanza. Unknown to them, Lavigerie, who had just learned of the massacre of two Anglican missionaries on Ukerewe Island in December 1877, had written forbidding them to proceed to Uganda. Lavigerie’s letters reached them in Uganda towards the end of September 1879. By that time they were well established in the Buganda kingdom. Reaching the Lake on December 30, 1878, Lourdel and Amans went on ahead to secure the king’s good will. They embarked on the lake on January 20, 1879 and came ashore in the bay of Entebbe on February 19, the first Catholic missionaries to tread the soil of Uganda. For two weeks Lourdel and Amans were kept under house arrest three kilometres from the capital. At length, they were admitted to an audience with the king, Mutesa I. The CMS missionary, Alexander Mackay, was also present, and, to the astonishment of the two Catholics, gave vent to a strong anti-Catholic prejudice.
After the audience, the CMS missionary Felkin came to apologize to Lourdel for Mackay’s outburst, but other efforts of the Protestants to restore good relations were frustrated by Mutesa, who kept the Catholics in confinement and who was not at all unhappy to see the Europeans in conflict. Mutesa did not believe Mackay’s caricature of the Catholic Church, and sought further explanations from Lourdel, on subsequent occasions. However, his interests were ultimately political rather than religious, viz countering the danger to his kingdom of European expansion from the north and east.
Lavigerie was horrified on hearing of the polemics at Mutesa’s court, and - ignorant of his missionaries’ lack of freedom - ordered them to establish a station at least twenty-five kilometres distant from the Protestants. No doubt, the polemical encounters of Catholic and Protestant missionaries at the court of a non-Christian king were regrettable in themselves, but it is also certain that they stimulated an interest in, and an understanding of, Christianity among the converts to both churches. When the king, in March 1879, allowed Lourdel and Amans to move to Kasubi, near the capital, they received visits from a number of young men of the court, who came to enquire about Catholicism. The missionaries thus acquired influence among the younger members of the ruling élite. When converts were eventually made, they were ready to give a good account of Catholic practices, such as fasting, or of Catholic beliefs such as those concerning the Eucharist, when challenged by the Protestant missionaries. Hearing Lourdel addressed (by Amans) as mon père, the Ganda began calling Lourdel Mapeera (guava), and this is the name by which he is known to African posterity.
By June Lourdel and Amans were in such favour with Mutesa, that the king allowed Livinhac, Girault and Barbot to join them in Buganda, and canoes were sent to the south of the lake to fetch them. The missionaries’ life continued to revolve around the royal court, audiences with the king and presentation of gifts. Mutesa even asked Lourdel for baptism. Lourdel refused on the grounds of the king’s polygamy. This response earned another rebuke from Lavigerie. The king should have been admitted to the catechumenate, pending the solution of his marital status. Nevertheless, the king tried to prevent anyone teaching the missionaries the Luganda language, but before long Lourdel was making progress in that tongue and was busy compiling a dictionary. Lourdel’s youth, his kindness, his facility with languages and his bedside manner with the sick continued to be appreciated.
In order to secure postulants for baptism, the missionaries started to ransom enslaved children, as a provisional strategy. By August 1879 they had ten such orphans, and by April 1882, they had forty. They were offered hundreds of children each week, but their lack of resources prevented them from any extraordinary increase of numbers. Mutesa’s unrealistic request for a French protectorate was forwarded by the missionaries to the French consul in Zanzibar, but he steadfastly opposed the foundation of a Catholic station to the west of the lake. By the end of 1879, the traditional religion was back in favour. Nevertheless, the traditional doctors failed to cure the king of dysentery and it was Lourdel’s ministrations that brought him recovery in May 1880. In spite of this success, Mutesa veered more and more towards Islam, putting pressure on his servants and ministers to follow his example. In May 1881, it seemed that a royal edict that all should attend the mosque was in the offing. Lourdel, who could speak Arabic, confronted the Arab leader Masudi in the royal audience hall. Following the precedent of Saint Francis of Assisi before the Sultan of Damietta, he challenged Masudi to an ordeal by fire to prove that the Christian religion was superior to Islam. The challenge was not taken up, and the king agreed to tolerate both religions. Mackay came personally to thank Lourdel for the brave stance he had taken.
Several royal servants came to the Catholic missionaries in order to learn how to read, and already in November 1879, the first serious catechumen was enrolled. Others joined the catechumenate from the court and the orphanage. Lourdel, Livinhac and Girault worked on a Catholic Catechism in Luganda. This also contained prayers and a glossary of Luganda words. It was printed at Algiers in 1881. A Luganda grammar produced by Livinhac was eventually printed in 1885, but the manuscript of a 6,000 word dictionary, which was a work of collaboration by all the missionaries, was lost in a shipwreck off the French coast in the previous year.
Lavigerie had ordered that the missionaries should leave Buganda in the event of any threat to their lives. A human sacrifice of 99 persons conducted by Mutesa in April 1880 convinced them that they should baptize the four catechumens who were best prepared. Four more were baptized in May. This was in defiance of Lavigerie’s subsequent instruction concerning a four year catechumenate. On receiving this instruction, Lourdel and his companions decided to be more strict over baptism, but they (and Lavigerie) understood the need to recognize exceptional circumstances of “heroism.” When bubonic plague broke out in 1881, it was necessary to baptize a further number of catechumens in danger of death and more baptisms followed during an outbreak of cholera. Soon after this, fervent young Christians began to form groups of followers outside the capital, in Buddu and Singo chiefdoms. Among them were several future Catholic martyrs.
In 1882, mounting violence and hostility towards both Catholic and Protestant missionaries brought them closer to one another. More Catholic catechumens, most of them future martyrs, were baptized and the missionaries decided, after a secret ballot, to abandon the Buganda mission for the time being. This decision was taken in spite of the fact that the Pro-Vicariate of Nyanza had just been created, with Livinhac as Pro-Vicar. On November 20, 1882, they set sail for the southern shore of Lake Victoria Nyanza. Besides the genuine insecurity of their position, the missionaries felt that they needed greater freedom of action than Mutesa would allow them. In Uganda they left twenty baptized Catholics and more than four hundred catechumens. Thirty four orphans of all ages accompanied them into exile.
Lourdel and his companions spent nearly three years out of Uganda. The orphans were divided into two groups, one group forming the nucleus of the orphanage and mission of Kamoga (Bukumbi, near the modern Tanzanian town of Mwanza). The other group travelled south to Kipalapala, near Tabora, where an orphanage had already been founded. Five Ugandan orphans were baptized there, having completed their four year catechumenate. Lourdel joined them in July 1883, after hearing that the Vicariate of Nyanza had been created, with Livinhac as first bishop. In Tabora, Lourdel learned that he was to found a mission at Bukune near the headquarters of the Nyamwezi war lord, Mirambo. Lourdel and Girault began the foundation in April 1884 in the midst of almost continual warfare between Mirambo and surrounding rivals. Towards the end of 1884, both Mutesa and Mirambo died, and a return to Uganda immediately became a live question. The accession of the young Prince Mwanga to his father’s throne was also encouraging, since he had been a friend of the Catholic missionaries and many of their converts. In March 1885, the mission of Bukune, with its tiny orphanage, was closed, and Lourdel set out once again for the Lake.
In June, Mwanga sent a flotilla of canoes, with three hundred oarsmen to bring Mapeera and his missionary companions back to Buganda. On July 12 they received a warm welcome and were installed at Nalukolongo, near the royal palace of Rubaga. The three years’ absence of Lourdel and his missionary companions had the paradoxical effect of strengthening Christian foundations in Buganda. They had been forbidden to evangelize outside the capital. Consequently, there was a Christian nucleus at court. This continued to meet clandestinely for prayer and catechism, and to add to its numbers. Although the missionaries’ teaching was deeply rooted in the Biblical narratives, it did not, at that time, depend on literacy or on written literature. Christian teaching continued to be transmitted by word of mouth in their absence. Lourdel and his companions emphasized the life of prayer and moral conversion, and these continued to be stressed in their absence. During the plague, Ganda Christians baptized some eighty people in danger of death, half of whom survived. When Lourdel returned, he found three times as many baptized Christians as he had left. One of the neophytes was Princess Nalumansi, the favourite daughter of King Mutesa. Moreover, village chiefs who had become Christians were beginning to assemble groups of believers around them at centres outside the capital.
Lourdel returned to Buganda at a moment of crisis, when the king, Mwanga, was about to commence a cruel persecution. It is not intended here to relate the story of Lourdel’s involvement with each and every one of the Catholic Martyrs. It is enough to say that, from the death of the proto-martyr, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe towards the end of 1885, right up to the martyrdom of Jean-Marie Muzeyi, the last of the Catholic martyrs, at the beginning of 1887, Siméon Lourdel was the inspiration and mentor of them all. Lourdel’s goodness and his ardent faith were clearly imparted to these intrepid young men. He strengthened their resolve to make a stand for justice and virtue, in particular to resist the king’s homosexual abuse. Some of them he personally baptized as danger loomed. When he could, he attempted to see the king and secure their reprieve - alas, in vain. He agonized with them, waiting outside the royal enclosure and sometimes witnessing their arrest, as he did on May 26, 1886, when he saw sixteen of his converts and ten Anglicans making their way in fetters to the execution site of Namugongo. Without any doubt, their deaths were also his own martyrdom. With them, he died a score of deaths, torn between admiration and sorrow. The name of Mapeera is forever linked with the twenty-two Catholic Martyrs of Uganda.
In the midst of these tremendous events, Lourdel continued with the work of establishing the new mission station at Nalukolongo. In May 1886, Léon Livinhac, now first Catholic bishop of Nyanza, returned in the midst of the persecution, bringing a small printing press. By December 1885, the number of baptized had grown from sixty to more than one hundred and sixty, and by March 1887 to close on four hundred and fifty. Lourdel and his companions had also prepared a Luganda translation of the Sunday gospel readings, which they were distributing. Suffering and persecution brought Catholic and Anglican missionaries together. Although, they were all under constant threat from the king, Lourdel continued to collect testimonies of the martyrdoms.
Mwanga’s uncertain disposition throughout 1887 and 1888 was due to the colonial advance of Germans and British from the coast, a development which ultimately threatened his kingdom. At times he would pay friendly visits to Lourdel at Nalukolongo. At other times, he would utter threats against the missionaries. The Arabs and Muslims in Uganda became alarmed at the suppression of Abushiri’s coastal rebellion against the Germans in 1888. In September they dethroned Mwanga, who fled to the lake islands, and replaced him successively by his brothers, Kiwewa and Kalema. Shortly afterwards, the Catholic mission was pillaged and Lourdel and his fellow missionaries were imprisoned under threats of having their eyes put out, or even being killed. At length, they were put into a boat with the Anglican missionaries and a handful of orphans and cast adrift on the lake. A hippopotamus capsized the boat. Two orphans were drowned, but Lourdel, Livinhac and the Anglicans swam ashore, saving their own lives and organizing the rescue of those still clinging to the capsized boat. At length, the boat was refloated and, after a perilous journey all reached Bukumbi in safety.
Meanwhile, Ganda Catholics regrouped in the western province of Buddu and the kingdom of Ankole, and - to the astonishment of all - a penitent Mwanga appeared at Bukumbi towards the end of 1888, demanding pardon and soliciting support for his restoration. In spite of their repugnance at helping the executioner of their martyrs, Lourdel and his fellow missionaries realized that it was the only means of restoring peace and stability to the country. Catholics and Protestants united in support of the exiled king, and, after initial reverses, he regained his throne in October 1889. Soon afterwards, Lourdel returned to the devastated mission of Nalukolongo. Catholics and Protestants divided the honours of the kingdom. Mwanga now inclined towards the more numerous Catholic party, while a Protestant convert was made Chancellor. Although sceptical of his Catholic allegiance, Lourdel set himself to catechize the king.
The Imperial British East African Company now entered the Ugandan scene, officially chartered and privately funded, it was urged by the Anglican missionaries to extend its influence to Uganda. F. J. Jackson, the company’s agent, failed to respond to Mwanga’s appeal for help against Kalema and the Muslims, but, when these once more defeated Mwanga with the help of the Nyoro, Mwanga was ready to accept Jackson’s condition of a commercial monopoly in the kingdom. Lourdel wrote to Jackson at the king’s behest. Once again, Jackson failed him, and, in February 1890, Mwanga regained his throne without external support. At this juncture, Karl Peters, agent of the German East African Company, appeared in Buganda and signed a more favourable treaty with Mwanga. In order to avoid a confrontation with Jackson, Lourdel persuaded Peters to retire. In the event, the colonial future of Uganda was decided by an Anglo-German agreement, drawn up in Europe.
Livinhac, who had been elected Superior General of the Society of Missionaries of Africa, departed for Algiers, leaving Lourdel to start the construction of a church on the summit of Rubaga hill, site of the former royal residence. His health, however, had been undermined by all he had recently suffered, and it was apparent that he did not have much longer to live. He begged pardon of his fellow missionaries for not having served them better, asked to be laid on the earth (like Saint Francis of Assisi) and died on May 12, 1890. Mwanga arrived shortly after Mapeera breathed his last and stood in silence beside the body. Lourdel was thirty-seven years old. He was buried a few yards away from the church he had started to build. A temporary shelter was erected over the grave, to be replaced later with a brick mortuary chapel.
Alexander Mackay had died on February 8, 1890. Lourdel and Mackay have the greatest right to be called the founders of Christianity in Uganda. During the turbulent régime of Idi Amin Dada in the 1970s, Cardinal Emmanuel Nsubuga rallied Catholic audiences by showing them Mapeera’s crucifix and walking-stick. There was no need for words, such is the honoured memory of Uganda’s first Catholic missionary.
Aylward Shorter M.Afr.
J. F. Faupel, African Holocaust (Nairobi, St. Paul’s Publications Africa, 1984 ).
Armand Duval, Le Père Siméon Lourdel, Tout Pour l’Ouganda, forthcoming.
Joseph Mercui, L’Ouganda - La Mission Catholique et les Agents de la Compagnie Anglaise (Paris: Procure of the Missionaries of Africa, 1893).
A. Nicq, Vie du Révérend Père Siméon Lourdel (Paris, 1896).
This article, submitted in 2003, was researched and written by Dr. Aylward Shorter M.Afr., Emeritus Principal of Tangaza College Nairobi, Catholic University of Eastern Africa.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (complete article): Martyrs of Uganda