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The Magnificent Namugongo Martyr's Shrine - Visited by Three Popes

Updated on October 21, 2020
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Ian is an avid writer who loves travelling and seeing new places. He's been on holiday in many places in Uganda and around East Africa.

Uganda is one of the world’s leading tourist destinations. The country’s rich culture and warm welcoming people, in addition to its natural endowments, give the East African nation an edge. You can expect a fulfilling holiday experience.

Religious tourism is another area rapidly growing, thanks to the rich religious history of the country. One of the most eye-catching stories is that of the Uganda Martyrs (a group of 45 young men) who were put to death at Namugongo (where the shrine is located) because of their faith.

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The Uganda Martyrs Basilica
The Uganda Martyrs Basilica
The Uganda Martyrs Basilica

Who are the Uganda martyrs?

The Uganda martyrs were young Christian converts who worked as ‘pages’ in the palace of Kabaka (king) Mwanga the second of Buganda kingdom. The kingdom is a cultural institution in central Uganda and is where the country’s capital Kampala is located. 23 Anglican and 22 catholic young men were executed between 1885 and 1887, on orders of the Kabaka because they disobeyed him, and refused to renounce their religion. 22 of the men who were catholic converts, were burnt alive in 1886 at a village called Namugongo, where the shrine is currently located.

Pilgrims praying to the saints at the site where the martyrs were burnt to death, just outside the basilica
Pilgrims praying to the saints at the site where the martyrs were burnt to death, just outside the basilica

On the third of June of every year, the martyrs are celebrated in the predominantly Christian country. The day is marked as a public holiday. Christians from around the world congregate to commemorate the lives and courage shown by the martyrs when they chose to die for their religion. An estimated 2 million people attended the event In 2015.

The shrine is open to tourists throughout the year. People visit the site to explore and learn the roots of religion in Uganda, fellowship, reflect and restore their faith.

Visited by three popes

The shrine has been blessed with visits from three popes to date.The first was pope Paul VI who said a pontificate mass on 2nd August 1969. Pope John Paul II visited the shrine and said his pontifical mass on 7th February 1993. On 28th November 2015, pope Francis became the third pope to visit and lead mass at the shrine. These are surely blessed grounds.

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Pope Francis visited the Namugongo Shrine in November 2015...
Pope Francis visited the Namugongo Shrine in November 2015...
Pope Francis visited the Namugongo Shrine in November 2015...


The shrine is located in Kira Municipality, Wakiso district approximately 16 kilometers northeast of Kampala city, the capital of Uganda. Traffic in the city is heavy during peak hours, and it could take up to 45 minutes to drive to the shrine from the city center. It costs about 3,000 Uganda shillings by public means (Mainly matatus) and about 10,000 shillings by Boda Boda (motor-bike riders providing town service). These are readily available all over the city. One can order for a Boda Boda through local companies that offer online booking through mobile phone apps. Some of the companies include; “safe Boda” and “Taxify”.

The Anglican shrine is located approximately 2 kilometers away from the catholic site. A spring well used by the executioners to wash up and clean their weapons after the execution still flows today, at the Anglican site. Many Anglican pilgrims fetch water from this well and carry it home because they believe it is holy water.

The Anglican site houses a magnificent museum where various relics are exhibited to showcase the rich religious history of the country. The museum can be accessed at a fee.

What to do at the shrine

At a small fee, a tour guide will take you through the magnificent basilica where you can marvel at the impressive architectural designs and religious imagery telling the story of Christianity in Uganda. Mass is conducted daily at various times of the day. You can join in the prayers and commune with the rest of the congregation. The angelic sound of the choir is breathtaking as they sing hymns during worship.

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The alter built over the Martyrs' lake
The alter built over the Martyrs' lake
The alter built over the Martyrs' lake

Then there is the Namugongo martyr’s lake Just outside the basilica. Floating on the lake is a beautifully crafted walkway leading to an altar built over the lake. Pilgrims believe the water of this lake is holy water. Many carry home some of this water and testify that it brings blessings in their lives. Mass is conducted by the lakeside every third June when believers from around the world congregate at the shrine in millions.

Accommodation around the shrines

Accommodation is available around Namugongo and nearby towns. For example, the ‘Agenda 2000’ hotel is located a kilometer from the shrine. They offer great accommodation facilities and meals including local continental and international dishes. Their gardens offer a relaxing environment for taking a break from the scorching sunshine of Kampala. Here you can relax in the garden bar as you enjoy the breathtaking view of the Namugongo shrine.

A variety of restaurants are also available within walking distance from the shrine, around Namugongo and Kyaliwajalla, providing meals and refreshments at affordable rates.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 Ian Batanda


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