Tributes Pour in for Young Ugandan Catholic Priest Who Smiled through Heart Illness

Late Fr. Joseph Okwara. Credit: Mill Hill Missionaries

Fr. Joseph Okwara wore his signature smile as he welcomed pilgrims who arrived in Uganda for the 2024 pilgrimage at Namugongo Shrine in the country’s Catholic Archdiocese of Kampala.

In a video that was circulated on social media shortly after news of his death was made public, Fr. Okwara was seen exchanging pleasantries with pilgrims from Kenya’s Catholic Diocese of Kakamega at the shrine. The Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) that worked in the place of his heart was conspicuously hooked on his head. But it is his giggles and wide smile as he led the pilgrims, carrying a big cross, that stood out in the entire video.

This is how many people who knew Fr. Okwara will remember him; a Priest, who is always smiling. Not even a heart disease he was diagnosed with shortly after he was ordained a Priest of St. Joseph’s Missionary Society of Mill Hill (MHM) could rob him of his smile.

Ordained a Priest in 2019, Fr. Okwara died aged 34 on June 14 at a hospital in his native country of Uganda after battling ischemic cardiomyopathy, with severe dysfunction both on his left and right ventricles.

In his homily at Fr. Okwara’s Funeral Mass on Wednesday, June 19, the Provincial Superior of MHM in East Africa, Fr. Hillary Michael Awiti, described his late Ugandan confrere as a delightful Priest, who never stopped smiling.


“Fr. Joseph lived a short and beautiful life; a life that was marked with a lot of smiles. It was very rare to find Joseph not smiling,” Fr. Awiti said.

Fr. Joseph Okwara celebrating Mass privately. Credit: Fr. Tony Emeka

He further described Fr. Okwara as “a very faithful Priest”, and having been “obedient unto death”. Fr. Okwara is said to have readily accepted to be sent on appointments. In India where he had gone to seek medication, he happily served as a formator in one of his Society’s formation houses.

According to the MHM leader, Fr. Okwara who first served in Uganda’s Catholic Diocese of Kotido “remained an example of resilience in the face of hardships and difficulties.”

“Joseph Okwara has left us in deep sorrow, more so for us the Mill Hill Missionaries. Losing a young member leaves us with a big blow. But also, for the family; he was the eldest son to his parents,” Fr. Owiti said.

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In an interview five months ago, Fr. Okwara gave a testimony of his life, describing the highs and lows he had experienced after he developed the heart condition.

His confrere, Fr. Tony Emeka, who conducted the interview captioned it, “In pain, yet smiling: The mindblowing testimony of Fr. Joseph”.

Fr. Okwara says in the video, “After my ordination in 2019, as a young Priest, I had ambition to be involved in many activities in mission. To be in a parish set-up somewhere in the village, and to witness to the goodness of God among people of different cultures, among people of different backgrounds, and tribes. But all that changed when I developed an ailment.”

Fr. Joseph Okwara carries a cross as he welcomes pilgrims at Namugongo Shrine. Credit: St. Joseph Luanda Catholic Parish

He goes on, “A lot has changed from the time I got this heart disease till now. But still, I thank God I am still alive. God is still revealing himself to me in many ways. God has been part of this story.”


Fr. Okwara recounted the events of Easter Monday of 2021 that saw his health nosedive, saying, “It was in a flick that everything changed.”

He remembered having been a great footballer and continued to play even after ordination. One day while he was on the field playing with the parish youths, he had a heart attack, and he would later learn that his heart had expanded. The sudden change in his health was immediately linked to high cholesterol in his body. 

He recounted battling heart failure before he was flown to India where the LVAD was implanted in his chest as he waited for a heart transplant.

In India, and with the heart device, Fr. Okwara led a fairly normal life, where he also assisted in the formation of young men who were discerning missionary life.

He admitted that his diagnosis was “painful to accept”, at first believing that he was being “punished for some wrongdoing.”

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“I despaired. At some point in the hospital, I broke down, wailing loudly,” he recounted, adding that with time, and a lot of prayers and meditation, he accepted the will of God in his life. 

“In my powerlessness, in my pain, in my struggles, God takes control of my situation … I developed greater hope, and that has given me relative peace in my condition. What has helped me is taking personal time in prayer and meditation. This has really helped me to find meaning in my experience,” he says in the interview.

When Fr. Emeke asks Fr. Okwara to encourage people who are going through difficult situations, with some contemplating suicide, the ailing Priest says, “No matter how difficult life is, don't lose hope. Just cling there. Every storm shall pass; there is no storm that has lasted forever; there is no typhoon that has blown continuously for one year. It blows then gives you some time to recover. We must not lose hope. God cares for us.”

He also gave advice to the people of God to always create time for meditation, and to “try to find meaning” in all their experiences.

Fr. Okwara met his death while on holiday in Uganda where he also participated in the 2024 pilgrimage at Namugongo shrine.

Fr. Joseph Okwara (right) at a past interview.  Credit: Fr. Tony Emeka

Following the death of the Ugandan MHM Priest, those he was formed with at St. Joseph Luanda Parish of Kakamega Parish paid their tributes to him, saying he held their class together with his never-ending smile.

From the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Fr. Patrick Lonkoy Bolengu, the Parish Priest of St. Francis of Paola Parish of the Catholic Archdiocese of Kinshasa said, “I feel very sad deep inside at the moment and my pain is very great.”

“You were a precious gift to us and your pilgrimage on earth was a great blessing for us. You were a good man, always smiling, calm, loving,” Fr. Bolengu said in his tribute to Fr. Okwara. 

He added, “I have always admired the sense of unity and reconciliation that defined your person. The moments of my holidays spent with you in Tororo will remain forever engraved in my memory.”

“Go in peace, soldier of Christ, and may God grant you eternal rest,” the Congolese Priest, who was formed in Kenya said in a tribute he shared with ACI Africa. 

Sr. Norah Mercyline, who also served with Fr. Okwara at a mission in Kotido Diocese described him as a jovial Priest, especially during their initial formation in Kenya.

“I can vividly remember how the good-humoured Father Joseph made our classes fun. Since there were 12 of us, Father would call our class ‘the beloved disciplines bringing heaven in Luanda’ with a wide infectious smile,” Sr. Norah said. 

The Kenyan-born member of the Franciscan Missionaries of St. Joseph (FMSJ), popularly known as Mill Hill Sisters recounted working with Fr. Okwara in Panyangara mission of Kotido Diocese in Uganda, and the ever-jovial Priest once saying, “We are here yet again to bring heaven in Karamoja (a region served by Panyangara mission) through the little we can.”

“The situation in Panyangara was very tough, and Father Okwara’s infectious smile made things easier for all of us there,” Sr. Norah, who works with children living with disability in Kenya’s Catholic Diocese of Malindi told ACI Africa. 

Fr. Okwara was always cheerful, the Kenyan Nun said, and recalled, “When he lost in our social games, Father would say ‘Oitokoi! Akuj Papa, alakara nooi’ which, in one of the Ugandan dialects, is a way to praise God.”

Fr. Joseph Okwara on a football pitch

“Which one among us could praise God upon failing or losing something we enjoy doing?  I miss your smile, dearest classmate and companion in my mission. But I pray for your gentle soul. May you find rest in eternal happiness,” Sr. Norah eulogized. 

Sr. Jacqlyne Nyabonyi, a member of the Mill Hill Sisters, who also studied alongside Fr. Okwara said her former classmate’s death was shocking. “Up to now it seems like a dream to me,” Sr. Jacqlyne said.

“Father Joseph was an ever-smiling person. Even when he was low, he could still afford a smile,” she eulogized the late MHM Priest, adding, “He was humble, generous, patient and ever dedicated.”

“May the risen Christ grant Father Joseph eternal rest,” she further said, and added, “I know the heavens are happy to have such a jolly Priest as you. Go well classmate till we meet again.”

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.