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JAMES ODONGO: Founder and headmaster of ‘The School of Hard Knocks’


A brief history of the Archdioceses of Tororo 

The Archdiocese of Tororo metamorphosed from the Upper Nile Vicariate instituted on July 13, 1894 by the Holy See and entrusted to the Mill Hill Missionaries.

Arriving in Tororo at the onset of the 20th Century, the Mill Hill Missionaries embarked on the establishment of religious, educational and health institutions in the then Vicariate of the Upper Nile, a territory stretching from Kampala, Uganda to Nakuru in Kenya.

The Congregation on the Mill Hill Fathers was headquartered at Freshfield, England and Nsambya became the seat of the Bishop of the Vicariate.

The following Bishops headed the Vicariate: Henry Hanlon 1894-1911, Bishop John Biermans 1912-1924 and Bishop John Campling 1925-1937

In 1948, Rome divided the Vicariate of the Upper Nile into Kampala and Tororo.

Bishop John Reesinck 1938-1950 became the first Vicar Apostolic of Tororo, thus relinquishing his title as Bishop of the Vicariate of the Upper Nile,.

In the same year, Reesinck relocated his residence from Nsambya to Tororo, the Bishop’s See.

He retired in 1951 and Bishop John Greif 1951-1968 was installed as the Bishop of the Tororo Vicariate.

Therefore, when the Diocese of Tororo was created on March 25, 1953 Bishop Greif, the second Bishop of Tororo Vicariate, became the first Bishop of Tororo Diocese.

He died on August 17, 1968 at the age of 70, after serving the people of Tororo for 46 years.

Upon the death of Bishop Greif, Bishop James Odongo became the second Bishop of the Diocese of Tororo, on August 19, 1968.

In 1999, he was appointed the first Metropolitan Archbishop of Tororo, overseeing the dioceses of Jinja, Kotido, Moroto and Soroti.

Rome had recognized the maturity of the Church in Tororo earlier, and in 1981 had divided it, creating  Diocese of Soroti wih Bishop Erasmus  Wandera. The original Tororo Diocese has been blessed with five of its clergy named bishops since – Odongo, Wandera, Denis Kiwanuka, Joseph Onyanga and Charles Wamika.

Archbishop Odongo’s impact on the Church and society

“Archbishop Odongo’s life, work and experiences and achievements were largely influenced by the Vatican Council II that instilled in him the urge for self-reliance and shaped his understanding of the priestly ministry and the lay apostolate as inseparable cogs in the Church’s machinery,” said  Msgr. John Baptist Kauta.

PHOTOGRAPH: Arch Odongo with the King of the Jopadhola Kwar Adhola Moses Owor (left) and Prof Charles Olweny, Chancellor of Mbarara University (right) in 2017. PHOTO LOUIS JADWONG

Since the days he had to walk 19 kilometers to find a better education, he grew up to understand the importance in life of the ‘School of Hard Knocks’.

He promoted the fact the church ought to support the spiritual, social and material aspects of Christian lives.

The Second Vatican Council was a watershed in Odongo’s priestly ministry, as it laid the foundation to his principles of of self reliance, self-drive, self-propagation and the concept of multiculturalism.

Personal discipline and time management, are two personality traits that enable Odongo to live this long with hypertension and diabetes. He loved playing tennis as well.

Fr Deogracias Ekisa described Bishop Odongo as ” a no-nonsense man, a strict disciplinarian and a tough-talking man.

“Because of his no-nonsense approach, in eastern Uganda and beyond, Archbishop James Odongo fittingly earned the title Founder and Headmaster of The School of Hard knocks,” said Fr Ekisa.

He said his pursuit of perfection was not limited to things spiritual, but also included things material and behavioral. After all, he added, how was one to show one’s spiritual perfection if not in external acts smothered with discipline, diligence and orderliness.

Msgr. John Baptist Kauta recalls a time when a priest came to see the Archbishop at his office in Mbale riding a motorcycle without a helmet. Bishop Odongo ordered the priest to park the motorcycle  there and only return to pick it up when he had a helmet.

Through his philosophy of self reliance, Archbishop Odongo worked to empower all with the archdiocese to reach their potential and live a life  of Christian dignity.

The fruits of his hard work and his envisioning of a self-reliant and self-propagating Church are the so many religious, social, health and educational institutions that he founded across the Archdiocese of Tororo, writes Msgr. John Baptist Kauta.

He demanded excellence, which is difficult, but not impossible, but also realized that everyone had a role in whatever success the church was to get.

” I would  like to state categorically that I was not acting alone during those years of growth of the Church in Tororo Archdiocese. I followed the saying of St Augustine, “Together with you, I am a Christian, but for you I am Bishop,” Odongo said.


COURTESY PHOTOS: Archbishop Odongo and his brother Fr. Alfed Opio meet Pope St. John Paul II when he visited Uganda in 1993
COURTESY PHOTOS: First Private audience with Pope Paul VI, March 1965
Archbishop Emeritus talks Jane Kabale, first daughter of Kwar Adhola Moses Stephen Owor after mass in 2017. PHOTO BY LOUIS JADWONG

History of Centenary Bank

As chairperson of the social services committee of the Episcopal Conference of Uganda, a pivotal organ in the creation of Centenary Bank, Archbishop led a delegation to meet then President Milton Obote in 1983.

Obote remarked to him personally; “I know Catholics, when you want to start something, you cannot fail. Please go ahead and have the bank.” The rest is history.

According to a Biography of James Odongo, compiled by Msgr. John Baptist Kauta, Secretary of the Uganda Episcopal Conference titled “Shepherd of a multi-Cultural Mosaic’, the Bank was conceived to be a ‘monumento’ for the Catholics to celebrate 100 years of the religion in Uganda. It was primarily aimed at serving the rural communities, although it spread to urban areas.

Reactions from Church leaders

📌  The Chairperson of the Uganda Episcopal Conference, Bishop Joseph Antony Zziwa, who is the Bishop of Kiyinda Mityana Diocese. “We pay special tribute to the late Odongo for the growth and development of the Church since the Second Vatican Council which he attended personally” – Zziwa

📌 “I wish to register thanks to God for the gift of life he gave Archbishop Odongo and chose him to serve in his vineyard. He struggled to help people fight poverty, promoted communion, cared for people and has indeed been a good shepherd” – Archdiocese of Kampala, Cyprian Kizito Lwanga

📌 “Your participating in the different commissions of the episcopal conference went a long way to making Uganda what it is today. Among your remarkable achievements were your tireless efforts to ensure he proper establishment OF Centenary Bank, which today is one of the leading commercial banks kin the country. We great appreciate your wisdom and good stewardship” – John Baptist Odama, Archbishop of Gulu and outgoing chairman of Uganda episcopal conference.

📌 ” Now that he was the first African Ordinary of Tororo dioceses, he rose to the challenge. He made sterling efforts to make the Diocese become self sufficient, which he carried on until he retired” – Fr Bernard Phelan

📌 ARCHBISHOP J.O: Education without God produces clever devils.
📌 ARCHBISHOP J.O: It has been a long and weary road; strength and courage sometimes failed, but there was no giving up. I drew from the following reflection: I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something; What I can do, I ought to do; and what I ought to do, I will do. ****************  At the 50th anniversary of this priesthood in 2006
📌 ARCHBISHOP J.O: Whenever I am interviewed, meeting people or in conversations, one of the common questions often asked is: “As an elder what legacy do you leave for the people of Tororo Archdiocese?”
In response, my memory often flashes back to one of my favorite sayings from H.G Wells: “The test of greatness is: What did the person leave to grow? By this test Jesus stands first.”
📌 ARCHBISHOP J.O: Legacy refers to a situation that exists because of things that happened earlier. It is not easy to sum up the many past events of one’s life and anticipate a repeat. That would tantamount to assuming the role of a prophet who is able to tell the past and forecast the future.
If legacy includes the past, then, I can happily provide some hints on my life and contribution to the development of the Church in Tororo Archdiocese. Whatever I did I was inspired by the words of St. Augustine: “Together with you, I am Christian; but for you I am a Bishop.”

SOURCE: The Biography of Archbishop JAMES ODONGO – Shepherd of a Multi-Cultural Mosaic compiled by Msgr.  John Baptist Kauta in 2015 (the biography can be found at St Paul’s bookshop, Kampala)



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