Nyabondo, Kenya: Fr Leo Bartels mhm – Stirring a Sense of Wonder

Nyabondo, Kenya: Fr Leo Bartels mhm – Stirring a Sense of Wonder


Fr Leo Bartels MHM was a Dutch missionary priest and the first parish priest of St Joseph’s Nyabondo, Archdiocese of Kisumu. He began the parish in 1935 and served there for 48 years. During his tenure he started three schools which now have an enrollment of 600 pupils each.

Archbishop Zaccheus Okoth graced the parish today for the official unveiling of a bronze statue of Fr Leo in the parish grounds. The archbishop himself hails from this parish and was a pupil in its schools.

Fr Leo was an expert in clay modeling, some of his works still decorate the parish house. A small fellow by the name Gerry Olewe used to watch him in this work, acquired an interest and eventually became a specialist with a studio in Nairobi and today he is the one who sculpted the larger than life size statue of Fr Leo.

In grateful appreciation for all their beloved pastor had done the current parishioners commissioned his statue as a perpetual reminder to future generations.

In the early years the parish formed part of the Vicariate of the Upper Nile, which included Uganda and stretched as far as Nakuru in Kenya. It was the Mill Hill fathers from Holland, the UK and Ireland who largely evangelized the area with the White Fathers and some others.

An Irish nun called Mother Kevin, who founded a congregation, the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa, and who had begun around 20 schools and hospitals in Uganda was asked to do something in this part of the Vicariate. Bishop Hall and Fr Leo convinced her to come to Nyabondo, a beautiful spot on a hill overlooking the Kano plains about an hour from Kisumu city, and to start a hospital there in 1955. Her Process of Beatification is ongoing and her life story is well worth a read.

Although initially there were just three nuns in the hospital and no doctor, the local people began flocking to the mission hospital. Today after 70 years it stands as another memorial to the vision of the pioneers of this parish. Buildings continue to rise on the site. It is now the largest hospital run by the Archdiocese of Kisumu.

Today’s event makes us look back, and helps us to understand better, with the perspective of time, what those who went before us have achieved. It makes us proud to be associated with such high ideals. It helps us to see that the ideals that Christ and the Church transmit to our lives are truly great and that there are no better on the planet.

Catholic means universal. Fr Leo and his contemporaries had a Catholic spirit and we are the beneficiaries. His story is instructive because it is like a model of what our Church has done all over the world. Through education and health care we have changed the face of the earth. This is authentic development.

Recently the Holy Father encouraged all of us to strive for holiness, the central message of the Second Vatican Council for all the faithful. We have this statue as a material treasure to inspire us to have the spiritual treasure of the holiness of those who have gone before. Like world record breakers in marathons they have set the bar very high.

The statue reminds the youth of the parish of commitment, dedication, serious generosity, and vocation. Fr Leo had an impact with his life, he made a difference. He used his time well. He gave himself for others.

Recently the parish was also visited by Fr Michael Ndienge, rector of the minor seminary in Molo, who as a youth was an altar boy in the parish and served the Mass of Fr Leo.

In later years Fr Leo suffered from diabetes. He foresaw his own demise and planned his funeral and burial. He chose a burial spot close to the church he had helped to build and where he daily celebrated Mass. But God had other plans. His superiors requested him to return for treatment to Holland, the country of his origin. There after three days he passed away. His last act of virtue was one of obedience.

Some years later when an adoration chapel was to be built, the altar was placed at the very site of what was to be his burial plot. The statue of St Joseph which was to be the headstone of his grave now stands at the entrance to the adoration chapel, a few meters from his statue.

When future visitors and tourists visit this beautiful spot they can be inspired by the history it contains and marvel at the message it conveys.

Fr Edwin Ojwang  Abudho
Priest in Charge
St Joseph’S Church, Nyabondo, Kisumu


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