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Archbishop Njenga was a cleric of rare breed

Thursday November 8 2018

Retired Catholic Archbishop Emeritus John Njenga

Retired Catholic Archbishop Emeritus John Njenga. He died in Nairobi on November 4,2018. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Catholic Archbishop John Njenga, who died on Sunday after a short illness, belonged to a pioneering and vanishing generation of clerics who played a pivotal role in shaping the destiny of this nation.

Church leaders that have left an indelible imprint on Kenya include Maurice Cardinal Otunga, Bishop Caesar Maria Gatimu, the Rev Dr John Gatu, Bishop Obadiah Kariuki, Prof Sr Anne Nasimiyu-Wasike, Bishop Festo Habakkuk Olang, all of whom have departed. Happily, one in their league, Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki, is still with us.


For over six decades, Njenga served in various capacities: He was a teacher at Queen of Apostles Seminary Kiserian, parish priest at Our Lady of Visitation Church Makadara, Vicar-General to Archbishop J.J. McCarthy of Nairobi, Education Secretary and General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops of Kenya, Bishop of Eldoret, chairman of the Kenya Episcopal Conference, culminating in his appointment as Archbishop of Mombasa. He has left a legacy as an evangelist in the best sense of the term, an educationist, ecumenist and nationalist.


The impact of his apostolate will be felt in Kenya and beyond for generations to come. He was well-equipped for the challenges he faced as he sought to serve. Though certain that he was born in 1928 in Tigoni, Limuru, he did not know his exact date of birth.

When Church authorities insisted that he give his birthday on being appointed Bishop of Eldoret in 1970, he gave December 25. With his characteristic hearty laughter, he told this writer: “It’s a very fitting birthday for Jesus and those of his servants who, like him, aren’t quite sure of their birthday.”


His family was forced to leave Tigoni, then considered part of the White Highlands, and settle in Githiga village in Githunguri, Kiambu County. An excellent pupil at Thogoto Intermediate School run by the Church of Scotland Mission, forerunner of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, he transferred to Catholic School Lioki and qualified to join Mang’u High School in 1944. At Mang'u he distinguished himself as an able student, a good footballer and a dedicated catechist who prepared fellow students for entry into the Catholic Church.


Former Vice-President Moody Awori narrates in his autobiography how the budding churchman taught him the Catholic faith: "Njenga took me through the whole catechism and I became a Catholic.”

After high school, Njenga studied philosophy and theology at Kibosho Seminary in Tanganyika. He was ordained a priest at Lioki by Archbishop J.J. McCarthy, who sent a report to the Pope’s ambassador for Anglophone Africa, saying: “I know Your Excellency will be pleased to hear that the ordination of our first indigenous priest took place on Sunday, February 17, 1957, in the presence of 50 priests and 50,000 faithful in an atmosphere charged with pride, joy and reverence”.


According to Mrs Magdalen Kamau, Njenga’s long-serving secretary, it was on the occasion of his ordination that the new priest baptised his mother, Maria Wanjiru.

The priests of the Archdiocese of Nairobi regard him as the First Born in their apostolate and a veritable role model as a bearer and preacher of the Good News.


Archbishop Njenga was passionate about Christian Scripture. In this regard, he worked with the Bible Society of Kenya, which he served as a trustee, in producing translations that are acceptable to different Christian denominations.

A believer in the power of education to transform society, he spearheaded the founding of over 40 secondary schools during his 18-year tenure as Bishop of Eldoret.

Fr Lawrence Njoroge serves as Catholic Chaplain at JKUAT where he is Professor of Development Studies and Ethics; [email protected]