From far, the eyes cannot fail to catch the sight of a whitish pinnacle towering the normally blue sky. As one approaches, one is gripped by that special feel of a godly environment, with a heroic atmosphere of the Martyrs given by the imposing giant structure of a shrine. This is Namugongo where now people flock daily in Tens and thousands to honour and pray to God through the intercession of the twenty two Uganda Martyrs.
This Uganda Martyrs Minor Basilica/Shrine is a Catholic church dedicated to the Martyrs of Uganda who shed their blood because of the Christian faith. The Shrine is well known for its beautiful and unique interior and exterior, but it is especially notable for its shape and architectural plan: the 22 copper pillars-over 100 feet long that support the shrine built in form of an African hut and its wooden doors that depict the history of the Martyrs. The Shrine has a capacity 1000 seats arranged in a circular form.
The construction of the Uganda Martyrs' Shrine began in 1967. It was completed and formally opened by the special Papal envoy, His Eminence Sergio Cardinal Pignedoli on 3rd June 1975. Thanks to the late former Archbishop Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga the author of the project, Dr. Danhinden the Architect and the ROKO Construction for the wonderful work done. When Pope John Paul II made a Pilgrimage to Namugongo on February 7, 1993, during his six -day visit to Uganda (5th -10th February 1993), he elevated the Shrine to a rank of a minor Basilica.
Lying 15 Kilometres east of Kampala off Jinja Road, Namugongo was formerly a place of execution of all people who committed grave offences in the Kingdom of Buganda. It is here that 14 of the 22 Uganda Martyrs offered their life to Christ (burnt alive), on the orders of king Mwanga in 1886, having refused to denounce their Christian faith. Following the Holocaust of these Martyrs which reached a climax on 3rd June, 1886 Namugongo has steadily taken on the image of attraction as a place of pilgrimage, as God simultaneously has honoured them before Believers.
On 6th June 1920 Pope Benedict XV beatified the Uganda Martyrs. Pope Paul VI canonized them on Mission Sunday, 8th October, 1964 in Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome. The same Pope honoured the Martyrs with a pilgrimage on 31st July to 2nd August 1969 - the first visit ever by a pope to the African Continent.
In 1935, 49 years after the holocaust, the Mill Hill Missionaries founded a Catholic Parish at Namugongo. They dedicated it to Our Lady Queen of the Martyrs.
The big imposing Shrine dominating Namugongo today stands exactly on the spot where the small original Parish Church stood and it is the same spot where Charles Lwanga was burnt alive.
Remembering the work executed by St. Charles Lwanga when still a page in King Mwanga's palace, when he spearheaded the excavation of the legendary Kabaka's lake at Mengo, a Martyrs' Lake was excavated at Namugongo. Many Pilgrims have often drawn water from this Lake and later given testimonies about this water healing them of various diseases.
The Pavilion (Island) in the lake is another unique feature at Namugongo with a clear view that can be seen from all angles of the over 15 acres Shrine compound. It is inside this pavilion where the main celebrant sits on big occasions like Martyrs' day, June 3. This grass thatched pavilion, also in circular form like the Shrine is supported by 4 pillars and can accommodate more than 300 Priests and a number of Bishops that turn for the High Mass on Martyrs Day.