Joseph (Giuseppe) Franzelli was born 77 years ago, during the Second World War, in a small village in the province of Brescia in northern Italy. Those were hard times: poverty was rampant and six of the twelve children of his family died at infancy. As an altar boy, Joseph admired priests and his dream was to become one. When a Comboni missionary visited his village, he expressed the desire to be a missionary for Africa. His Parish Priest was not happy, since he preferred him to enter the diocesan seminary. At first, even his father was not happy about his decision. Anyway, Joseph entered the minor seminary and went through formation, which eventually ended in Rome. This was during the Second Vatican Council, at the Urbanian University, where he had the opportunity to meet and interact with many students from Africa and Asia. Ordained a priest in 1967 at the age of 25, Fr. Joseph expected to be assigned to Africa, hopefully to Burundi or Togo. He was instead sent to Verona on the staff of Nigrizia, a Comboni monthly magazine dealing with the evangelization and development of Africa.
While working for the magazine, he did a course in journalism and had plenty of opportunities to read and learn about Africa. Eventually, after three years, the new Superior General assigned him to Uganda. After some months in London to learn English, Fr. Franzelli was eventually able to fulfill his dream and reach Africa in the diocese of Gulu. It was December 1971. Looking back at his life since he came to Uganda, Bishop Franzelli can divide it into three periods: the first 17 years among the Acholi in Gulu Diocese up to 1987, then 18 years outside Uganda in Europe, Mexico and South Africa, up to the last 13 and a half years back in Uganda as bishop of Lira.
Less than two months after his arrival in Gulu, Fr. Joseph found himself in Kitgum, to collaborate with Fr. Peter Tiboni in an unprecedented project and experience: Kitgum Pastoral Community (KPC), which was officially opened on 11th February 1972, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. The idea was to form seminarians for the diocese in a different, alternative way, side by side with the traditional seminary. It was meant for adult vocations, i.e. young people who had already completed their secondary education. The Community was inserted within a parish (Kitgum Town), the natural environment in which the seminarians were supposed to serve after ordination, in close communion and collaboration with the laity.
This different approach to seminary formation insisted very much on the pastoral dimension. Studying in the morning and carrying out pastoral work in the afternoon among the people in the chapels, contributed to equipping the candidates with the pastoral zeal and missionary spirit, which would eventually form them into true and dedicated shepherds of the people of God. Fr. Joseph got involved whole-heartedly in this challenging project. It was therefore very painful for him to leave Kitgum two years later, at the beginning of 1974, when the bishop of Gulu requested him to move to the diocesan minor seminary of Lacor, which was facing a major crisis. To solve the problem and make a fresh start, he introduced in Lacor, a teamwork approach among all the teachers and formators.
It was not easy, but it eventually worked. Among his students, there was the one who is now the bishop of Arua, Rt. Rev. Sabino Odoki. Apart from the work in the seminary, Fr. Franzelli was the editor of Lobo Mewa, the fortnightly paper in luo of Gulu diocese, while also helping with Nile Gazette and Leadership magazine.
Then, during 1975, the government of Idi Amin expelled 12 Comboni missionaries who were holding key posts in Gulu Diocese. Among them, Fr. Peter Tiboni, the founder of Kitgum Pastoral Community. To avoid the closure of this initiative, Fr. Franzelli left Lacor Seminary to Kitgum to continue with the project. Clearly, Divine Providence had arranged for him to be spared the expulsion in order to carry on with the initiative. For the next 7 years, during and after the regime of Amin, Fr. Joseph was the Rector of KPC, which started yielding new priests. It was a tough period, also because the regime of Amin looked with suspicion at a community hosting candidates of different tribes and even expatriates living peacefully together, contrary to the tribalistic policies of the day.
In 1982, Fr. Franzelli went back home to Italy for holidays. Upon his return, because of lack of personnel to run it, Bishop Cipriano Kihangire of Gulu had to temporarily close KPC. Fr. Joseph was then sent initially as a curate and then as a Parish Priest to Patongo, in East Acholi. The five years spent in Patongo were the experience of a full immersion into a joyful and fruitful pastoral work. With the taking over of President Museveni at the end of 1986, however, things changed dramatically. The area around Patongo became one of the last and strongest points of resistance to the army of the new government. Located between the two fighting groups, from September 1986 to February 1987, Patongo mission became literally a battle ground for a number of attacks and counter attacks of the government troops entrenched in the village on one side and the rebels led by the prophetess Alice Lakwena coming from the surrounding fields and bush on the other side. Many people on both sides were killed.
Over 300 people, mostly women and children, took refuge in the mission, sleeping in the church to save their lives. Among them, a reverend of the Church of Uganda, Benjamin Ojwang who later on became the bishop of Kitgum. Those six months, spent in close contact with the people and sharing their plight and fears, waking up in the morning with no certainty of reaching the end of the day alive, encouraging and leading everybody in prayer and experiencing God’s protection, were a tough but precious experience for Fr. Joseph. There were also some extremely dangerous moments when he was shot at by soldiers during the attacks. By God’s help, he was not hit, but, he got his glasses smashed when he grabbed the gun from a soldier who was about to shoot the cook of the mission and her baby.
Mentioning those events, Bishop Franzelli downplays the risks he had to face, saying that this is what happened to many of his Comboni brothers and sisters who remained with their people in those troubled days. In fact, from the time of Idi Amin to the rebellion of Joseph Kony, 14 comboni missionaries, including a Sister were killed in Uganda.
The period in Patongo came to an abrupt end when the government troops, finding it difficult to control that portion of East Acholi, decided to make a “strategic withdrawal” from the area, moving back to the borders of Lango. The decision found Fr. Joseph in Kalongo, where he had gone to get medical help from Fr. Doctor Joseph Ambrosoli.
Leaving the area, the army forced all the missionaries and sisters to go with them, afraid that, remaining behind, they would help the local people whom the government considered all “rebels”. Several missions were closed, including Patongo and Kalongo, with the renowned hospital run by Fr. Dr. Ambrosoli. Leaving behind their people was a heartbreaking experience for the missionaries. Together with his confreres, Fr. Joseph was eventually able to celebrate the last Mass in Patongo, entrusting the Blessed Sacrament to the care of the head catechist and placing the whole community into God’s hands. It was the end of February 1982.
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