‘Pagan baby’-turned-priest inspired couple to start school in Uganda

Nancy and Paul Berrigan stand outside the John Paul Secondary School in Chelekura, Uganda, which they funded for children in the poor nation after hearing a mission appeal at St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills.
Courtesy of Nancy Berrigan

Farmington Hills — When Nancy and Paul Berrigan walked into their church on an October Sunday in 2005, they had no idea their lives were about to take a dramatic turn. Their parish, St. Fabian in Farmington Hills, was hosting a mission appeal, and Msgr. John Kauta from Uganda had come to share stories about his destitute homeland and ask for donations.

Nancy was instantly drawn into Msgr. Kauta’s talk when he mentioned “pagan babies,” a program in the 1950s in which people in the United States could sponsor an unbaptized child in Africa. Then 8 years old, Nancy had saved her money for the cause, expecting that her family would bring the boy or girl into their home and she would have a new brother or sister.

She remembers feeling crushed when she learned this was not how the program worked, and that disappointment stuck with her for the next 51 years. So when Msgr. Kauta revealed that he was a product of the program, Nancy felt it was the answer to her childhood prayers.

After Mass, the Berrigans introduced themselves to Msgr. Kauta and told him they’d like to fund the building of a school, which was one of the area’s many needs.

“When Paul told him that, he gave him the biggest hug,” Nancy said. “And that was the start of it all.”

So many times before, Nancy and Paul wrote a check on Mission Sunday and moved on. This time, they felt they needed to do more, and they did. They worked hand-in-hand with Msgr. Kauta and the Archbishop of Tororo to develop a plan.

After nearly two years of planning and construction, the John Paul Secondary School (JPSS) in Chelekura opened in February 2007 with 14 students. The building process took longer than they’d hoped due to logistical difficulties; the remote town in Uganda is a four-and-a-half-hour drive from the capital city of Kampala, which made it a challenge to get supplies and skilled workers to the site.

“The difficulties of getting an education there are beyond what we could ever imagine,” Paul Berrigan said. “Some students will start the year out, but they might not finish because they can’t afford it.”

He points out that Chelekura, a town that consists of a small collection of mud huts, had no water until recently. Children and teens would spend several hours a day — 30 minutes or more in each direction — fetching water. They also had to help with the family garden during the daylight hours, which prevented most from attending school.

In 2009, John Paul Secondary School opened a 60-bed dormitory, allowing students to live and study there without the demands of home. This year, the school broke ground on another dormitory to house 160 more students. Since the opening in 2007, they’ve added a kitchen, science center, computer lab, solar electricity and teacher housing to attract the best faculty. The school will focus on sciences to equip the students for a brighter future.

In 2015, the school opened an on-site well and now shares the water with the town.

“It’s our passion, both of us,” Nancy Berrigan said. “We just hope we’ll stay healthy and be able to keep doing it. Every year we see such a change in the children — they’re learning so much and their confidence is growing. Their world is expanding and they see the possibilities.”

The Berrigans travel to the school once a year to strategize and plan long-term projects. They say the children are always enthusiastic about their annual visit. Paul and Nancy bring as much clothing, toiletries and other necessities as they can take on the plane.

This year, 300 students are enrolled at the school. The Berrigans’ goal is to have 350-400 students for John Paul Secondary School to be self-sustaining.

“Sometimes I have to look back at how far we’ve come because we still have so far to go,” Nancy said.  “But I really believe the Holy Spirit is at work, and I say to Him, ‘You got this started, now you make it happen.’”

Help the school

Friends of John Paul School is a U.S.-based nonprofit established in 2014. To make a donation, visit www.johnpaulschool.com and click on “How you can help.” The organization is also in need of volunteers. Email info@johnpaulschool.com.

World Mission Sunday

World Mission Sunday this year is Oct. 22. For resources and ways to donate, visit usccb.org.