By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
As young boys growing up in the East African country of Uganda, Father George Otuma and Father Deogratias Ssamba — both members of the Apostles of Jesus — dreamed of becoming priests.
They are currently fulfilling that dream as missionaries in the Archdiocese of Louisville. The African priests exude joy and laugh easily, despite having lived through war.
They arrived in Louisville in September, joining a group of now 21 foreign-born priests serving the people of the archdiocese. Over the last few years, the archdiocese has also welcomed priests from India and Central and South America.
The two from Uganda are from a missionary congregation and have a three-year assignment here.
Father Ssamba, who was ordained to the priesthood in Uganda six years ago, is now serving as associate pastor of St. Peter the Apostle Church on Johnsontown Road. He also celebrates Mass for students at St. Andrew Academy, which is the parish school.
Father Ssamba was formed as a priest in Kenya by the Apostles of Jesus — at the Apostles of Jesus Philosophicum, the Apostles of Jesus Scholasticate and the Apostles of Jesus Theologicum in the Lang’ata district of Nairobi, Kenya.
During an interview at St. Peter the Apostle’s parish office last week, he explained that he was born in the village of Ggangu in Central Uganda and is the eldest of five children. His childhood was marked by the Ugandan civil war, which was fought from 1981 to 1986. His two younger sisters were killed in the war, he said.
Father Ssamba said that as a little boy, he fell in love with the vestments worn by priests. He recalled seeing the priest at his parish putting on his chasuble.
“It was green and I admired it so much,” he said. “I went home and shared with my mother that I wanted to be a priest.”
Later in his life he would again be drawn to priestly garments — this time the white habit and broad yellow sash worn by members of the Apostles of Jesus, which he joined in 2000.
Like Father Ssamba, Father Otuma wanted to be a priest from childhood. From his vantage point as an altar server, Father Otuma said he used to admire the priests during Mass.
“My mother tells me that as a little boy I used to pretend to be a priest,” he recalled, laughing during the interview last week at St. Peter the Apostle. He recalls the local priests visiting his parents at home while he was growing up. “They were so humble and they made their work look attractive,” he said.
Father Otuma, who has been a priest for 15 years, is currently serving at Holy Spirit Church on Lexington Road. He was born in the village of Ayiko in Northern Uganda and is the middle child of five siblings.
His father was a carpenter and his mother was a brewer of local beer. From the incomes of their humble professions, he said, his parents made sure he was educated.
Father Otuma, too, was formed as a priest in Kenya by the Apostles of Jesus, attending the same schools as Father Ssamba.
Father Otuma’s first assignment proved to be a trial by fire, he said. In 2001 he was assigned as associate pastor of the Kauda Catholic Mission in the El Obeid Diocese in Central Sudan. During this time, a civil war was raging in that country.
“It was tough, because we were experiencing the war and seeing the children dying because of the bombing,” said Father Otuma. “I couldn’t leave. I had to be with the people to console them and give them hope.”
They’ve traveled thousands of miles geographically and culturally to serve here in the Archdiocese of Louisville. This is the two priest’s first mission outside of Africa. Though far away from their homeland, they say they are happy to be able to serve the people here. A desire to be of service — anywhere in the world they are needed — is the reason they became Apostles of Jesus, they said.
With less than three months in the United States, the priests said they are adjusting well and even enjoying American food, especially pizza.
They explained that as missionaries they tend to feel at home wherever they are. Father Ssamba said his experiences in Louisville have been “wonderful.”
The people have been “welcoming and helpful,” he said. “Wherever I am, the people become a family.”
The priests said they are looking forward to serving the people of the archdiocese.
“I hope to grow in faith together with the people, to embrace the culture and share my faith experiences with them,” said Father Otuma.
Father Ssamba said he hopes “to proclaim the word of God, teach the faith” and share experiences.