Remembering Fr. John Scalabrini

Stephen Senkaaba

After more than 50 years of dedicated service to Uganda, Fr. John Scalabrini, an Italian Catholic priest from the Comboni missionaries died early in October this year. I had a rare privilege of meeting and interviewing Fr. Scalabrini at length last year. He told me his story, his dramatic journey to the priesthood and his tumultuous ministry in Uganda, a country he fell in love with and where he contributed to the rehabilitation of some of the poorest people.  The result is a three part series of the life and times of this most intriguing man.

Fr. John Scalabrini was a 30 year old youthful priest when he first set foot in Uganda 51 years ago. Since then the Italian priest set out to change the lives of some of the country’s most disadvantaged communities. It has been a trying five decades marked by two deportations, a house arrest and protests from his own family. And yet none of all that shook his resolve to serve God’s people. Scalabrini’s wish is to be buried in Uganda, a country which to him is more home than his own home. In a three part series I tell the captivating story of a man who defied his own biological father’s orders to fulfill his heavenly father’s purpose for him.

ON a warm Wednesday afternoon last year, Fr. John Scalabrini stood inside his office waiting to receive two journalists: a grandfatherly man with thin snow-white strands of hair and a slanting gait. It was 5:00 pm. The sun was slowly folding up. His staff were closing for the day. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” he said. “I have been occupied with some work.” He had just returned from a medical check-up at Nsambya hospital. Despite the dizzy-ing effects of the medication, he had come back to his office “to finish some paper work.”

Fr. Scalabrini is a Catholic missionary priest of the Comboni congregation. He is the founder and director of Emmaus Foundation- a not-for profit organization based in Biina Mutungo. On May 5 this year he marked 51 years of dedicated service to Uganda. Over that period, he has not only preached the gospel of Christ. He has established income generating activities for poor communities, fed and sheltered orphans and widows, set up education and vocational institutions. He has also established and supported Catholic missions in different parts of this country. Today, Emmaus Foundation caters for over thousands of orphans. It has also established and operates three schools, a medical Centre, two carpentry workshops, a school feeding programme, a charity initiative and a thriving school sponsorship programme that pays for the education of children from poor families.

Interviewing Fr. John Inside his house in Biina Mutungo

For a man of his clout, Fr. Scalabrini remains modest. He is the Ugandan version of “medium size” standing at about 5’8- neither too fat, not too thin. He usually tucks himself into a white clerical shirt and matching trousers, pulled up to the navel area.  He carries three items on him: a silver fountain pen in the left pocket of his shirt, a shiny metallic chain peeping from the left trouser pocket and a mobile phone in a leather jacket fastened on the left hand buckle of his trouser. These days, Fr. Scalabrini walks with a slight limp- the result of strong drugs from a recent medical procedure. His once black curly hair is gone. Thin white strands now calmly sit on his ageing head. Apart from a few black and red spots on his forehead, his face remains well rounded. His eyes radiate through the metallic rimmed glasses, widening in rhythm with his carefully chosen words voiced in a throaty Italianized English accent. His ability to remember even the tiniest of details- from the price of the first maize mill he purchased in 1964( sh 5,500) in Kampala to the name of the old villager he first dealt with in Gulu 51 years ago is captivating.

Too busy to retire?

At 81 years of age and grappling with ill health, Fr. Scalabrini still shows no signs of slowing down. His day starts at 6:00 am with prayers and breakfast. He is in office by 8:30 am. Here he attends to crowds that need his attention, receives reports and reviews progress on ongoing projects. He attends meetings, works through stashes of paperwork.  He has a lunch break at1:00 o’clock. Takes off an hour’s rest. And is back to work until 7:00 pm.

His Mutungo is a hive of daily activity- with hordes of people queuing to see the priest: Women with little children in tow; young men and women in need of school fees or a place to stay; old men looking for work; terminally ill people without money for their medical bills. The pink-painted, tin-roofed single storied structure which doubles as Fr. Scalabrini’s residence is also home to several orphans under the priest’s care.  He has dedicated Tuesdays and Thursdays of every week to attending to people.  But this does not stop people from flooding his place every day. His staff helps regulate the numbers, but this often never works as people insist on seeing him in person. Some of them have taken things personal. When my secretary stops them from seeing me, they go to police,” he says.

Such has been life for this priest, aged only 30 when he first arrived in Uganda.

1964

On Monday, May 04, 1964, only two years after his ordination to priesthood, a baby-faced Fr. John Scalabrini arrived in Uganda for the first time to take up his new assignment in the Northern Uganda Catholic diocese of Gulu. Located 340 km North of the Capital Kampala, it was one of the most impoverished dioceses in the country at the time. The young, energetic priest traversed the length and breadth of the diocese on a bicycle to preach. From Awach to Pawel, he prayed and administered sacraments to Christians who fondly called him “Latin Padre” (the baby/child priest) in reference to his boyish looks. “We loved him and we were always happy to welcome him,” 64-year old Angela Anyoda-then a teenage local Christian-says.  He sometimes spent several days in the villages with the community, preaching and giving sacraments. He would camp in tiny grass-thatched huts specially prepared for him by the local people.

His first appointment was to develop Awach parish, 40 km outside of Gulu. “ There wasn’t much except a small mud brick chapel,” he recalls. In a hugely deprived area, he often drove 40 km to Gulu town to find clean water until we dug our own borehole in Awach. He drove the same distance to find the only maize milling machine in the entire district then.

With support from the elders and with donations from friends Fr. Scalabrini set up a modern set church in Awach. He also constructed a priests’ and nun’s residence. He set up a modern section for Awach primary school. Later, he worked with the local Christians to build grass- thatch ‘bush’- primary schools in Palaro Owaro, Oroko, Gwendia, Patuda- River Aswa, Omel Kuro, Payibona and surrounding areas. He worked very closely with the Christians.  “The women used to prepare the grass. The men prepared the ground. I provided the food and supervised them,” he says.

With financial assistance from some Italian friends, he bought a tractor for cultivation. He mobilized the community to grow millet, cassava, Maize and rice. It was he that introduced the first maize milling machine in the diocese. He later offered maize and rice millers to several parishes in the diocese.

Training “future leaders”

As political instability intensified in Northern Uganda, many children drop-out of school; others became orphaned. Using financial contributions from Italian friends, Fr. Scalabrini set up a fund to provide school fees for thousands of these. He also helped to establish Bishop Angelo Negri primary and Nursery school in 1972, the first private primary school in the region. He paid for the education of many children here and supported the operations of the school. It is here that people like cabinet minister and NRM deputy secretary general Richard Todwong, East Africa Legislative Assembly Speaker Daniel Kidega and outspoken Member of Parliament Odonga Otto and many other professionals went to school. “This school led the way for quality education in our region,” Rev. Brother Santo Okema the head teacher says.

Paying the price for good work

Soon, rumours went around that Fr. Scalabrini was involved in subversive activities.

“The school’s mantra to “train future leaders” greatly worried President Amin. He therefore sent Ali Fadhur one of his officers- to see what kind of leaders were being groomed here. Fadhul was surprised to find little children taking normal classes,” Br. Okema says.

At the end of his fact-finding mission – the story goes- the officer promised to send his own children to the school.

Fr. Scalabrini later learnt that “Some people had told the President that we were training guerillas to overthrow his government.”

Thrown out of Uganda

Fr. Scalabrini had taken a group of Ugandan soldiers on a pilgrimage to Italy when he heard the news of his deportation from Uganda. It was August, 1975. He was among 16 Verona missionaries allegedly accused of “spying and being agents of foreign governments”. It was a big blow for the man to whom Uganda had become home.  No clear reasons were given for our deportation. I became very depressed and unhappy,” he says. Several attempts were made by Bishop Cyprian Kihangire, the Ordinary of Gulu Diocese then- to negotiate the return of his Vicar General and other Comboni Missionaries. All were in vain. The Bishop’s attempts to talk to the President were all frustrated. He was even threatened with arrest. When Amin’s government fell later in 1979, arrangements were made for him to come back to Uganda.

Next: Fr. Scalabrini’s second coming to Uganda. How he introduced sunflower growing in Nothern Uganda before being deported for the second time.

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