PROSPECT PARK — Even as he served as a parochial vicar for Holy Family-St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Park Slope in 2007, Father Expedit Sserunjogi’s thoughts were never far from his native village of Nazigo in Uganda.
During his time in Brooklyn as a visiting priest, he would discuss with his parishioners some of the things he felt were much-needed in his homeland — better education, food security, and improved school attendance. After hearing his concerns, the church’s community decided they wanted to help.
Through their donations, St. Mary’s Primary School in Uganda was formed in 2008, with Father Sserunjogi at the helm as the school’s director.
In the beginning, the school opened in one building, with four classrooms.
St. Mary’s expanded to include four more classrooms in 2015 and a residence in 2020 that currently houses the school’s 14 teachers. The funding for both also came from the parishioners at Holy Family-St. Thomas Aquinas.
But while growth and attendance at St. Mary’s were once on an upward trajectory thanks to a steady fundraising campaign at Holy Family-St. Thomas Aquinas, the school faced hardships as a result of disorganization caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a disaster for us. We have to regroup and mobilize ourselves to start again and move on,” said Father Sserunjogi, who spent this summer at Holy Family-St. Thomas Aquinas once again.
There is no online school system in Uganda, and St. Mary’s was closed for two years during the pandemic. Many of the girl students got married during that time, and were unable to return to school once it reopened.
Since then, Father Sserunjogi reports, St. Mary’s has begun to show signs of life once more, teaching more students than ever. This year, he said, the school furthers the education of 281 students, 156 girls and 125 boys, from kindergarten through seventh grade.
Beyond furthering their education, teachers at St. Mary’s cook corn porridge for the students daily. While it is not much, Father Sserunjogi said, having something to put in their stomachs makes a big difference in their ability to learn.
“The little ones get their cup of porridge at 10:30 in the morning, but they are hungry. Some of them come from homes on empty stomachs. When they get that, you can see life coming back,” he said.
The school lacks a permanent kitchen and stove; for now, there is a temporary structure to store food items and firewood, which is a challenge because sometimes the villagers will come and steal the food. Until there is additional funding, the construction of new buildings has been suspended.
When they receive funding again, the school would like to begin the construction of a kitchen, a dining area, a food storage room, an office for the head teacher, a room for the staff, and electricity for the teachers’ residence. Currently, there is only electricity in two of the classrooms.
Tuition is $40 per student for the school year, which runs from February through December, and while it is relatively low, some parents cannot afford to pay it. Upon hearing this in 2020, the Holy Family-St. Thomas Aquinas Parish started a program to sponsor a specific child’s education. After sending a $40 donation, parishioners would receive a photograph in the mail of a student whose tuition they had effectively paid for.
“People were thrilled. It was kind of like an adoption, in a way,” said Edith Newman, who has coordinated the tuition sponsorship program since it began. Sadly, she said, the program ended when the school shut down during the pandemic, and hasn’t yet been revived.
Father Sserunjogi’s dream, though he admits it is “far-fetched,” is to turn St. Mary’s into a boarding school. He explained that during harvesting season in agrarian Uganda, students are often kept at home for two weeks to help their families with the harvest. Father Sserunjogi said if he was able to make St. Mary’s into a boarding school, the students would not be forced to interrupt their studies.
Nearly 40% of Uganda’s population is Catholic, and St. Mary’s offers the praying of the rosary and celebration of Mass to its practicing students. Most of the students are Christians, Father Sserunjogi said, with some Muslim students attending, but a majority attend the religious activities in some way. Part of the school’s Catholic mission is to prepare its students for their first holy Communion and confirmation.
Newman applauds the parishioners at Holy Family-St. Thomas Aquinas, whose support has been crucial to the future of St. Mary’s. She said the parish’s largely Latino congregation has been “just wonderful, and so generous” in donating to an elementary school in faraway Africa.
“They don’t know these kids,” Father Sserunjogi added. “They will never see them, but they support them with their whole heart. That’s what faith does.”
To donate to St. Mary’s Primary School, call the Holy Family-St. Thomas Aquinas rectory at 718-768-9471.