Following the visits of the late Pope John Paul II to Kenya in May 1980, and August 1985 for the Eucharistic Congress, the Kenya Episcopal Conference decided that there shold be a National Shrine to Mary, Mother of God, in the country. In 1984, and again in 1985, the K.E.C requested Nakuru Diocese, being in the centre of the country and acessible from all parts, to work on the project.
In the ealy 80’s there had been various reports of visions of Our Lady in some parts of Kenya. There was a lot of confusion, and even strange devotions began to develop in some places.
The parish of St John the Evangelist at Subukia in Nakuru Diocese had their reported visions from August 29th to September 28th 1984, at a school compound called Magomano. Whether these visions were true or not, there was certainly, as a result, a great growth in devotion to Our Lady in the parish, and especially the prayer of the Rosary became so popular.
Fr John Jones of St Patrick’s Missionary Society, who was by then the parish priest, visited all the Small Christian Communities and presented the Catholic Church’s teaching on Our Lady, giving the relevant quotations from the Scripture. In early 1985 it was decided to have a small Shrine of Our Lady in the parish. Fr Jones brought from Ireland a statue of Our Lady and it was placed in an outstation of the Parish called Munanda.
Marian Year 1987/1988
The parish was now ready for the opening of the Marian year on 15th August 1987. Bishop Peter Kairo, then Bishop of Murang’a, and the first priest ordained for Nakuru Diocese in November 1970, was the main celebrant at that occasion. He blessed the site at Munanda. Between five and six thousand people attended this opening ceremony. Most of these people received sacraments of Penance, of the Sick, and the Eucharist on this occasion.
The Marian Year closed on 15th August 1988, with a celebration at Munanda for the whole Diocese of Nakuru, led by Bishop Ndingi Mwana’ Nzeki. Again, many Christians from outside Nakuru attended.
Bishop Ndingi saw all this as the fulfilment of the mandate he had earlier been given by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, when in May 1984 they had discussed the possibility of having a National Shrine to Mary, the Mother of God. He and Cardinal Otunga had been asked “to look for a suitable site”. It was at this time that Cardinal Otunga proposed that the Shrine be called “Village of Mary, Mother of God”.
National Marian Shrine
The title of National Marian Shrine, Village of Mary, Mother of God, at Subukia, now became official. The fact that Subukia is geographically at the centre of Kenya is significant, in that it helps to bring together the people of the various tribes of Kenya. Many of these tribes in fact already make up the population of Subukia valley. The Equator also runs through Subukia, and so it is the meeting place also of the two hemishperes.
Main Annual Celebration
It was also decided to have the main celebration each year on January 1st, the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God. These celebrations took place at Munanda on 1st January 1989 and 1990, and were preceeded by 3 days of prayer, with a night vigil on the eve of the feast day.
New Site for the Shrine
In May 1989, a special committee was selected to help look after the affairs of the Shrine. These members felt that the site at Munadana was too small, with only 12 acres, and a larger site was proposed. Within 48 hours of their meeting, quite unexpectedly, an offer of 50 acres, free of charge, was made, with an option to buy a further 200 acres for future development of the Shrine.
On examination by a number of Bishop Ndingi’s representatives, this new site was found to be very suitable, and on 27th October 1989 the decision was made to purchase the land which had been offered at a generously low price by Major Ikou Muteithia and his family. On the Feast of St Joseph, 19th March 1991, the Title Deeds for the site were finally issued.
In the meantime, in August 1990, Fr John Jones was appointed by Bishop Ndingi as the Father-in-Charge of the Village of Mary, assisted by his Advisory Committee.
Preparing the New Shrine
The work of clearing the bush, fencing, and building storage facilities began immediately. In thanksgiving to the local people for their generosity in doing this work, Fr Jones offered a special Mass on Ascension Thursday, 9th May 1991. This was the first Holy Mass to be offered at the new Shrine site.
Spring of Water
A significant date was the 8th December 1991, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. On the eve of that day, the headman of the workers, Mr. Henry Muthuku, clearing the thick bush on the hill came upon a wet patch of ground which had a small spring of clear water in it. On opening a small gully down the slope, the water started flowing out, and has continued to flow without fail ever since.
The finding of this stream on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is seen as very significant in the history of the Shrine, and resembles the request of Our Lady to Bernardette at Lourdes to crape back the soil, from where water had flowed to this day.
At the first national celebration on this new site, on 1st January 1992, Bishop Korir of Eldoret, a former priest of the original Nakuru Diocese, celebrated Mass. The water from the spring was officially blessed on that day. In spite of the tensions surrounding the general elections in Kenya of 1992, and many advising that there should not be a celebration, approximately 2,500 people turned up for the occasion.
As we know, water has always had great symbolism for Christians, and has been used for centuries as a form of blessing. It is primarily a symbol of our cleansing from sin in Baptism, and the giving of new life.
A custom has developed of taking away the water from the stream at the Shrine. It is not claimed, however, that this water has any special properties, even though some claim extraordinary healings after using it. It should be noted that any healings which may have occured have been due not to the water only, but principally to the faith of the pilgrims.
Some visitors want to know if miracles take place at the Shrine, as are believed to have happened at the famous Marian Shrines of Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal. The Church is very careful in making any such claims, but there is no doubt that the Shrine is seen by very many as a holy place where God does make his presence felt in wonderful ways. Pilgrims have occasionally claimed healings which go beyond medical explanation, but the Church prefers to emphasize a view of healing which is interpreted as “wholeness”. In this view, a pilgrimage made with genuine hope and faith, will help an individual to become more what God intends him or her to be. This can be seen as a small miracle in itself, something unseen and usually unspectacular.
The Statue of Mary
A shocking incident took place on the night of Sunday 19th April 1998, when the shelter for the statue and the shelter over the altar area were burned down. The altar was also burned. The original statue of Mary, which Fr Jones had brought from Ireland, was completely smashed, and the damaged head later found in the bush.
One person from the group that admitted responsibility for this vandalization stated that he was told by God to go and destroy the statue. He believed that the statue of the Virgin Mary was an idol, and that idol worship was forbidden by God.
This incident brings home the need for all Catholics to let their non-Catholic friends and neighbours know that we use statues and holy pictures only as a means to bring our hearts and minds to whatever the statue or picture represents. They are not idols, and we do not worship them. They are basically like the photographs of our loved ones who are not presnet which we put up in our houses, which help us to remember them. A statue or picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for example, is intended only to remind us of the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. The actual statue or picture has no value other than as a means to bring us to Mary in prayer. So to say that we Catholics are worshipping idos is simply not true.
The Vatican Council itslef had asked all Catolics to “painstakingly guard against any word or deed which could lead spearated brethren or anyone else into error regarding the true doctrine of the Church” about Mary (Lumen Gentium, 8:4;67).
A new Statue of Mary and Jesus
After this incident, Fr Jones immediately set about replacing the old statue with a beautiful new one. It was carved out of an ancient Jacaranda tree from the Papal Nuncio’s compound in Nairobi, by a Ugandan artist called Leonard Kateete. The Bishops gave their approval for the statue, and it was then brought to Subukia.
This new statue was officially blessed on the 9th of December 2000. There were 15,000 people and 15 Bishops present for the occasion. It has recently been placed int eh new Grotto Chapel at the foot of the Shrine hill.
Growth of the Shrine
It soon became obvious that the Village of Mary at Subukia is a place of great national potential in bringing Kenyans into one family, under our Mother, Mary. And as she is the Mother of all the baptised, not just of Catholics, many non-Catholics have been coming here also, to deepen their religious beliefs.
Mass is offered at the Shrine on the official Feast Days, which pilgrims from all over Kenya attend. Many of these pilgrims come on foot for 200 kilometers or even more, while fasting and praying so that peace and unity may prevail in Kenya. They also come because of thier love for Mary, and for their own personal, physical and spiritual, needs.
They see the Shrine as their Mecca, and the nubmers coming indicate the deep need for pilgrimage that is in the heart of every human being ? an expression of the hunger that is in each one of us to seek and find God. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a very important part of this pilgrimage, and the celebration of the Eucharist is at its centre. The pilgrims also meditate on the Passion and Death of Jesus by doing the Stations of the Cross.
A huge cross now stands on the hillside over the Shrine, and can be seen very easily as one enters Subukia Valley. Buried in the base of this cross is a piece of rock from the Grotto at Lourdes in France, a stone from the River Jordan in Israel, and a stone from the Marian Shrine at Medjugorje in Bosnia-Hertzegovina.
Official Recognition of the Shrine
Our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, sent the following letter:
It is a particular joy to learn of the establishment in Subukia of a National Shrine dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, and to learn of the programme of Marian pilgrimages which will take place throught the Jubilee Year. (Vatican, 20 May 1999)