In the late 1800s in Africa, European powers were scrambling to colonize Africa. During this time of colonization, Christian missionaries also began to arrive and to evangelize the newly-acquired European territories.
Among the Catholic missionary groups were the White Fathers (named for the color of their robes), now known as the Missionaries of Africa, who were successfully evangelizing within Buganda.
Some of the Buganda Catholic converts included young pages in the court of King Mwanga, who grew increasingly intolerant of Christianity, likely for two reasons: he saw it as a threat to his power, and he resented the young Christian pages who rejected his sexual advances.
The first Catholic martyr was Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, who was beheaded and burnt Nov. 15, 1885, for pleading with Mwanga to spare the life of James Hannington, and Anglican bishop who was to be killed for his missionary activities.
Many of the other martyrs were killed in May of the following year. On May 25, they were ordered to go on a days-long death march to Namugongo for refusing to denounce their faith. Several were killed along the way by spear for refusing to continue walking, or for collapsing from exhaustion.
One of the martyrs, Mathias Kalemba Mulumba, was killed in a particularly gruesome way. After two days of marching, he refused to walk further and asked for his execution. First his hands were cut off, then some of his flesh, and then his legs. However, his executioners stemmed the blood flow so that he would not die a quick death from blood loss. He died three days later from dehydration.
The other martyrs who made it to Namugongo were kept alive for about a week, during which time they gathered what would be the instruments of their execution - firewood and reeds.
On June 3, 1886, Charles Lwanga became the first of these to be martyred. He was ordered by the executioners to prepare his own death bed of firewood, and was then wrapped in reeds and burned to death. Twelve other Catholic martyrs were then also burned alive, along with thirteen Anglicans and several other prisoners.
Three decades later, in northern Uganda, catechists Daudi Okello and Jildo Irwa were dragged from their hut by a group of attackers and speared to death, Oct. 18, 1918.
Popular devotion to the martyrs remained strong in the country, and Charles Lwanga and his companions were beatified June 6, 1920. Bl. Paul VI canonized the group Oct. 18, 1964. The two catechists, Okello and Irwa, were beatified by St. John Paul II Oct. 20, 2002.
Miracles attributed to the martyrs include the curing of the bubonic plague in two religious sisters, and the curing of a physical deformity in the feet and legs of a young boy.
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Francis, the shrine's representative, said the witness of the martyrs should be a source of strength and courage for any Christians who experience persecution today.
"When one chooses what's right, he or she is remembered and treasured forever," he told CNA.
"Choosing Christ may, (for) a time, cause physical pain, neglect, abuses, etc., but Christ always remains with you and you always win."