Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga, the renowned Catholic priest from the east African nation of Rwanda, and self-described Catholic Evangelist and Apostle of Forgiveness, passed away at 11:17pm MST on January 7, 2021, at the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City, UT. Fr. Ubald died of fibrotic lung disease as a result of having had, but having also cleared COVID-19, the devastating virus at the heart of the pandemic that has impacted millions of people worldwide. Fr. Ubald first developed Covid symptoms in mid-October, 2020, in Jackson, WY, and was hospitalized for a week. On October 30, 2020 he was flown by MedEvac to Salt Lake City where he spent 10 weeks in ICU before succumbing to respiratory failure at age 64.
Fr. Ubald’s incredible life was a study in contrast between humanity’s worst acts of evil and God’s transcendent love. At the time of his birth in 1956, specific birthdates were not registered on birth certificates in the small village of Nyagatongo in the Western Province, so Fr. Ubald took as his birthdate May 16th, the Feast Day of his namesake St. Ubald of Gubbio, Italy, who is also known for gifts of healing and peacemaking. Ubald Rugirangoga was the eldest of four children born to Anesie Mukarahamya and Jacques Kabera, both of whom were Tutsis, Rwanda’s minority ethnic group. For years, Rwanda was racked by vicious tribal tensions between the Tutsi, which comprised 15% of the country’s population, and the Hutu, which accounted for the remaining 85%. Often, this conflict erupted in brutal violence, as Ubald experienced as a small boy when his father was senselessly murdered at the hands of Hutu members of their village. Tragically, the pain and loss that Ubald’s family suffered that day would be amplified exponentially for them and countless others in the years to come.
The ethnic hatred and persecution that most Tutsis endured forced Ubald and his brother to flee Rwanda in 1973 when he was 17 years old and studying in minor seminary. Convinced God had called him to preach love in his beleaguered country, Ubald returned to Rwanda in 1978 to finish his studies for the priesthood, and in 1984 he was ordained a priest at age 28. In his early priestly ministry, during an outbreak of cholera in his area with many resultant deaths, he gathered a small group of Christians to begin praying for healing. After one month the epidemic ceased, but he and his small group continued to pray with people for healing. Many people were healed through his prayers. Several years later he received a knowledge gift in which God told him what was being healed. Through the mercy of Jesus, and Fr. Ubald's healing charism of the Holy Spirit, countless people have been healed physically, emotionally and spiritually over the past 35 years.
Assigned by the Bishop to the Nymasheke Parish, a thriving, rural parish made up of thousands of faithful Hutu and Tutsi parishioners, Fr. Ubald preached love and unity for ten fruitful years, right up until the spring of ’94 when Rwanda’s frightful ethnic strife exploded into genocide. Between April and July of that year, Rwanda’s Hutu majority slaughtered upwards of one million Tutsi men, women and children, including Fr. Ubald’s mother and 80 other members of his tight-knit family. Once the killing began, as many as 45,000 Tutsi of many faiths sought sanctuary under Fr. Ubald on church grounds, hoping to escape death at the hands of their once-peaceful Hutu neighbors. As parish priest and a village leader, Fr. Ubald stood up against the Hutu extremists, but by doing so—and because he was a Tutsi—he was targeted for death.
Fr. Ubald then faced a terrible choice: either flee the village to avoid execution and expose the 45,000 Tutsis he was protecting to possible harm; or else stay, knowing that as a high-priority target himself, his presence put everyone else’s safety at risk. Urged by his Catholic superiors to leave, Fr. Ubald finally agreed to do so only after their village’s mayor vowed to safeguard the thousands of frightened Tutsis sheltering inside the church compound. Using the car loaned to him by his Bishop, he drove to the Bishop’s residence, praying constantly for the safety of his Tutsi parishioners. He arrived safely at the Bishop’s house, but three days later the killing began and the 45,000 Tutsis at his church were slaughtered by Hutu executioners, many of whom had lived and worshiped alongside their Tutsi victims. He then received a call from another priest informing him that a mob was coming to the Bishop’s residence to kill him, too.
Overcome by the devastating loss of his friends and parishioners, Fr. Ubald was determined to return to his village church, despite knowing that decision would lead to certain death. But while deep in anguished prayer as he prepared to leave, Fr. Ubald heard God’s voice telling him not to go back, that his life had another purpose. Fr. Ubald made his way on foot in the cover of night to neighboring Congo, where he joined hundreds of thousands of Tutsi refugees who had fled their homes to escape certain death at the hands of homicidal Hutus.
Fr. Ubald felt crushed by the weight of his unbearable anguish, believing he had failed to teach his people how to love, which would have saved his parishioners. He made his way to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. With tears flowing, he sought solace in the healing waters of St. Bernadette’s holy baths and prayed for a sign of God’s plan for him. Then, with sudden clarity, Fr. Ubald heard the voice of Jesus, who told him, “Ubald, pick up your cross.” At that moment, Fr. Ubald felt his spiritual wounds begin to heal as his anger and grief melted away, and in their place, he was filled with compassion for the very people who had brought him so much pain.
Thus did God reveal His divine mission for Fr. Ubald: to teach his fellow Rwandans that the secret to peace was through absolution and reconciliation, to ‘forgive those who trespass against us’ as we ask ’forgive us our trespasses’, in return.
In the two decades following his divine revelation at Lourdes, Fr. Ubald preached forgiveness to literally hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen—genocide victims and perpetrators, alike—with the message that healing of inner wounds is indeed possible. While preaching at a prison, the man responsible for the death of Fr. Ubald’s mother identified himself and asked for forgiveness. In Jesus’ name, Fr. Ubald embraced the man and prayed that they both would find forgiveness and be God’s instruments of peace. As difficult as that gesture was for him, Fr. Ubald went even further by adopting the man’s young children, whose mother had died, and providing them with tuition, medical care and a nurturing environment for their school holidays. Today those children are adults, one of whom is married, and the other recently completed medical school.
For most Rwandans who survived the genocide, Fr. Ubald’s miraculous act of mercy was unimaginable. So to help others achieve such miracles for themselves, he created the Mushaka Peace and Reconciliation Program to carefully prepare courageous victims and perpetrators to come together in forgiveness and rebuild the social fabric of their broken nation. Today, the Mushaka model is used around the world to teach adversaries how to overcome their differences through personal acts of absolution and reconciliation.
Fr. Ubald helped create other instruments of faith as well. With Sister Donata Uwimanimpaye, he founded the Missionaries of Peace of Christ the King, an order of brothers and sisters focused on peacebuilding through various initiatives including education, schools, parish missions and large evangelizations. He regularly traveled the country to pray with Rwanda’s poor and prominent alike, and tens of thousands of Rwandans would flock to his healing Masses which overflowed large stadiums, where he would remind them again and again, “Jesus is alive” and “forgiveness makes you free”.
Over the years, devout believers were drawn to Fr. Ubald’s message of healing and often asked him to pray for God’s divine intervention on their behalf or for their loved ones. Because Fr. Ubald’s faith was so strong, countless persons actually experienced miracles of healing of all kinds, especially that of their souls, through the pious prayers of that blessed man.
In February 2009, Fr. Ubald was invited to visit the USA by Immaculee Ilibagiza, another genocide survivor. During that trip, he stopped in Jackson, Wyoming where he met Katsey Long, who became his American coordinator in a ministry of evangelization, healing, and preaching on forgiveness that over a decade spanned across the US into 22 states and Washington, D.C. In particular, his ministry in Chicago bore wonderful fruit, with many miraculous healings reported. While Jackson, Wyoming became his home away from home, parishes and families across the country welcomed him into their hearts and homes as he shared his compelling message.
Bishop David Ricken of the Diocese of Green Bay invited Fr. Ubald to travel with him, praying for healing throughout the Diocese. But it was the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wisconsin, where Fr. Ubald felt most called to share his healing ministry. Thousands of people would come from across the nation when he celebrated Mass there. He said, “Jesus heals at every Mass, but when He is there with His mother, it is like it is raining miracles”.
As his reputation in America grew, Fr. Ubald was a frequent guest on Relevant Radio, praying for listeners all over the world. He appeared on EWTN and developed an internet presence on Facebook, praying the Rosary and preaching. Fr. Ubald gave a TED Talk, and was the subject of an award-winning documentary film. His autobiography was also published, all in the service of retelling the incredible story of his life-changing journey from the darkest depths of evil to the very heart of God.
Perhaps Fr. Ubald’s most lasting achievement was, with the generosity of supporters around the world, the purchase of a pastoral parcel of land on the shores of Rwanda’s Lake Kivu, on which he built The Center For The Secret Of Peace, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting pathways to forgiveness in Rwanda and beyond. Founded with the indispensable assistance of Fr. Ubald’s friend and ‘partner in peace', Katsey Long, of Jackson, WY, the Center’s hallowed message of forgiveness is relayed through workshops, lectures, videos, publications and a website designed to help guide Rwandans and others from conflict to reconciliation.
Given the gravity of his personal experiences, Fr. Ubald was very serious about his mission, but he was also utterly joyful and filled with gratitude, with a megawatt smile and infectious laugh. He had a strong and sonorous voice and expressive eyes which sparkled when he pronounced, “We will make joy!”; a commandment, not a suggestion. He found great amusement in bouncing down rutted Rwandan backroads with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake, shouting, “Enjoy African massage!” as his hapless passengers flailed helplessly and prayed for a quick arrival at their destination. Fr. Ubald enjoyed the adventures of life, “making sport” with friends in outdoor activities and sharing communal meals.
Fr. Ubald leaned into what he feared—a lesson in survival he learned as a child—but he never feared the truth and he never gave up hope. Unable to leave the US due to the pandemic, he lamented being kept away from his beloved homeland but remained a paragon of patience and strength, which served as a balm to his American friends. While Covid raged and the national elections turned contentious, Fr. Ubald prayed for the U.S. every day, and he kept saying those daily prayers after he fell ill. Even on his last full day on earth, he prayed for the growing number of Covid victims and for the United States, in the midst of post-election discord. He warned that the US must not go the way of violence, which is the way of genocide, for “where America goes, so goes the world”. Fr. Ubald died peacefully the following day.
This remarkable man leaves an enduring legacy of love and peace in the ongoing missions of The Center for the Secret of Peace and the Missionaries of Peace of Christ the King in Rwanda, and in the countless hearts, minds and souls of the people from around the world whom he loved, served and was loved by in return. To be in friendship with Fr. Ubald was a truly life-changing experience, and his spirit lives on in every person who was blessed to be under his saintly influence. Above all, Fr. Ubald maintained a sacred and ever-deepening relationship with Jesus, his Savior, and Mary, the Blessed Mother of God, and the Holy Spirit, which filled him with light and wisdom. Fr. Ubald was truly blessed.
Fr. Ubald’s surviving family members includes his brother, Reverian Rugwizangoga, and sister, Pascasie Nyampundu, their spouses, his nieces and cousins, his adopted children, many friends, coworkers, his fellow clergy, and his beloved people of Rwanda. He also leaves behind tens of thousands of people who have heard his message of forgiveness and who will continue his work to bring peace to themselves and their families, communities, and nations. Fr. Ubald’s bodily remains will be returned to his people in Rwanda, where he will be interred at The Center for the Secret of Peace.
Fr. Ubald+, Pray for Us! His greatest work is yet to come through the legacy he has left for us to carry on.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a tax-deductible donation to The Center of the Secret of Peace, (a US 501(3)(c) nonprofit) c/o Katsey Long, PO Box 4992, Jackson, WY, 83001. All monies donated will continue the support of The Center of the Secret of Peace in Rwanda, and Fr. Ubald’s ongoing work and ministry in forgiveness and reconciliation around the world.
A vigil will be held at 7:00 PM MST on Tuesday, January 26, 2021 at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, 331 East South Temple, Salt Lake City Utah. Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 12:30 PM MST on Wednesday, January 27, 2021, also at the Cathedral of the Madeleine. Reservations are unnecessary as seating is first come first served and COVID capacity restrictions will be observed. Kindly wear a face covering. For those unable to attend, please use the “Watch Service” button above to join the vigil and the mass virtually. Services will remain viewable on Starks Funeral Parlor website thereafter.