By Father Bill Pomerleau

Pastor, Our Lady of Sacred Heart Parish in Springfield

Editor’s note: Fr. Bill Pomerleau was recently on a “working vacation” in East Africa, where he is reporting on places and people with ties to the Diocese of Springfield.

Stability returns to Kenya’s Rift Valley

ELDORET, Kenya– Friday, June 24

Most Americans, if they have heard of Eldoret at all, know it as the training center for the long-distance Kenyan runners who frequently win the Boston Marathon and other major road races.

That is fine with local Catholics here, who hope to put Eldoret’s other recent place in the news behind them.

In January 2008, city was the scene of major ethnic tensions following a disputed presidential and parliamentary election.  Provoked by local politicians exploiting long-simmering tensions, some member of majority Kalejin ethnic groups attacked the city’s Kikuyus, who are Kenya’s largest ethnic group but a minority here.

Unlike inRwandain 1994, when some Hutu clergy actively participated in the ethnic genocide against their Tutsi parishioners, the predominantly Kalenjin priests and bishop here quickly mobilized to protect and aid their fellow citizens.

“At one point there might have been 8,000 people here,” said Eldoret Bishop  Cornelius Arap Korir, giving me a tour of the walled cathedral and chancery compound that seemed smaller than the campus of Springfield’s Cathedral High School.

“Our chapel became a dispensary which treated 200 people a day,” he noted.

Thanks to quick relief supplies from Kenyan and international aid organizations, the Eldoret Diocese was able to shelter diplaced Kikuyus, and prevent a re-occurrence of what happened in an Assemblies of God church in town, where 30 people were burned alive in ethnic violence.

Yet lower-level violence in the form of ordinary street crime, and crimes which may have their origins in local politics, continue to haunt this part ofKenya’s Rift Valley region.

Bishp Korir

The bishop and I discussed the unsolved 2006 murder of Father Jude Kibor, who was a graduate student at Springfield College and helped with sacramental ministry in the Diocese of Springfield from 1990 to 1992.

In a 1991 interview with The Catholic Observer, Father Kibor said that unlike Uganda, Ethiopia and Somalia, Kenya was largely free of famine and bloody tribal conflict. But he warned that foreign debt, poor harvests and international trade developments were hurting his nation’s economy.

After returning fromSpringfield, Father Kibor served in several parishes befor becoming the chaplain at Eldoret’s prison. His death occurred in an ambush on a rural road outside the city after receiving a supposed request to anoint a dying man,

Some former parishioners of the priest told me at the time that he was killed by those upset that he was preaching against government corruption.

Bishop Korir was more cautious in opinion about the murder. 

“It could have been a personal dispute about property Father owned, or it could have been arranged by a prisoner who had become his enemy.  Whenever he met with me, he would always say exactly what he thought,” the bishop said cautiously.

Downtown Eldoret

“I keep asking the authorities if they have new information about the crime, but they tell me there is no new information,” the bishop said.

2006 to 2008 was a particularly difficult period for the Kenyan church, with various priests and a bishop killed in murky circumstances.

Bishop Korir told me that most of the murdered priests were probably victims of street crime, but his fellow Bishop, Luigi Locati of the Isiolo Diocese was probably murdered by one of his own priests.

“The priest was a convert from Islam before he was ordained. Maybe he was still an angry Muslim in his heart,” the bishop said with a sigh.

Eldoret violence

But the church in Eldoret seems not only to have survived, but grown in recent years,

The grounds of Sacred Heart Cathedral, a modern structure designed by an Irish architect in 1968, are pleasant and peaceful. The bishops showed me the daily Mass chapel, which is being converted into an adoration chapel.

“Too many people come to daily Mass now. We have to have the liturgy in the main cathedral,” Bishop Korir explained.