Catholic heritage sites Francis won’t see


For more than 100 years, the Catholic Church in Kenya has grown from a few Goan faithful in Mombasa into a religion with millions of followers.

But during Pope Francis’ visit, as part of his premier African tour, he will not have a chance to sample some of the heritage sites that are associated with the Catholic Church.

We sample some of the main sites and their significance to the church and Kenya’s history.

Vasco da Gama Pillar and Chapel, Malindi: This is the oldest known symbol of Christianity in Kenya.

Erected by the Portuguese explorer on his way back from Goa in 1498, the pillar is a national monument.

Besides this monument, there is the old Portuguese chapel in Malindi, built in the 15th Century.

The small cemetery is where St Francis Xavier buried two of his sailors during his 1542 voyage.

Mombasa Mission: The first tentative step towards establishing a mission in Mombasa was taken by Monsignor de Courmont, who sent Father Alexander Le Roy there on an exploratory expedition in 1885.

It was opened in 1889 by Fr Le Roy.

He found about 50 Catholics in the town, mostly Goans, Malabars and Bangalores, who were employees of the Imperial British East Africa Company.

He built a church at the site of the present Ambalal House, then the oldest in Kenya.

Bura Mission: Set up by the Holy Ghost fathers in 1891, this was the first inland Catholic mission in Kenya.


The church that stands at the site was opened on September 30, 1896.

More than 120 years later, it still stands as the oldest Catholic church in Kenya.

It was here that the Catholic fathers first experimented with coffee, which was to turn into a leading cash crop in Kenya.

St Austin’s in Nairobi: The church followed the railway into the interior by setting up base at St Austin in Nairobi.

Founded in August 1899, the same year the railway reached Nairobi, this mission was supposed to oversee the expansion of the Catholic faith into Kikuyuland.

It also started training locals in carpentry.

The rise of this mission is credited to three French Holy Ghost Missionaries: Bishop Emile Allgeyer, Father Alain Hemery and Brother Blanchard Dillenseger.

It was these three fathers who acquired the site where the present Holy Family Basilica stands.

From here, the Holy Ghost Missionaries managed the archdioceses of Nairobi, Mombasa and that of Machakos.

Tuthu Mission: In 1902, the Catholic Consolata fathers were invited to Tuthu, on the slopes of the Aberdares, by local chief Karuri wa Gakure — one of the first converts in central Kenya.

Although he was the first to be baptised, some locals kept away from mass baptism after a rumour that one was put into a drum full of water and left there overnight.

It was said if you survive, you are baptised.

The man who led this mission was Father Thomas Gays, assisted by Father Phillipo Perlo.

They conducted their first official Mass in Tuthu on June 29, 1902.


From here, Fr Gays planned the expansion to Nyeri’s Tetu region, where they had been warned that they would meet hostile Kikuyus.

On October 2, 1902, the Tetu Catholic Parish was started.

Kabaa Mission: This is an important site because it displays the resilience of founders.

Concerned that they could not achieve much with no literate followers, the missionaries decided to set up a school here.

By: then, the missionaries at Kilungu, led by Father Michael Joseph Witte, were running a central school for catechists.

It was this Kabaa School, built by pioneer students, which would later be transferred to Mangu and is today Mangu High School.

It trained many administrative pioneers in Kenya, including former President Mwai Kibaki. It was then named Holy Ghost College, Mangu.

Catholic University of East Africa: This institution was opened on August 18, 1985, by Pope John Paul II during his Kenyan visit.

Then known as the Catholic Higher Institute of Eastern Africa, it was allowed by the Vatican to offer a two-year theological course and has been credited for training many church leaders in the region.

Our Lady of Consolata Cathedral, Nyeri: This is where the first African archbishop of the Catholic Church, Nicodemus Kirima, is buried.

He was elevated to this position by Pope John Paul II. It is also the place where the remains of Sister Irene Nyaatha, who was beatified last year, are preserved.