The head of a splinter group of the Legio Maria Church of Africa, Pope Romanus Alphonseus Ong’ombe, has died after a long illness.
Pope Ong’ombe died while undergoing treatment at St Joseph Mission Hospital Ombo in Migori town.
According to Esther Maria, who attended to him, Pope Ong’ombe died on Sunday evening.
Following the death, faithful have urged the government to give them enough time to accord their spiritual leader a decent send-off.
“The pope was a powerful figure in the church’s history and we request the government to give us more time to organise and give him a befitting send-off,” said a senior member of the church.
Migori Senator Ochillo Ayacko, County Secretary Christopher Rusana and former Migori MP John Pesa are among leaders who sent their messages of condolence to the church’s members.
Legio Maria Church had been embroiled in leadership wrangles since 1991 when its founder ‘Messiah’ Melkio Ondeto died.
Timotheo Blassio Atila became the second Legio Maria pope until his death in 1998.
"The third pope, Mr Lawrence Chiaji, then took over until 2004 when he also passed on and Raphael Adika took over until 2009 when the wars for the control of the church begun, pitying him (Adika) against Mr Ong'ombe," said a staunch Legio Maria member who sought anonymity as he is not allowed to speak on behalf of the church.
The two splinter groups claiming the papacy emerged, with one faction being led by the late Ong’ombe and the other by Raphael Adika.
In May 2019, the two leaders briefly ended their protracted antagonism before it erupted again after their hard-line supporters refused to cede ground.
In a meeting held at St Michael Mapera Church in Migori County, Ong’ombe and Adika called for an end to the heightened tension that nearly destroyed the religious sect after elections in which Pope Romanus was declared the new leader.
While addressing the church members, Pope Ong’ombe said he had extended an olive branch to Pope Adika so that they could come together and start a new journey.
“I called my brother after realising that the church was heading to the wrong direction. We have to remain united in this service because our differences do not mean good for the church,” Pope Ong’ombe said then.
He called on other church members to come together for the unity of the church.
“Such minor differences have led to serious divisions in the past and we would not want to take that direction. God does not accept divisions so we've got to remain united," Pope Ong’ombe noted.
His sentiments were echoed by Pope Adika who reiterated the need for a cohesive membership in the church.
“My brother has said it all. All I can call for is a strong church that can stand the test of time and offer leadership for posterity,” said Pope Adika then.
In January 2019 Pope Adika, a Kisumu-based cleric, was denied access to the Legio Maria headquarters at Got Kweru in Migori, where he had arrived in a fleet of cars to meet Pope Ong’ombe.
Pope Ong'ombe died before resolving the leadership wrangles in the church.
Before the founder of the church, Simeo Melkio Ondetto, died in 1991, he expressed fears of an imminent falling-out of his followers, a flock he herded for 28 years with no rebellion.
Foreseeing the imminent crack, he gave a list of those who would succeed him and this was adhered to until a leadership row emerged between two ‘popes’.
Legio Maria, an indigenous African church popular in parts of Nyanza and western regions, has had two leaders, both claiming to be the bona fide popes of the church – Pope Romanus Ong’ombe and Pope Raphael Adika.
Meetings of followers of the two rival leaders have always resulted in bloody confrontations and not even a court ruling could bring peace among them.
YET TO RECONCILE
To date, the factions are yet to reconcile, even as they await another court ruling this year which may give direction on the leadership of the church.
The earlier ruling had given Pope Adika the mantle.
Pope Ong'ombe used to occupy Got Kwer, which is believed to be the headquarters of the church.
But this has always been disputed with other followers maintaining that Corner Legio in Manyatta, Kisumu County, occupied by Adika, is the church’s headquarters.
Additional reporting by Justus Ochieng'.