The remarkable life of Father Ubald Rugirangoga, a renowned Catholic priest and genocide survivor from Rwanda recognized as a healer and “Apostle of Forgiveness,” was celebrated with a vigil and funeral Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City this week.
Citing the New Testament beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” the Rev. Peter Mangum, from Shreveport, Louisiana, admired his brother priest’s incredible capacity to forgive others and said the fruits of his 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, he received extreme grace in his life and therefore was able to forgive in extreme fashion,” Father Mangum said.
Leoncie Uwingabire, a native of Rwanda living in Utah, said Father Ubald is the “spiritual father of our nation that pulled our country out of genocide and gave us hope.”
Katsey Long, who acted as Father Ubald’s agent in America and a close friend, said people were drawn to his joyful nature and described him as “extraordinarily ordinary.”
“Most people walk into a room and adjust themselves to the temperature of the room,” Long said. “Father Ubald walked into the room and changed the temperature by his very presence.”
Father Ubald, as he was commonly known, died at the University of Utah Hospital on Jan. 7 of fibrotic lung disease as a result of having had COVID-19 last fall, according to his obituary. He was 64.
The Most Rev. Oscar Solis, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, presided at both services at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Tuesday and Wednesday, where less than 100 gathered and thousands more watched online. At the funeral, several Rwandans were seen wearing T-shirts that featured Father Ubald’s smiling face.
Father Ubald’s body will be transported back to Rwanda for burial and it is anticipated that many will pray for him to be declared a Catholic saint, Long said.
Father Ubald’s legacy
Between April and July 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered as Hutu extremists killed their Tutsis neighbors.
Father Ubald was among those who survived but lost 80 family members. As he grieved and prayed, he received divine guidance that the only way he and his people could heal was through forgiveness and reconciliation. It was a message the priest openly shared with thousands as he spoke to packed stadiums and visited genocide convicts in prison.
During one prison visit in 2005, a man admitted to killing Father Ubald’s mother and begged him for forgiveness. Although initially difficult, the priest embraced the man, then went on to mentor and help care for the man’s motherless children. His actions inspired countless others to do the same. His mission of peace and reconciliation became known worldwide and his work has been featured in a documentary, “Forgiveness: The Secret of Peace.”
Father Ubald efforts led to the establishment of the Center for the Secret of Peace in Rwanda.
“Father Ubald was a remarkable man and a remarkable priest,” Father Mangum said.
Father Ubald spoke on the topic of “Extreme Forgiveness” in a 2013 TEDx Talk in Jackson, Wyoming, and received a standing ovation.
“Forgiveness and reconciliation will be his greatest legacy, but also the fact that he was the spiritual father of a nation that came out of a horrible genocide,” Long said.
After participating in ministry events in Chicago and Green Bay, Wisconsin, last October, Father Ubald flew to Jackson, Wyoming. Long recalls him saying he felt tired and had a dry cough. About a week later he tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized in Jackson through the end of the month, she said.
On Oct. 30, the Rwandan Catholic priest was flown by helicopter to the University of Utah Hospital, where he eventually recovered from COVID-19 but suffered lung damage and other complications that resulted in his death.
Because he couldn’t have visitors in the COVID-19 unit, Long networked to find someone who could help take care of Father Ubald. Two Rwandan hospital employees with access and permission — James Mwizerwa and Leoncie Uwingabire — kindly responded. The duo were able to spend time with Father Ubald, speak to him in his native language and most importantly, pray with him.
“I continue to say that they were his angels,” Long said. “God had prepared them and brought them to a place so Father Ubald would have everything he needed when he was in the hospital.”
Mwizerwa and Uwingabire both considered it a tremendous blessing and spiritual experience to be with Father Ubald in his last days. Despite his suffering, he never complained. Knowing he is now in a good place gives them hope, they said.
“Just to pray and share some good words from the Bible,” Mwizerwa said, “brought hope not only to him but also to myself, because being with him was a big lesson for me.”
More than 350 Rwandan families in the Salt Lake area are mourning Father Ubald’s death, said Jean Claude Kamali, a leader in Utah’s Rwandan community. Regardless of religion, every Rwandan was familiar with Father Ubald and his work, said Kamali, who isn’t a Catholic and never personally met the priest.
“The Rwandan community will miss him so much, also the entire world for what he has done,” Kamali said. “His work will remain in our hearts forever. We will remember him forever. It is our time to continue his mission and continue what he started.”
‘We all loved Father Ubald’
The Rev. Michael Grzesik, a priest from the Archdiocese of Chicago, was a friend of Father Ubald for four years. His voice wavered with emotion during his remarks at the funeral Wednesday.
“One of the hardest things to do as a priest is to preach at someone’s funeral that you loved,” Father Grzesik said. “But there are so many people that loved Father Ubald as much as I do. ... We all loved Father Ubald from the bottom of our hearts.”
During the vigil Tuesday evening, several people lined up to share experiences of how Father Ubald touched their lives. Many spoke of his joyful personality, his caring nature and his healing impact worldwide.
“He attracted people to himself but more so to God,” Father Mangum said.
Anne Trufant said Father Ubald “lived through hell but brought heaven” to people’s 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 Father Ubald.”
Cora Ligori said she met Father Ubald during one of his first trips to Jackson, Wyoming, in 2010. At the time, she was unable to have children. She felt drawn to attend a healing service where Father Ubald promised her that if she would have hope, faith and patience, she would be blessed with children. Ligori and her husband Jim accepted the promise and discontinued fertility treatments. In the following years she had three children.
“Personally he showed me how trusting in God fully brings peace and freedom,” she said.
Could Father Ubald be declared a saint?
Father Mangum recently assisted in starting the process of canonization for five priests who died in the yellow fever of 1873. It can take up to several years to initiate and involves researching every aspect of a person’s life. Father Mangum said sainthood is certainly possible for Father Ubald.
“His life and message were so extraordinary,” Father Mangum said. “I think it is very likely that Father Ubald will be considered a servant of God and that they will initiate a cause for beatification and canonization.”
The first level of the process is to be found worthy as a “servant of God.”
The second level involves using documents and testimonies to show the candidate lived heroic virtues. When approved, the candidate is deemed “venerable.”
If evidence of a first miracle is investigated and verified, the candidate is declared “blessed.”
When a second miracle is confirmed, the candidate is named a saint and canonized by the Pope.
Long could make a case for Father Ubald’s sainthood. He was gifted. Miracles followed him everywhere. He was kind to people of all social classes and circumstances, among many other things.
“I would say if he’s not a saint, nobody should be. There’s no hope for any of us if he’s not a saint,” Long said with a laugh. “Being a saint means you’re living in heaven and that there’s still miracles attributed to people praying for your intercession.”
A prayer asking for Father Ubald’s intercession has already been created, translated into four languages and printed on a prayer card with the hope of soliciting prayers for his intercession. In the near future, a website will allow people to share miracles involving Father Ubald — “If your prayers were answered in some way, please give your witness here,” Long said.
People are already reaching out. Just this week a stranger emailed Long saying they saw a tribute to the beloved deceased priest. The person began researching Father Ubald online and reading his book.
“They said, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t know him in this life, but I want to help get his message out there,’” Long said.
Now the person wants to be involved in his ministry.