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Priest who forgave the killing of his family in Rwanda dies at 64


Mike Labrum | Unsplash CC0

John Burger - published on 01/30/21

Genocide led Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga to begin ministry of forgiveness.

Extreme horror requires extreme forgiveness, Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga once said. He should know.

Fr. Ubald, as he was commonly called, experienced extreme horror firsthand, in his native Rwanda. During the 1994 genocide carried out by the Hutu people against the Tutsi, his own mother and 80 members of his family were slaughtered.

But it was Fr. Ubald’s conviction that forgiveness leads to freedom. 

“If you don’t forgive,” he said in a TED talk, “you die. When you don’t forgive, you have a great weight to carry.”

Fr. Rugirangoga, who forgave those who killed his family members, took his message far beyond Rwanda, preaching the power of forgiveness in retreats and conferences worldwide. His ministry came to an end January 7, when he died at the University of Utah Hospital. The cause was fibrotic lung disease as a result of having had COVID-19 last fall, according to his obituary. He was 64.

Bishop Oscar A. Solis of Salt Lake City presided at a funeral for Fr. Ubald at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Wednesday. 

In a vigil service the previous evening, Fr. Peter Mangum, a priest of the Diocese of Shreveport, Louisiana, said the fruits of Fr. Ubald’s service would be felt for generations.

“His ability to forgive the person who killed his mother and 80 other family members, and not just forgive, but then take care of the children of [the man who killed his mother], he received extreme grace in his life and therefore was able to forgive in extreme fashion,” Fr. Mangum said, according to a report in the Deseret News.

The vigil also provided a platform for people to share experiences of how Fr. Ubald touched their lives. Pastor Ray McDaniel of First Baptist Church in Jackson, Wyoming, said members of his congregation “didn’t know what loving forgiveness was until they saw it embodied in Fr. Ubald.”

Harrowing experience

Ubald Rugirangoga was born in the small village of Nyagatongo in the Western Province of Rwanda in 1956. At that time, specific birth dates were not registered on birth certificates. Later, he chose May 16 as his birth date, as it was the feast day of his namesake, St. Ubald of Gubbio, a saint known for gifts of healing and peacemaking.

Ubald was the eldest of four children born to Anesie Mukarahamya and Jacques Kabera, both of whom were Tutsis, Rwanda’s minority ethnic group. According to his obituary, Rwanda for years was plagued by tribal tensions between the Tutsi and the Hutu.

Often, this conflict erupted into brutal violence, as Ubald experienced as a small boy when his father was murdered at the hands of Hutu members of their village. Ubald and his brother fled Rwanda in 1973 but, convinced God had called him to preach love in his native land, he returned in 1978 to finish studies for the priesthood. He was ordained a priest in 1984.

During a deadly outbreak of cholera in his area, Fr. Ubald gathered a small group of Christians to pray for healing. The epidemic ceased after a month, but Fr. Ubald and his small group continued to pray with people for healing. Many people reportedly were healed through his prayers — the beginning of a healing ministry that lasted for the next 35 years.

“Assigned by the bishop to the Nymasheke Parish, a thriving, rural parish made up of thousands of faithful Hutu and Tutsi parishioners, Fr. Ubald preached love and unity for 10 fruitful years, right up until the spring of ’94 when Rwanda’s frightful ethnic strife exploded into genocide,” his obituary said. “Between April and July of that year, Rwanda’s Hutu majority slaughtered upwards of one million Tutsi men, women and children.”

That included Fr. Ubald’s mother and many family members.

“Once the killing began, as many as 45,000 Tutsi of many faiths sought sanctuary under Fr. Ubald on church grounds, hoping to escape death at the hands of their once-peaceful Hutu neighbors,” the obituary continued. “As parish priest and a village leader, Fr. Ubald stood up against the Hutu extremists, but by doing so — and because he was a Tutsi — he was targeted for death.”

Fr. Ubald then faced a terrible choice: either flee the village to avoid execution and expose the 45,000 Tutsis he was protecting to possible harm; or else stay, knowing that as a high-priority target himself, his presence put everyone else’s safety at risk. Urged by his Catholic superiors to leave, Fr. Ubald finally agreed to do so only after their village’s mayor vowed to safeguard the thousands of frightened Tutsis sheltering inside the church compound. Using the car loaned to him by his bishop, he drove to the bishop’s residence, praying constantly for the safety of his Tutsi parishioners. He arrived safely at the bishop’s house, but three days later the killing began, and the 45,000 Tutsis at his church were slaughtered by Hutu executioners, many of whom had lived and worshiped alongside their Tutsi victims. He then received a call from another priest informing him that a mob was coming to the bishop’s residence to kill him, too.

Face to face

Fr. Ubald escaped to neighboring Congo, and then to France. While at Lourdes, he felt a calling to begin a ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Later, while preaching at a prison, the man responsible for the death of Fr. Ubald’s mother identified himself and asked for forgiveness.

“In Jesus’ name, Fr. Ubald embraced the man and prayed that they both would find forgiveness and be God’s instruments of peace,” the obituary said. “As difficult as that gesture was for him, Fr. Ubald went even further by adopting the man’s young children, whose mother had died, and providing them with tuition, medical care and a nurturing environment for their school holidays. Today those children are adults, one of whom is married, and the other recently completed medical school.”

The priest created the Mushaka Peace and Reconciliation Program to prepare victims and perpetrators to come together in forgiveness and rebuild the social fabric of their nation. With Sister Donata Uwimanimpaye, he also founded the Missionaries of Peace of Christ the King, an order of brothers and sisters focused on peace-building through various initiatives, including education, parish missions and evangelization.

In February 2009, Fr. Ubald was invited to visit the USA by Immaculee Ilibagiza, another genocide survivor and author of Left to Tell. He settled in Jackson, Wyoming. He also preached often at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wisconsin. Back home in Rwanda, on the shores of Lake Kivu, he built the Center For The Secret Of Peace, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting pathways to forgiveness in Rwanda and beyond.

His book, Forgiveness Makes You Free, was published in 2019.

Fr. Ubald’s body will be interred at The Center for the Secret of Peace in Rwanda.

Read more:
Twenty Years After Genocide, Church Helps Rwanda Heal


Read more:
An exorcist teaches 4 steps to forgive

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