Mother Antoinetta, was one of the prominent early Roman Catholic indigenous women religious leaders in Uganda, a committed and visionary Christian who made an immense contribution to the growth of African Christianity in Uganda.
Anna Maria Namutebi was born to Maria Alibayagadde and Yakobo Zake of Kigo village-Villa Maria-Masaka, central Uganda, on February 25, 1910. Her original name was Namutebi and she was baptized Anna Maria on February 26, 1910. She was the firstborn in the family of ten children. Anna Maria Namutebi was characteristically cheerful and peaceful, personality traits which were later to become a great source of joy for her fellow nuns, especially when she was their leader in the congregation.
In 1924 Anna Maria Namutebi started to take religious instruction from the White Sisters (Missionaries of Africa Sisters) at Villa Maria. It is at this point that she was attracted to religious life. Founded in 1908 by Bishop Henri Streicher a member of the White Fathers (Missionaries of Africa), the Bannabikira Sisters was the first African Roman Catholic religious congregation of women in Uganda and in Africa south of the Sahara . Sister Ursula was elected first superior general of the Congregation in 1927.
On August 27, 1927, Anna Maria Namutebi joined the Normal school in Bwanda Masaka, central Uganda (Bwanda is the birth place of the Bannabikira Sisters who are also known in Uganda as the Bwanda Sisters). She later joined Bwanda Vernacular Teacher Training Centre and received a first class certificate as a teacher on December 12, 1930. She was then posted to teach at Bugonga (Entebbe), central Uganda, in 1931. She joined the Bannabikira Sisters Novitiate (religious training) in August 1932. On August 2, 1934, she took her first religious vows in the Bannabikira Congregation as Sister Anna Maria. She later became Sister Antoinetta.
In 1934 Antoinetta taught at Kyamaganda in Masaka. In 1939 she was transferred to Katende Girls School in Mawokota Masaka. In 1943 she was recalled to Bwanda and taught in the primary school while she studied English on her own, at the same time preparing novices for religious life. On January 5, 1949 she took her final vows in religious life as a member of the Bannabikira Sisters of Bwanda in Masaka Diocese of Kampala Archdiocese in central Uganda.
At the fifth General Chapter of the Bannabikira Sisters on July 12, 1949, Antoinetta was elected superior general of the Bannabikira Sisters congregation–becoming the third indigenous superior general and the first superior general with professional training . In 1950 she travelled to Rome on a pilgrimage to celebrate the holy year and meet Pope Pius XII. On July 12, 1955, Mother Antoinetta was re-elected superior general. In 1958 the Bannabikira Sisters Congregation was elevated to the status of Pontifical order (which meant it was not restricted to the authority of the local diocesan bishop, but is under the express authority of the Pope; it could communicate directly with the Vatican in Rome without going through the local bishop).
On July 12, 1961, at the seventh General Chapter, Mother Antoinetta was elected superior general for the third time . On July 12, 1967 at the eighth General Chapter Sister Mary Vincent was elected superior general of the Bannabikira Sisters, but in her absence Mother Antoinetta continued to act as superior general on her behalf for one year. On July 12, 1973 at the ninth General Chapter, Mother Antoinetta was elected assistant superior general of the Bannabikira Sisters. Having been in the leadership of the congregation for twenty-five years, Mother Antoinetta took up the responsibility of guiding successive leaders.
Pope Paul VI recognized Mother Antoinetta’s hard work and on February 20, 1968 chose her as a consultant to the Sacred Congregation of the Evangelization of peoples. From 1980, at the age of 70, Mother Antoinetta taught novices the history of the congregation of the Bannabikira Sisters and guided the young Sisters in preparing to make the final vows.
Mother Antoinetta believed in the extended family as opposed to a nucleus family; an African traditional aspect that she found useful in her religious vocation. She cared for many children, especially orphans. She employed the African traditional aspect of communalism to help advance the congregation of the Bannabikira Sisters. Mother Antoinetta was a true African and Catholic woman who emphasized the virtues of women in a family such as cleanliness, hard work, and obedience. She discouraged witchcraft; advocated for the education of girls and promoted public speaking for women. Mother Antoinetta remained a teacher throughout her life. She loved writing and reading and she was knowledgeable. In her leisure time she would make medal strings. She supported clubs like the Girl Guides and the Legion of Mary.
Mother Antoinetta was a visionary with foresight. She spent her life focused on sustaining the congregation of the Bannabikira Sisters. She was able to achieve the “Decretum Laudis” (elevation from local congregation to Pontifical Order) for the Bannabikira Sisters. She initiated income generating projects and she encouraged the Bannabikira Sisters to be highly educated. She loved education and educating others, especially girls and orphans. Mother Antoinetta was always praying and believed in the power of prayer. She worked hard and encouraged others to do the same. Mother Antoinetta had a great sense of wisdom, and was a good planner and organizer . As a leader, she was kind, approachable, a good listener, and was never intimidating. She never praised herself and she was helpful to everyone. She provided solutions to people’s problems. In year 2000 she was recognized by Masaka Rotary Club as the most outstanding woman of the year.
Today, the Bannabikira Sisters serve in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and South Africa. They give catechetical instructions in Catholic parishes, teach in primary and secondary schools and in Teacher Training colleges, work in hospitals, dispensaries, and seminaries, manage clubs for girls and women, and run vocational training centers. The Bannabikira Sisters have helped found other religious congregations of women, like the Our Lady of Fatima Sisters in Western Uganda.
Mother Antoinetta died in 2006 at the age of ninety-six after spending seventy-two years in religious life. She inspired many Christians. She is an example of a woman religious leader who richly contributed to the development of African Christianity.
Bannabikira is the way the Baganda people of central Uganda refer to the Daughters of Mary Congregation. Banna in Luganda, the language of the Baganda means “of,” and bikira (in Swahili, a language spoken in East Africa, mostly in Kenya and Tanzania) refers to a virgin. “Bannabikira,” therefore, translates as the “Daughters of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Reverend Father Streicher, who founded the congregation of the Bannabikira Sisters, arrived in Buddu Masaka, central Uganda, in 1891 and was made bishop in 1897. Bishop Streicher founded the indigenous Bannabikira Sisters to help with the vast evangelization task in the area.
Sister Antoinetta’s predecessors in the leadership of the Bannabikira Sisters Congregation had not been trained in any professional field. Archbishop Kiwanuka, who was bishop of Masaka Diocese at the time, had advocated for the Bannabikira Sisters to have professionally trained leadership. Sister Antoinetta was the first leader who was professionally trained as a teacher.
The Bannabikira Congregation had to get consent from the Vatican for Mother Antoinetta to work for a third term as superior general. The rule was that one could only serve as superior general for two consecutive terms of six years each. The Vatican accepted the Bannabikira Sisters’ request and Mother Antoinetta was allowed to serve a third term. IN addition to serving as three terms as superior general, Mother Antoinetta acted as superior general on behalf of Sister Mary Vincent for one year, and was the assistant to Sister Mary Vincent for six years. Mother Antoinetta was in the leadership of the Daughters of Mary Congregation for a total of twenty five years.
Mother Antoinetta set up an education scheme for the Bannabikira Sisters by sending the Bannabikira Sisters abroad; many of these came back with better ideas for sustaining the Bannabikira Sisters Congregation.
Bannabikira. “The 75th anniversary of religious life of the daughters of Mary, Bannabikira.” 1985. Unpublished.
“Bwanda Convent.” A paper presented for Mother Antoinetta when celebrating 25 years of Religious life. August 16, 1959. Unpublished.
Kiggundu, C. Abannabikira. Kisubi: Marianum Press, 1964.
Musizi. Mother Antoinetta Ekimuli Ky’Africa. Kisubi: Munno Publication, 1984.
——–. 75 years of Daughters of Mary. Kisubi: Marianum Press, 1985.
“Rotarians Hail a Hidden but Gallant Dream Woman–Mother Antoinetta.” The Millennium Rotary Magazine Masaka Club, July 15, 2000, 21-23.
Waliggo, J. M. Struggle for Equality: Women and Empowerment in Uganda. AMECEA: Gaba publications, 2002.
Bishop Adrian K. Ddungu: Retired Bishop of Masaka Diocese who knew Mother Antoinetta since 1937.
Sister Ann Beniqna Nakyejwe, a teacher staying in Bwanda convent. Mother Antoinetta was her superior general.
Mr. Andrew Mbagga, Mother Antoinetta’s youngest brother.
Sister Cleophas who worked with Mother Antoinetta for eighteen years, six as her councilor and twelve as her assistant superior general.
Sister Eliana who met Mother Antoinetta in 1934. Mother Antoinetta was her head teacher for four years.
Sister Maria Euginia, Mother Antoinetta’s nurse in the sanatorium.
Sister Mary Francis, a former Bannabikira Sisters superior general, who met Mother Antoinetta in 1950 when she (Sister Mary Francis) was aspiring to become a member of the Bannabikira Sisters.
Sister Maria Gerarda, who compiled the history of the Bannabikira Sisters from Mother Antoinetta.
Sister Maria Toma, one of Mother Antoinetta’s pupils in 1947.
Sister Mary Leonsia, one of the Bannabikira Sisters sent to study in the United States by Mother Antoinetta.
Sister Maria Vincent who was elected superior general of the Bannabikira. Sisters in 1967 while she was studying at Seattle University; for one year Mother Antoinetta acted as superior general on her behalf and, in 1973, when Sister Maria Vincent was again elected superior general for the Bannabikira Sisters, Mother Antoinetta was elected her assistant.
Sister Pelagia, a close friend to Mother Antoinetta; they worked together for eighteen years, and they are remembered by the Bannabikira Sisters for having been the first two Bannabikira Sisters to travel by air and to set foot on the holy ground of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Father Peter Bakka a close associate of the Bannabikira Sisters who interviewed Mother Antoinetta in 2000 when the Masaka Rotary Club chose to recognize Mother Antoinetta as the most outstanding Ugandan woman for the year 1999 to 2000.
Sister Sebastian who worked with Mother Antoinetta in the Bannabikira kitchen; Mother Antoinetta always referred to Sister Sebastian as “Her mother.”
Rev. Fr. John Mary Prof. Waliggo, who first met Mother Antoinetta in 1952 and remained her close associate until her death in 2006; Prof. Waliggo, who died in April 2008, had studied with Mother Antoinetta’s brother, Joseph Mubiru.
This article, received in 2008, was researched and written by Deogratias Kabagambe at the Centre of African Christian Studies (P.O. Box 33507, Kampala, Uganda; Tel. (256) 0414-510 373; [email protected]) where Fulgencio Kayiso was Executive Director and DACB liaison coordinator.