How Cardinal Otunga Warmed Hearts as Kenya’s First Native Catholic Bishop

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The people of God in Kenya are marking two decades since the Servant of God Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga, who is on the sainthood journey, passed on.

For many in the East African country, Cardinal Otunga who died on 6 September 2003 stands out as a humble servant with a notably quick elevation from Priest, Bishop, Archbishop and the country’s first Cardinal. For Catholic Bishops in Africa, especially those who have been rejected by those they were chosen to shepherd, Cardinal Otunga is an embodiment of perseverance, patience, and trust in God.

His humility and patience saw him win the hearts of Priests who rejected him when, aged only 33 in 1956, he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Kisumu, becoming the first to hold such a position in Kenya.

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Considered too young for the Episcopal Ministry, and him being African, Cardinal Otunga was not immediately accepted by the Priests in the Kenyan Diocese. In fact, he suffered immensely that he lost so much weight, as Margaret Ogola and Margaret Roche describe in their book, Cardinal Otunga: A Gift of Grace.


A Diocesan Priest who received the news of the appointment of Fr. Otunga as Auxiliary Bishop of Kisumu is said to have dismissed the Bishop, saying, “Well, he has no experience. He has never been in a parish, how is he going to manage it?”

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“Even after he was consecrated (in 1957), some missionaries found it difficult to come to terms with the idea of a local Bishop,” Ogola and Roche say in their book, which was published and reprinted in 2013 by the Daughters of St. Paul.

The two celebrated authors who teamed up to detail the life of Cardinal Otunga narrate an incident in which the new Bishop was refused entry to a certain Catholic mission.

“One day, the Bishop was driving himself around the diocese in his Volkswagen and arrived at a mission. The priest living there had a fence around the compound. The bishop came to the closed gate and stood there,” Ogola and Roche narrate in the 143-page book.

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“The father saw him, and came out. Standing inside the closed gate, he asked the bishop, Who has sent you here? ‘I want to see you father, I want to see how you are,’ Otunga answered. For some time, they stood looking at one another in silence. When the Priest saw that the Bishop was not going to move, he opened the gate and they went into the house. The priest made tea and they sat down to talk and ended up on very friendly terms,” the book reads in part.

When he was still Auxiliary Bishop, another Priest told him, “Well, we shall make things very difficult for you,” and another, “If he is made Bishop of Kisii, I will walk out.”

The moment Bishop Otunga was transferred to Kenya’s Kisii Diocese as the Local Ordinary, he talked the threat over with the Priest in question and they became good friends, Ogola and Roche narrate, and add, “That priest helped his bishop get a big plot of land for sisters to build their community on.”

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Kenya’s retired Bishop Philip Sulumeti of the Catholic Diocese of Kakamega who was interviewed when Cardinal Otunga was still alive agreed that the Cardinal underwent immense suffering in the early days of his Episcopate.

“He was our auxiliary in Kisumu for about four years and he had difficulty being accepted. Our church is human and the acceptance of him as a black Bishop was difficult in some quarters,” Bishop Sulumeti is quoted as saying in the book.

The 86-year-old Bishop whose retirement was accepted in December 2014 further said about the Kenyan Servant of God, “I think what led him to succeed was that humility in him. He is a very humble person and very difficult to fight with and that I think has carried him all along.”

According to Ogola and Roche, the attitude of the Priests towards Bishop Otunga pained the Bishop a great deal. “At the time, he just could not understand it. He suffered a great deal and lost a lot of weight.”

When the two asked the Cardinal whether the rejection shook his faith in God, he responded, “No! Never! I just kept quiet. I always kept quiet and that saved me. God would provide. I never wanted to be a bishop, it wasn't my choice, it was God's.”

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“I left it to God to be my protector, I never responded, or felt bitter. And when I first went to Kisii as a bishop and my diocesan priests watched to see how I was going to behave, I decided to entrust myself to the Holy Spirit. After all, we are living in the age of the Holy Spirit. And I have got my mother in heaven, Mary; I’ll be devoted to saying my Rosary,” Cardinal Otunga told the authors.

Not everyone was opposed to the new Bishop, the authors say, adding that while he faced open rejection from a section of Priests, many missionaries were with him, supporting him when he had problems with Diocesan Clergy who wanted non-native Priests gone.

The authors say that Cardinal Otunga was firm in protecting virtue among Priests, adding that five members of Clergy who wanted to own houses and to keep women left the Priesthood when the Bishop told them that he would not grant them the “free life” they wanted to have.

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Ogola and Roche’s two-part book first covers Cardinal Otunga’s birth to a Kenyan prominent chief, as well as his childhood and schooling. 

The second part details his ordination and early days in Priesthood, his years as Auxiliary Bishop of Kisumu and later as Local Ordinary of Kisii Diocese, Archbishop of Nairobi and elevation as Kenya’s first Cardinal. 

The second part also covers Cardinal Otunga’s relationship with government in what the authors describe as an “emerging nation”.

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.