Rugambwa, Laurean 1912–1997

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Laurean Rugambwa 19121997


Education of a Tribal Prince

First African Cardinal

Historic Career


From a mud hut in tribal Africa to a position as the first black cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church is hardly a routine life, and yet it was one Laurean Rugambwa was perfectly suited for. When he was elevated to the Sacred College of Cardinals in 1960, the first African black in the European-dominated Catholic Church knew the necessity of cooperation and with that in mind preached ecumenism, or collaboration with other Christian dominations. We must be open-minded, he was quoted as saying in the New York Times In the missions, where separation is a fact of everyday life, we have to be ready to cooperate with non-Catholics in all possible ways. It was a mindset that did not waver until his death in 1997.

Born July 12, 1912 in a mud hut near the Lake Victoria port town of Bukoba in what was then Tanganyika in East Africa, Rugambwa was the eldest son of Domitian and his wife Asteria. Members of a noble family from the Nsiba tribe, Domitian was a musita, a member of the clan who had the honor of supplying chiefs for the Kihanja District of Tanganyika. At the time of Rugamb-was birth the family followed no religious doctrine. In 1920 the family joined the Roman Catholic Church and Laurean, at age eight, was singled out by the French-founded White Father missionary order as a prospective member of the native clergy.

Education of a Tribal Prince

Under the tutelage of the fathers, Rugambwa was educated in the local schools of Mugana and then the junior seminary of Rubya. This was followed by the senior seminary at Katigando in Uganda where he was taught Latin and in 1943, ordained a priest. For the next five years Rugambwa served as the assistant pastor at the Rubya mission. He then went on to study canon law at the Gregorian University in Rome where he learned Italian, French, and German, adding to his fluency in Swahili, Luganda, English, and Latin. His doctoral thesis at the university focused on social and educational work in East Africa.

In 1951 Rugambwa returned to his native country and was named the first bishop of the new diocese of Rutabo in Tanganyika, becoming the youngest of the then 25 black bishops in Africa. Six years later Rugambwa made

At a Glance

Born Laurean Rugambwa July 12, 1912 in Bukoba in what was then Tanganyika in East Africa, to Domitian, a musita of the Nsibatribe and his wife Asteria. Education: KatigandoSem. in Uganda; Cregorian Univ. in Rome. Died December 8, 1997 in Dar-es-Salaaam.

Career: Bishop, cardinal, and archbishop. Joined the Roman Catholic Church at the age of eight, 1920; became titular bishop, 1951; became Bishop of Tutabo; became Bishop of Bukova, 1960; elevated to the Sacred College of Cardinals, 1960; became Archbishop of Dares-Salaam, 1968.

his first visit to the United States on a fundraising mission for his diocese. One person who met the bishop recounted to Newsweek in 1960 that Rugambwa was fond of children, made friends easily, and was disappointed with the holier-than-thou attitude of well-off American Negroes toward their poorer fellows. Years later it also became known that Rugambwa was a victim of racism while on this trip. In 1966 the Vatican weekly, LOsservatore Della Domenica, reported that Rugambwa was refused a haircut in a New York City barber shop because of his color. Here we cut only white mens hair, the barber told him and the report went on to say that Rugambwa recites a prayer every day for that New York barber.

First African Cardinal

Rugambwa made headlines in 1960 when he was elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope John XXIII, making him the first African cardinal. In a move which signified the growth of the clergy in the non-European world, Rugambwas historic appointment was also joined by the first Filipino cardinal and the first Japanese cardinal. In his address following the formal notice of his elevation, Rugambwa recognized the Popes confidence saying, the Church in Africa has reached a state of stability that justifies this important step. During the ceremony, many African seminarians expressed emotion upon seeing the many white prelates and nuns lining up before the new cardinal, kneeling and kissing his ring as they received his blessing. The Catholic Church uses her influence to establish this peace among men, he said in his address, for always does she see in them not persons belonging to different races and social conditions, but human beings created by the same God, Father of all.

Although the Catholic Church began to recognize the crucial role Africa would play in its future it was still unprepared for the sweeping reforms the new Pan-African secretariatof which Rugambwa was parthoped to put into practice. These changes included replacing Latin with vernacular rites and changing dates of some certain observed feasts to bring them into closer contact with those of local African custom. While Rugambwa received some criticism for missing many working sessions of the Pan-African secretariat, he drew praise for his sense of calm and silence, a virtue at least one observer felt came from Rugambwas role as a tribal aristocrat. He will sit through meetings for hours without saying a wordas do tribal chiefs, a white African prelate told Newsweek They never reveal their thoughts to anyone; its part of their power. Rugambwas tribal background has prepared him splendidly for the Roman Curia.

The year following his elevation to the College of Cardinals, Rugambwa made another visit to the United States where he was the first black cardinal to preside at solemn mass at St. Patricks Cathedral in New York City. The Rev. Bernard T. Donachie of the cathedral staff was quoted in the New York Times as saying the occasion was a living symbol of the universality of the Roman Catholic Church conforming to Christs command to his apostles to go into the world and preach to all nations. During his 20-day tour of the United States, Cardinal Rugambwa also visited Chicago, Washington, D.C., Boston, and received an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana.

Historic Career

In 1963 Cardinal Rugambwa appeared on a historic live television broadcast called The Christian Revolution, the second in a series titled Town Meeting of the World on CBS. It marked the first time a group of people were able to have a face-to-face discussion across the Atlantic Ocean using the Telstar satellite, then a brand-new technology. The five participants spoke from New Jersey, London and Rome. Two Protestants, one Greek Orthodox, and two Roman Catholics, including Cardinal Rugambwa in Rome, had an hour-long discussion about the modern-day church moderated by Eric Sevareid. Among the topics was the still-controversial issue of family planning of which Rugambwa said the problem was very important, not only here in Europe or America, but everywhere, adding, we are dealing with it in the Ecumenical Council.

In 1968 Cardinal Rugambwa was made Archbishop of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania and held that position until 1990 when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 80. In 1996 he attended the 50th anniversary of Pope John Paul Hs ordination as a priest in Rome and died the following year in Dar-es-Salaam at the age of 85. In a message of condolence to Bishop Polycarp Pengo of Dar-es-Salaam, Pope John Paul II, described Cardinal Rugambwa as the first cardinal among all Africas children and a close colleague of myself and my predecessors. At the time of his death Africa boasted eleven cardinals and the number of Catholics in Africa had risen from 25 million to 100 million during the years Rugambwa sat as cardinal. The numbers are testimony to Rugambwas efforts to involve everyday people in the work of the church. The church is not a museum nor an archive, he was quoted as saying in his New York Times obituary, but a teacher of life.


Jet, January 12, 1998, p. 55.

New York Times, March 4, 1960, pp. A1, A3; March 29, 1960, p. A1; May 24, 1961, p. A9; May 29, 1961, p. A22; October 29, 1962, p. A12; October 16, 1963, p. A29; September 30, 1966; December 11, 1997, p. A21.

Newsweek, March 14, 1960, p. 94; November 19, 1962, p. 104.

Time, March 14, 1960, p. 48.

Brian Escamilla