The life of Fr. John Sweeney (MHM)
John Sweeney was born in Rutherford, Scotland, to Martin and Catherine Sweeney on 24th December 1930.
He had a sister, Roma, and a brother, Martin, who also became a Mill Hill Missionary. He was attracted to Mill Hill by the spirit among his brother's fellow students at Freshfield. During World War II some of them spent weekends at his home while they worked in the coal mines as "Bevin Boys."
"They talked endlessly about the [St. Joseph's Mill Hill] College and the staff. They were such a happy group that I felt a growing attraction to the mission life. ... they were certainly proud of Mill Hill and the red dash, that bond was already there, yet they were carefree and open, possibly sowing the seed of my vocation."
Sweeney was ordained in 1953 on 12th July during the closing of a vocation exhibition at Olympia Hall in London.
After his ordination in 1953, he spent three years at Glasgow University and then was appointed to Freshfield where he worked for nine years. When he was finally appointed to Uganda, after the drama of leaving home, the voyage to Mombasa was a pleasure, "a gradual introduction to the heat of East Africa and an introduction to colonial types." The rest of the traveling group were newly ordained.
Sweeney found the "sights, sounds and smells of the famous holiday resort of Mombasa were all fascinating, but the heat was the main factor, and we were all glad to board the evening train for Kampala."
The train was "punctual, the carriages clean, the beds spotless and the foods introduced us to such novelties as pawpaw for breakfast. At each stop our [travelling] band grew smaller and after three nights we arrived at Kampala, where Fr. Omtzigt was waiting to bring Fr. Joe McIntyre and myself to Bishop's House, Nsambya, a place steeped in Mill Hill lore."
John Sweeney taught at Namilyango in the early 1960s. "After some six weeks at Nawanyago to learn the [native] language and study the culture, I was appointed to Namilyango College."
His initial reaction to the College was, "bewilderment - how could a missionary country afford to have ten priests and two brothers in one college, when some out stations had Mass twice or three times a year? It was a most unequal division of labour, which I dared to bring to the notice of the Superior General, Fr. Gerald Mahon, but to no avail."
The number of priests on the staff steadily declined until he was the only one left, something Sweeney interpreted as "Providence at work."
The students of Namilyango had a special spirit, "friendly but frank." For example, one evening news came that one of the Asian students had drowned and so they expected a Mass and no recreation.
"The College chapel was packed, as Catholics, Muslims and Protestants came to pray for their dead friend. Unfortunately, this show of united respect was to weaken, as life became very cheap due to the endless political murders and the political and tribal divisions came to be reflected in the life of the College."
To keep contact with the world outside of Namilyango, Sweeney was happy to offer Mass in the condemned section of the Maximum-Security Prison in Kampala. There he "learned a lot." He found the prisoners we're prayerful community and firmly believed that every Tuesday when he came into their courtyard he had to be a better priest, "because they were praying for me. Their prayer power was further supported by a charismatic group that I had invited to join them in prayer. As we were going out afterwards, I overheard one charismatic saying to another, 'Why did Father invite us in here, they pray better than we do.'"
During Sweeney's time at Namilyango, the student population was almost equally divided between Catholics and Protestants, over forty per cent each, with the Muslims supplying a small percentage. They were all together for religion class, "where all discovered how much we held in common as regards the practice of religion in our daily life. There was no tension, no disagreement." When the Catholic Bishop, Rt. Rev. Fr. Joseph Mukwaya, came on his pastoral visitation, he met representatives of all the student groups. At the end of the day he pronounced clearly that the most impressive group were the Muslims. He thought that the relaxed inter-religious spirit among the students was not reflected among the parents, the former students and Uganda at large.
John Sweeney recalled those days of President Idi Amin:
"One afternoon as I was chatting with some students on my veranda at Namilyango College, a helicopter circled overhead and then landed on the basketball court in front of my house; out stepped the president himself, Amin, along with Bob Astles. Our students along with crowds of the [Namilyango Junior] primary school children were soon milling about him. There was the towering figure of Amin between the students and my little self at the other. I welcomed the president and offered to lead him to the Primary Boarding School, where he had two sons. President Amin declined but then asked some questions."
All went well until he observed that the "Mill Hill Fathers had a good reputation for discipline and he wanted more of them in his schools. Bob Astles added that the Mill Hill Fathers had a clear political record." Sweeney replied that it would be very difficult to bring more missionaries into Uganda as eight of them had their request for an extension of work permits rejected and would shortly have to leave Uganda. "Finally, Amin made two promises: The Mill Hillers would be granted their work permits; and since the College was short of salt and cooking oil, he would send some ... He fulfilled both promises."
Much later Fr. Sweeney was to spend a "lot of time with Bob Astles when he was detained in Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Kampala, and he talked a lot about Amin. In Astles view, Amin was subject to periods of mental disturbance, and, on top of that, he did consult with doctors, and then he could take up any plan of action at all. I met him on a good day and that is how I prefer to remember him."
Fr. Sweeney also remembers the confusion surrounding the work permits after the expulsion of Asians;
"After Amin had his dream and drove out all the Asians, the fear that the Europeans would be next was very real, especially when Amin called all missionary priests, brothers and sisters to register at the cathedral on Rubaga Hill. Archbishop Nsubuga went from group to group smiling and shaking hands, though I could not make up my mind whether he was trying to give us heart or saying bye-bye."
From that period two incidents stayed in Fr. Sweeney's thoughts:
"As I brought a patient to Nsambya Hospital late one evening, one nurse asked the other, 'Who is the European coming in?' and the reply was 'That is no European, that is Father.' A clear indication of our standing in the hearts of the people. Then at a party one evening I happened to be sitting beside a young diocesan priest, and asked him what he thought about the missionaries maybe having to go for good. He thought for a long moment, then said slowly, 'Till you go we will not assume our full responsibility, but I would hate to see any of you being hurt in the process.'"
Though there was a lot of tension during the Amin regime and the constant road blocks were often troublesome, there were, according to Sweeney, "some pleasant surprises." He met road blocks particularly going to offer Mass in the village on Sundays. Besides some "purposeless questions and having to open the boot, there were frequently requests for money or cigarettes. So, when one Amin soldier asked me for a bible, with clear misgivings I asked him if he would ever open it; in reply he slid a well-thumbed Bible out of his pocket."
Idi Amin's "horrendous regime" was brought to an end by the Tanzanians.
"As we waited anxiously for our liberation, many of our students left the compound and were replaced by many local people coming in for refuge. The College chapel became the centre of life."
One day as the choir prepared for evening Mass, the wife of one of the staff came to see Fr. Sweeney. She wondered whether he was going up to the mission for lunch. "She was relieved to know that I was joining seminarians and not the priests, for she had heard that some priests had abandoned their missions and sought refuge at Namilyango Mission." But she knew that "Priests do not leave their station" and such was the confidence the people have in their priests, even when they were "full of fear, and she went back to let the truth be known."
The Tanzanian troops arrived in the Namilyango compound on Good Friday. Namilyango Hill had been suspected to be a place where Idi Amin troops might make a stand and it had been suggested to shell the place.
"They were very disciplined troops and were soon combing the forest in front of the College for escaping Amin troops. When they started digging trenches right round my house I jokingly asked the officer how safe I was; he was not joking at all when he replied that I was perfectly safe inside my house all night, but if I put my nose outside the door, then I would be shot. I took him seriously but one of our staff imagined that it was all a joke and walked through the compound after dark. At first light the following morning, the officer brought me to his body as he defended his men's action. War is not a time for joking."
According to Fr. Sweeney, the main prison at Jinja did not have a chaplain for some time. When he went to the Special Watch Section, the men informed him that there were some prisoners who wanted to be baptized. The guards had given instructions themselves and done it very well. "The same practice continued into mid-1995."
Sweeney taught catechism to the leaders in English and then they went to their various language groups and passed on what they had learned. "When one of them is condemned to death and transferred to Luzira there is a deep depression in the group, but hope is also expressed in prayers of intercession. It is a great consolation that in the 14 years of prison ministry I met only two former Namilyango students behind bars, but I have met many others in different walks of life, who have proved friendly, grateful and very helpful. Yes, the Mill Hillers in Namilyango did a good job."
Fr. Sweeney was also active with a small inter-religious group in Jinja. It had been meeting for over four years by August 1994. The aim was "to remove old suspicions, develop friendship and co-operate in the spread of real religion. When a Sheikh, a pastor and a priest share the same platform and talk about democracy to the people, we are attempting to destroy the myth that 'religion divided' and instead prove that 'Real religion united.'"
Sweeney served at Namilyango for 22 years, 1965-1987.
Abridged from Robert O'Neil, MHM (1999) Mission to the Upper Nile
The Story of the St. Joseph's Missionary Society of Mill Hill in Uganda. London
Mission Book Service. pp. 193-194, 221, 233-234, 295, 314