St. Cletus’ anniversary spirit aids Ugandan orphanage
Helping strangers a continent away is how parishioners of St. Cletus Church in Gretna continue to celebrate their 50th anniversary.
Father Tuan Anh Pham said a parishioner brought the idea of adopting the Mama and ChildAttention International Orphanage in Uganda to a parish council meeting, and the parish agreed to take a second collection monthly at Mass through April 2016 for the orphanage and to fund drilling a hole for a community water well in Mpigi, Uganda. St. Cletus School also will adopt a child.
“It is an opportunity for parishioners to give back to God for all the blessings he has given us in our parish over the past 50 years,” Father Pham said.
Parishioners learned of the orphanage over Mother’s Day weekend when married couple Michael Masembe, 49, and his wife, Juliet, 46, who run the orphanage, traveled to America to speak during Mass. The Masembes also distributed brochures, visited students at the school and spoke at a parent club meeting.
The St. Cletus family was touched by the Masembes’ stories about the children in their care and generously donated $7,400 (including $1,000 from the St. Joseph Altar Society and $500 from an anonymous individual).
“I am very impressed and touched by how people have responded. They got the message,” Father Pham said.
“It’s like a dream that we are here, and we don’t want to wake up,” Michael Masembe said.
Mission beyond children
The orphanage is different, in a sense, from what Americans typically imagine. Life is basic; and needs are many. Electricity runs only one hour daily, thanks to a small solar panel; the nearest place to buy food is in Kampala 24 miles away; and there is no running water.
Children often suffer from dysentery due to not having fresh water and frequently go to the hospital.
The Masembes currently depend on rain harvested from a cistern that is boiled to rid it of bacteria for drinking water and cooking.
“The need for clean water is very important,” Michael said. “The children wouldn’t have to walk so far if we had one (a well). They will get a chance at clean water, and we will be able to plant trees. This source of water will give life to the community.”
Michael and Juliet Masembe use inventive ways to care for the 54 children, between the ages of 2-14, they house. Juliet handles the day-to-day orphanage operations, scrambling to stretch available food to feed children one hot meal a day.
When more space was required to house additional abandoned children, Michael made bricks from clay. He sold half to hire laborers who used the remaining bricks to build separate dormitories for boys and girls.
“We are looking at expanding or at least putting up bunk beds in the dorms,” Michael said. “We need mosquito nets to protect children from malaria (transmitted by mosquitos).”
The Masembes’ desires don’t include a new house, but simply shoes for the children, blankets, cows, pigs and even a used van to cart food and supplies and drive to a hospital when necessary. They also hope to teach skills to young mothers – many who have dropped out of school – to earn money for their family. Sewing will be the first vocation taught, Michael Masembe said.
How the Masembes decided to open their home in Mpigi – already crowded with six of their own children – 13-year-old twins to age 28 – one only need to look at Michael’s journey. At the height of the Ugandan civil war in the late 1970s, Michael’s family was separated. At approximately age 8, he went into hiding with other boys who had a protector that provided food. Michael said he trained himself to sleep without a blanket under a tree and eat only one meal daily. When their protector could no longer help for fear of execution, he told them to “Go, but never forget that God is good.”
After the war, Michael stumbled into an Anglican church that served as a refuge for women and children. It was there he began learning about God.
He eventually found his way home to rejoin family, but things were never the same. The tumultuous experience and the oppression under Ugandan President Idi Amin resulted in familial strains, he said.
“We lost our conversations, our eating habits. Things never worked out for us as a family,” he said.
He hadn’t forgotten his protector’s words about God and, as a teenager, began preaching on the streets of Kampala, Uganda’s capital. A missionary heard Michael preach and invited him home and gave him blankets and food to distribute to his followers.
“He trusted me and saw me faithfully doing this,” Michael said.
Once relief organizations came to Uganda to help the country rebuild after the war, Michael joined Childcare Worldwide Ministries where he worked for 18 years, retiring as director of operations in Uganda.
“I thought I saw myself in those children,” Michael said. “The more I helped, the more children came out.”
He met his wife through the Anglican Church, attending a fellowship at her home. After they married and had children, there was no question they would care for children in need.
“I pick up children and bring them home, and never once has Juliet said no,” Michael said. Prayers are part of their daily life.
Michael’s pension from Childcare Worldwide Ministries primarily funds the orphanage, but money was running out before St. Cletus stepped in.
“We were on the verge of releasing some children from our care at the orphanage because of no money, and God sent St. Cletus to help us.”
Throughout the drive, Michael plans to send the parish monthly stories of children at the orphanage. St. Cletus’ donations will be safely wire-transferred to the Diocese of Kampala for the Masembes through the archdiocesan Society for the Propagation of the Faith office.
After their visit in New Orleans, the Masembes returned home with suitcases full of shoes (mostly flip flops) for the children, soccer and other balls, and an inflatable swimming pool that will be used once the water well is built.
“This is a blessing,” Michael Masembe said of the partnership with St. Cletus.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.