I have spent the last 12 years standing at podiums in churches and venues around the USA introducing F.r Ubald to the congregation. It has been a privilege and honor to have been his friend, sister, handler, confident, supporter, translator, executive producer and more over these past years. Never did I dream I would be introducing him at his memorial. God’s ways are not our ways and God certainly did not discuss with me his plans. So as I move forward in this next season of Ubald’s story, mission and vision without his physical presence I know I’m in new territory but I believe I am not alone.
When Fr. Ubald first came to the states in 2009 it was his first visit to America. He had been invited by Immaculee Ilibagiza who had known of him in her home country and his healing gifts. She realized It wasn’t just Rwandans that needed healing but many people she had met in America. He came to our town and I ended up hosting he and another priest, who had been a missionary in Rwanda for many years. Ubald had learned English in high school but had not practiced it much so his English was not so good. I had entertained them for several days and I thought that was that. Ubald was very persistent. He Continued to email me and invite me to visit him in Rwanda. Paul Vogelheim had had such a profound experience and always up for an adventure stated he was ready to go. So Paul, myself and another good friend all went to Rwanda to visit Fr. Ubald for one week. Again, I thought that was that. A few months later I received an email stating I am coming to America for these dates and you are in charge of my schedule. I’m thinking to myself, what does that mean? I had no idea what that meant. So I needed to figure that out. Through a series of phone calls I ended up contacting Amy Polasky here in Green Bay who had also hosted Fr. Ubald and Fr. Leszek during that first visit. Also my former Bishop of Cheyenne, WY, David Ricken, was the Bishop here. So as we say, the rest is history.
Ubald started coming to America twice a year for extended periods of time to preach and to evangelize on forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and peace. At first I was begging people to have him come to their parishes, conferences, hometowns, wherever someone would take him. I traveled with him extensively all over Louisiana, Wyoming, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Minnesota, Chicago, to name a few, and always Green Bay. Over time I no longer had to beg people to have this priest come but had to turn down invitations because his time was booked. We produced a documentary film on his work because I believed his message could get out through media a lot more quickly than him having to be everywhere. A Ted Talk, the book and other opportunities of conferences, EWTN, Shalmon TV, and many others came along.
Through his diligence, hard work and our efforts he was able to buy the property in Cyangugu, Rwanda where the Center for Peace is established physically. He was able to finish the church and have it dedicated in August, 2019 , through the foresight and financial support of many donors. This is his beloved center where he is currently buried overlooking Lake Kivu and a site where many pilgrims come for prayer, healing, and peace. They continue to have once a month healing services on the 13th of each month and the current Bishop of his Diocese is very supportive of the work of the Center for Peace. He is determined to advance the mission and vision God, through the Holy Spirit, had given to Fr. Ubald.
In the USA alone we had started a foundation and had worked with Fr. Ubald over the last year of his life before he passed away. The board was hand picked by Fr. Ubald as a committed group of individuals, who each offered expertise in various aspects of what is needed, to help move the mission vision and purpose of the Center forward not only in Rwanda but in Europe and the USA. Members comprise individuals from all over the USA, Austria, and Rwanda. It also includes his Bishop in Rwanda. We are committed to continuing to move his vision and mission forward not only in Rwanda but also in other parts of the world. Fr. Ubald’s message of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation is a universal message for the entire church and for our world today. We are seeing the lack of unity in our own country and the need for reconciliation in our families, churches, communities, cities and nation. He is truly a prophet of our time and may we all join in his message in moving it forward In our own lives and spheres of influence.
Fr. Ubald called himself an Apostle of Forgiveness and Catholic Evangelist. He would get so hassled at customs and call me so afraid they would give him a hard time and not let him into the country. When they would accuse him of just coming to America to raise money he would tell them “that is not the reason I come. I come to preach and teach people about forgiveness and bring healing to them through Jesus.” Money was a by product of his genuineness, his relationships, his integrity and connection with people who believed him and his mission. It was never the goal. Bringing Jesus to the people was always his number one priority and he was always the real deal. He walked the walk, he didn’t just talk the talk. If he told you he would pray for you, he prayed for you. He would have lists of names in his prayer book and what the conditions were that he was praying for. He would take those lists and put them on the altar during mass, his prayer book was stuffed with prayer petitions always.
He lived for the other. He didn’t really think about himself except on occasion when he needed to sleep or eat or to buy something personal like toothpaste. He did not care where he slept, as long as he could sleep, where he lived or the fact he didn’t really have a home even in his country. He had a room at the Bishop’s house and by the time he had passed away he was living in a small shack at the Center for Peace where we put electricity, running water, hot water and no heat. He said he could use more blankets. There were two new rooms built for the priests whom the Bishop had promised to assign to help him at the center. He had refused to make the rooms smaller because he knew priests, after listening to people all day at the Center, needed a nice room to go home to. He refused to take the rooms for himself. He poured himself out for others.
He had been invited on several trips when he was living with me over the past year during covid. He declined them because he would not be able to do his online Facebook rosary and didn’t feel like he could leave his people for that long of a time when so many were suffering in so many ways because of covid. Even in his suffering in the hospital during his 2 1/2 month stay, he prayed for others, offered his suffering for others and didn’t think about himself. Two days before he died we were praying the rosary. He had the speaking valve on and was able to communicate. During the decade we would offer our intentions. One of the decades, his intention was for those who suffer and do not have peace in their suffering or understand their suffering. I asked him if he had peace and understood his suffering. He said yes he did. When he had gotten covid he said he knew that Jesus had allowed him to suffer covid so he could pray, really pray for those who had covid. He also had offered his intentions for the elections and the United States. He would always say, as America goes so goes the rest of the world. He understood his suffering and by the end was willingly accepting of it.
I believe Fr. Ubald has all the markings and makings of a great saint who has a relevant message for the church during this particular time in history. No saint has a new message. The saints of their times always had a particular message and charism that is needed by the church in their particular time of history and were able to embody and live that message as an example for all of us to follow and emulate. We are all called to be saints.
Characteristics needed to be a saint:
-A life of heroic virtue. Fr. Ubald lived a life of heroic virtue poured out and lived for others always proclaiming Jesus Christ. In his country, by the end of his lif it took stadiums to hold the crowds of people who came to hear him preach and to be healed in the name of Jesus. HIs car had over 350,000 miles on it over maybe a ten year period. He went through two-4 sets of tires a year. Rwanda is about the size of Maryland and there are no interstate and the roads are what we would call off road 4 wheeling roads. He believed every person and parish deserved healing, whether they were a poor parish or a rich parish. He never charged to go, if they could afford to give him gas money he would accept it. If they couldn’t pay he did not care. He knew Jesus would provide and poor people deserved and needed to hear the gospel as much as rich people is what he would say.
-person of prayer. He had a deep prayer life and the mass was his favorite prayer. Rarely did he miss a day saying mass and it was usually due to some sort of circumstance where he was traveling and unable to say the mass. Even if it meant staying up late to say the mass he would not go to bed without the mass if he could possibly help it. His last mass while we were both sick with Covid was the day before he went to the hospital, October 21st. He was about to say mass on the 22nd when I had to call the ambulance to take him to the hospital. There were several priests who came to the hospital to pray mass with him, Fr. Michael came to see him in the hospital and that was the first time since that day he had had the mass. He had had the eucharist but not the mass. it was such a profound moment when Ubald, from his hospital bed, was able to say the words and raise his hands concelebrating with Fr. Michael the mass. Ubald did not have to say the mass when he was in the hospital, he was the mass. He had offered his broken, weak and emaciated body up and was a living mass, crucified and poured out for others. The other profound moment in the hospital with Fr. Michael, before that time he had been a fake name, no one knew him. When Fr. Michael came in, offered to concelebrate mass with him, he was no longer a sick covid patient, but a priest, a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek. It was a profound moment of confirmation of who Ubald was in Christ, not who the hospital or the world said he was.
His last mass was said on January 5, 2021 in his hospital bed with the Deacon who was a chaplain at the hospital. He would not allow me to photograph him but that was his last mass on earth before entering the perpetual mass of heaven on January 7.
Willingness to accept suffering: Fr. Ubald had had a life time of suffering from the time he was a small boy with the persecution of his people in his country, poverty, his father being murdered when he was 7 years old, having to flee his country when he was in high school and live as a refugee in Burundi to finish his high school years, to returning to his country for seminary and as a priest to have suffered the genocide, escaping into the Congo, losing 80 members of his family, 45,000 parishioners and over 1 million of his fellow Rwandans whom many were friends and colleagues, being murdered, being hunted down to be killed himself, escaping and living in Europe again after the genocide to recover. Only to return to a country and people that were devastated. To pick up and work for forgiveness, healing, reconciliation for his entire country tirelessly for over 25 years post genocide. Preaching a message that was not popular, that was controversial for those inside and outside of the church. To be persecuted by those inside and outside of the church for preaching that truth, the truth of the gospel, envy, jealousy, opposition, outright persecution by other clergy who refused to allow him to preach in their churches or diocese. One of his greatest traumas and deep hurts he experienced over and over was the opposition and persecution he received at the hands of other clergy and Bishops. It was so foreign to how he thought and what he believed to be treated as he was treated because he was trying to proclaim Jesus and truth wherever he went. He always forgave and continued to pray for those who persecuted him personally.
-He never backed down from truth no matter who he was speaking to and what he needed to say. He spoke truth with love, not with condemnation or shame. Every person, after Ubald had passed away, whom called, texted, wrote or emailed my response to was: he loved you, he loved you. He knew your name and he loved you. He didn’t love people as a group, as a concept, as an idea, he knew their names and loved them. each one. He loved as Christ had loved, living and dying for the other.
-lived a life of humility. He really was very childlike in his trust of God and was very humble in that he knew who he was, what his strengths and weaknesses were, always willing to grow, learn, listen, with very little demands, great sense of humor, incredible joy in spite of a life time of suffering, he lived in joy knowing he was loved by God and wanting to pour that love out for others.
One time I had told him that my life was crazy and very busy when he was around. People would call out of the blue, drop by the house unannounced, arrive just in time for dinner, it was non stop. He said, “oh no, it is not me who keeps you busy, it is Jesus.” I looked at him and told him, “well Jesus isn’t so busy when you aren’t here.” He laughed and laughed at that thinking it was the funniest thing ever. That was Ubald.
For the Joy centers in our brains to turn on we have to experience that someone is happy to be with me. That was Ubald, he was always happy to be with you which is why he exuded and spread joy. He loved to laugh, he loved to have a good time with friends. He was serious when he needed to be serious and joyful when the occasion called for it. He would always say “let’s go make joy.”
He was an avid learner, reader, student and teacher. He was determined to learn Spanish because he wanted to communicate better with the Hispanic people who came to his services in the USA because there were so many who came and he felt like he couldn’t communicate with them like he wanted to. He spoke Kinyrwandan, English, French, German, Swahili and was trying to learn Spanish. Communicating with people and communicating Jesus to people, was his utmost desire and what he always wanted to do. When in the hospital on the ventilator and tracheostomy he was not able to communicate even his own basic needs of wanting water, going to the bathroom, a cramp, an itch. That was taken away from him at the end of his life. It was a terrible suffering for someone who spent their life trying to communicate, to preach, to teach. He had to teach and communicate with a look in his eyes, with a hand gesture or some other way.
On the day that he died one of the nurses made a point to come meet me because she wanted to tell me. She was not a believer In any kind of spiritual practice. But when she had him as her patient one day he just looked at her and held her hand because he was unable to speak. But when that happened she experienced such a profound Peace that she had never felt before and she was determined to find out everything she could about him. Catholic evangelist and peace maker.
On that last day he was alive in the hospital people came from different areas of the hospital who had encountered him during his illness to say goodbye. They marched in and out all day long. Evangelist and peace maker.
Here was a man, in a foreign country, having never been in a hospital, given a fake name to “protect his privacy”, just another person in the ICU with a different doctor and different nurse everyday, no family, only a friend a day allowed in, not able to speak, preach, or say much of anything, dying. A man who had an entire country, people from several countries around the world praying for him, a country of people who credited him with pulling them out of a genocide, giving them hope and healing when they had none, professing to them Jesus is alive, one of the most influential beloved people of the Rwandan nation, dying alone, nameless, in a place where no one knew him except for two foreign Rwandan workers in the custodial/sanitation department who had known him and by the end not allowed to visit him. He had been stripped of everything, but he still evangelized and loved and suffered willingly until the end, for Jesus and for others.
One day he told me he felt so bad because I was doing so much and so many people were doing so much for him outside of the hospital and he was not doing anything. I asked him, what was Jesus’ greatest work? He replied, the cross. I went on to say, Jesus had healed people, preached to the crowds and in the temple his entire ministry and his greatest work was not any of those things, but the cross. You are on the cross with Jesus, you are suffering with Jesus, this is your greatest work. He stopped, nodded his head, was quiet and thoughtful and he said I understand now. Yes and you are like Mary, standing at the foot of the cross. Catholic Evangelist, like Jesus, pouring himself out for others. Blessed are those who suffer, for theirs in the kingdom of God.
Could Ubald be declared a martyr? I am not an official of anything. But If one day we discover the covid pandemic was a man made disease we may be able to declare all who died because of covid or its collateral damage will be martyrs. Ubald would be one of those martyrs. He willingly exposed himself to the risks of contracting covid by his travels, by his public masses and healing services here at the shrine and other places.
Why God allowed him to get sick and return to Jackson Hole to be hospitalized and moved to Salt Lake where he eventually died we may never know this side of heaven. I have personally struggled with all of it. Here is a man who had suffered so much, survived a genocide and was a victim of covid. I have to make a choice that God is who he says he is, he is good, he loves me, he loves you, he loves Ubald, and he has a plan. Though I don’t understand that plan I have to make the choice to accept it, knowing I’m not God and walk it out because ultimately He is and I”m not. I know that Fr. Ubald is where he always wanted to be, home with Jesus and his family in heaven. He is probably working harder from there than he ever worked on earth. We all have an intercessor who knows and loves us and calls us by name. Jesus and Fr. Ubald. May we continue to be ambassadors of his work and his mission and his vision of bringing people together in Jesus name and that we will love each other. He fought and died for that. Now it is our turn to pick up the baton and run with it.
The foundation he had begun continues to work today to move his vision and mission forward. We are more committed than before to continue the various projects at the Center that Fr. Ubald had envisioned. We will also be working to bring about his message of peace, healing, reconciliation through forgiveness here in America. If you would like to learn more about the ongoing projects and to partner with us please contact us.
Fr. Ubald pray for us.