In the interior of central Africa the first Catholic missions were established by Cardinal Lavigerie's White Fathers in 1879. In Uganda some progress was made under the not unfriendly local ruler, Mtesa; but his successor, Mwanga, determined to root out Christianity among his people, especially after a Catholic subject, St. Joseph Mkasa, reproached him for his debauchery and for his massacre of the Protestant missionary James Hannington and his caravan. Mwanga was addicted to unnatural vice and his anger against Christianity, already kindled by ambitious officers who played on his fears, was kept alight by the refusal of Christian boys in his service to minister to his wickedness.
Joseph Mkasa himself was the first victim: Mwanga. seized on a trifling pretext and on November 15, 1885, had him beheaded. To the chieftain's astonishment the Christians were not cowed by this sudden outrage, and in May of the following year the storm burst. When he called for a young 'page' called Mwafu, Mwanga learned that he had been receiving religious instruction from another page, St. Denis Sebuggwawo; Denis was sent for, and the king thrust a spear through his throat. That night guards were posted round the royal residence to prevent anyone from escaping.
St. Charles Lwanga, who had succeeded Joseph Mkasa in charge of the 'pages', secretly baptized four of them who were catechumens; among them St Kizito, a boy of thirteen whom Lwanga had repeatedly saved from the designs of the king. Next morning the pages were all drawn up before Mwanga, and Christians were ordered to separate themselves from the rest: led by Lwanga and Kizito, the oldest and youngest, they did so—fifteen young men, all under twenty-five years of age. They were joined by two others already under arrest and by two soldiers. Mwanga asked them if they intended to remain Christians. "Till death!" came the response. "Then put them to death!"
The appointed place of execution, Namugongo, was thirty-seven miles away, and the convoy set out at once. Three of the youths were killed on the road; the others underwent a cruel imprisonment of seven days at Namugongo while a huge pyre was prepared. Then on Ascension day, June 3, 1886, they were brought out, stripped of their clothing, bound, and each wrapped in a mat of reed: the living faggots were laid on the pyre (one boy, St Mbaga, was first killed by a blow on the neck by order of his father who was the chief executioner), and it was set alight. The persecution spread and Protestants as well as Catholics gave their lives rather than deny Christ. A leader among the confessors was St Matthias Murumba, who was put to death with revolting cruelty; he was a middle-aged man, assistant judge to the provincial chief, who first heard of Jesus Christ from Protestant missionaries and later was baptized by Father Livinhac, W.F. Another older victim, who was beheaded, was St Andrew Kagwa, chief of Kigowa, who had been the instrument of his wife's conversion and had gathered a large body of catechumens round him. This Andrew together with Charles Lwanga and Matthias Murumba and nineteen others (seventeen of the total being young royal servants) were solemnly beatified in 1920. They were canonized in 1964.
When the White Fathers were expelled from the country, the new Christians carried on their work, translating and printing the catechism into their nativel language and giving secret instruction on the faith. Without priests, liturgy, and sacraments their faith, intelligence, courage, and wisdom kept the Catholic Church alive and growing in Uganda. When the White Fathers returned after King Mwanga's death, they found five hundred Christians and one thousand catchumens waiting for them.